Obama announces steps toward Guantanamo closure

Gen. John Kelley believes the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay was triggered by the inmate's belief that President Obama had given up trying to close the prison. David Martin reports on how 23 of the prisoners participating in a hunger strike are being force fed to be kept alive.

Updated 8:08 PM ET

President Obama outlined specific actions he plans to take to reduce the prisoner population at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and move it toward closure, a goal stated in his 2008 campaign, when he took office in 2009, and in a news conference three weeks ago.

In a comprehensive counterterrorism speech Thursday at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama said, "There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened."

At this point in his remarks, the audience applauded audibly, and the president was interrupted by a heckler demanding the closure of Guantanamo "today."

On Guantanamo, the president pledged he would:

  • Call on Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers.
  • Appoint new envoys at both the State and Defense Departments to work on detainee transfers.
  • Lift a moratorium he imposed three years ago on detainee transfers to Yemen, where a majority of the remaining Guantanamo detainees are from.
  • Ask the Defense Department to identify a location on the U.S. mainland where military commissions that substitute for federal trials in the island could he held.

The president said, "To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system, and we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee."

Mr. Obama's announcements come as 60 percent of the 166 detainees who remain at Guantanamo are participating in a 14-week hunger strike.

The military counts 103 detainees refusing meals, with 32 of those being force-fed liquids while strapped to a chair with a tube down their throats.

The long-term reason for the hunger strike, detainee attorneys say, is despair over indefinite detention without charges, combined with the knowledge that half of the detainees have been cleared for release. The detainees are also protesting what they consider harsher conditions of confinement since February.

In his speech, the president said, "Imagine a future - 10 years from now, or 20 years from now - when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"

Eighty-six Guantanamo detainees, including 56 from Yemen, were cleared for release at least three years ago by a national security task force set up by the Obama administration.

Mr. Obama's decision to rescind his 2010 executive order barring transfers to Yemen, due to al Qaeda activity and instability there, will clear a path to repatriate the Yemenis.

"I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis," Mr. Obama said.

Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, said, "That really could create some momentum to get the rest of them transferred."

  • Phil Hirschkorn

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