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Obama announces steps toward Guantanamo closure

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."

Retired Rear Admiral Donald Guter, who served as the Navy's top judge, attended Thursday's speech and was among the military leaders who stood in the Oval Office behind the president when he signed his January 2009 executive order to close Guantanamo within a year.

"It's time to stop to stop putting the blame on Congress and asserting the leadership he is asserting at this point," Guter said. "He's had some of this power and authority all along."

The Guantanamo detention center costs about $150 million a year to operate, and the U.S. military has requested another $200 million to rebuild barracks for 1,700 service members and medical personnel assigned there.

That budget request would rebuild Camp 7, which houses high-value detainees, such as the five men facing charges for the September 11 terrorist attacks and one man accused in the 2000 U.S.S. Cole attack. Those are the only six detainees currently facing charges before military commissions that substitute for federal trials on the island.

Camp 7 is "structurally unsound," said Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo.

At its peak, there were as many as 680 incarcerated at Guantanamo. A total of 779 men have been held there since it opened in early 2002 as a destination for foreign battlefield captives in the war on terror. No new prisoners have arrived since 2008.

Seven detainees were tried by military tribunals or commissions, but only one remains incarcerated, as the rest, including Osama bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan, were released after receiving short sentences. Nine detainees have died at Guantanamo.

Only one detainee, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailaini, who participated in al Qaeda's 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was transferred to the U.S. for trial. Ghailani was convicted by a New York jury and is serving a life sentence.

Nearly 500 cases related to international terrorism have been completed in federal court since the 9/11 attacks, including dozens with defendants captured overseas. Suspects in two failed domestic attacks - the "underwear bomber" on Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the would-be Times Square bomber in 2010 - are among the terrorists serving life sentences in U.S. prison.

During the president's first term, 76 Guantanamo detainees were freed by executive or court order, with 40 going to 17 nations other than their native lands in deals brokered by a State Department envoy who was reassigned to other duties in January.

The Director of National Intelligence has estimated that four percent of detainees released by the Obama administration have engaged in hostile acts against the United States.

Many policy makers, such as former State Department legal adviser Harold Koh and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., had urged the president to appoint a new White House envoy to oversee transfers.

Levin-backed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress since 2010 require the Secretary of Defense to certify that any detainee slated for release would never be a threat to the United States and that the recipient nation would mitigate security risks.

Congress has also banned detainee transfers to the U.S. for either trial or incarceration.

The president did not detail how his administration would handle several dozen Guantanamo detainees deemed dangerous but who cannot be prosecuted due to thin or inadmissible evidence.

The idea of relocating military commissions came as a surprise to many involved in the Guantanamo debate.

"President Obama was right not to endorse the concept of indefinite detention, but his proposal to restart unfair military commissions in the mainland U.S. should be rejected as both unlawful and unnecessary," said Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights Program. "Transfers can and must resume today, and all detainees must either be fairly tried in federal court or released."

"Moving a second-rate legal process to a new site is still a second rate legal process," said former Guantanamo prosecutor Morris Davis, who attended Obama's speech on Thursday and was disappointed by the lack of urgency expressed.

"I didn't get the impression there is going to be an immediate action," Davis said. "You could end the hunger strike by dinner time by landing a plane and sending some of these guys home we don't want."

Just last week, Morris delivered a petition with more than 200,000 signatures to the White House urging the president to take step steps to close Guantanamo and direct Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to certify cleared men for release, an action the president did not announce.

The petition named two cleared detainees in their mid-forties, British resident Shaker Aamer and Algerian Djamel Ameziane, both hunger strikers held for 11 years without charges.

More Guantanamo detainees over the past 11 years have been citizens of Afghanistan than anywhere else. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called on U.S. officials to release the 18 remaining Afghan detainees. One of them, named Obaydullah, is a hunger striker who says he has lost 40 pounds.

Attorney Anne Richardson, who visited Obaydullah two weeks ago, described him as "shockingly thin."

"I have seen men who are on the verge of death be taken away to be force fed. I have also seen some men coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness," Obaydullah stated in written declaration.

Beyond his indefinite detention for 11 years, Obaydullah cited as cause for his protest a Feb. 6 cell shakedown that resulted in guards confiscating his blanket, sheet, towel, family photos, letters, and legal documents.

"I have done nothing to provoke the authorities to take my belongings and comfort items that gave me a small sense of humanity," Obaydullah said. "Most disturbing was the way in which soldiers disrespected our Korans."

The hunger strike that began in February accelerated after a pre-dawn April 13 raid on Camp Six, where approximately 130 detainees had lived in a communal space with their individual cells unlocked most of the day. Guards fired rubber bullets at some detainees.

Moath al-Alwi, a detainee from Yemen, was hit in the chest at close range. His attorneys have written the Justice Department for an investigation.

"As Mr. al-Alwi fled the area for safety, the guard continued to shoot him and struck him in the front of his left thigh, in the left elbow, and in the back of his right shoulder," their letter said. He was handcuffed for 20 minutes before his bleeding wounds were treated, according to the letter.

Al-Alwi now resides in solitary confinement, like all the prisoners in Camp Six, locked in his cell 22 to 23 hours a day. Consequently, al-Alwi "has decided to escalate his hunger strike by refusing water as well," his attorneys wrote. He is among the 31 hunger strikers being force fed, they said.

Omar Farah, an attorney with the Center For Constitutional Rights in New York, recently visited with three Guantanamo detainees who've been hunger striking since early February.

"I saw men I've been meeting for years who were unrecognizable," Farah said. One of them, Fahad Ghazi, 30, from Yemen, had lost one quarter of his body weight. "He looked very weak and frail," Farah said. "The heavy impact of solitary confinement after years of communal living is just devastating."

Three Republican Senators who've sponsored restrictions on Guantanamo detainee transfers gave mixed support for the President's announcements.

"We will pledge our willingness to work with the President of the U.S. to see that Guantanamo Bay is closed," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were skeptical of sending detainees back to Yemen. "I think this issue of transferring to Yemen is very troubling given the history that we have with Yemen and the terrorist activity there," Ayotte said.

Sen. Graham, a former Air Force lawyer himself, also said he could see detainees being tried alternately in military civilian courts, while some could be freed and others still held indefinitely.

"It's not about the location of the jail. I don't mind if we try to find a place to move it into the United States. What I want is a legal system consistent with being at war, and the reason we haven't closed Guantanamo Bay is we don't have a plan to close it."

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