WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama pledged Thursday to renew his attempts to close the controversial U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president announced his plan in an hourlong, wide-ranging speech on U.S. counterterrorism policy.
Obama first promised to close Guantanamo when he ran for president in 2008. On his third day in office in 2009, he signed an order to close the facility within the year.
Later that year, the U.S. Senate blocked the funding needed to transfer or release prisoners from the camp. And in 2011, the president signed a defense spending bill which restricted the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the mainland or other countries, forcing the facility to remain open.
In Thursday’s comprehensive address, Obama said his administration is committed to prosecuting alleged terrorists whenever possible. He called the detention of terror suspects without charge at Guantanamo “a glaring exception” which is damaging America’s global image.
“The original premise for opening GTMO - that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention - was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies will not cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at GTMO,” Obama said.
The president called on Congress to lift the restrictions it placed on transferring detainees from Guantanamo to other countries or imprisoning them in the United States.
Obama asked the Defense Department to designate a location in the U.S. where military commissions could be held. The president also said he is appointing a senior envoy to the State and Defense Departments who will work to transfer detainees to other countries.
The president said he would lift the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, to allow each case to be reviewed individually. And he committed to trying terror suspects in U.S. civilian and military courts, where appropriate.
There are 166 prisoners still at Guantanamo. Eighty-six have been approved for transfer as long as security restrictions are met. More than 100 of the prisoners are on a hunger strike to protest their detention, and about 30 are being force-fed.
Toward the end of the speech, when he addressed the Guantanamo issue, Obama was interrupted repeatedly by an anti-war heckler. The president acknowledged her as he made his case for closing the camp.
“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I am willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it is worth being passionate about. Is this who we are?,” Obama said.
At Human Rights Watch, counterterrorism adviser Laura Pitter says she believes the hunger strikers forced U.S. officials to revisit the Guantanamo issue.
“Well, the hunger strike has really put the issue of closing Guantanamo back on the political agenda. It is unfortunate that the detainees had to resort to such drastic measures and desperate measures in order to get the attention of the administration and Congress again,” Pitter said.
President Obama has been criticized at home and around the world for failing to close Guantanamo. He also has faced domestic opposition for proposing the detention of terror suspects on U.S. soil.