WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he will revive his push to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a first-term campaign promise that a Democratic-led Congress rejected as impractical and potentially unsafe.
With a majority of Guantanamo’s 166 detainees on a mass hunger strike, Obama said at a White House news conference that the existence of the facility damages the country’s image abroad, costs too much money and undermines U.S. counterterrorism efforts by serving as a recruiting tool for militants.
“I’m going to go back at this,” he said. “I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.”
Obama’s appearance before the media Tuesday highlighted how much his second and final term remains consumed by the unfinished business of his first.
From his policy toward Syria to health-care legislation to his inability to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Obama faced many of the same questions that have defined much of his time in office.
He used long, sometimes defensive answers to portray himself as undaunted by the unresolved challenges, yet also limited in his ability to secure the changes he has sought because of his continuing confrontation with a divided Congress.
That self-assessment of his political power also is largely consistent with his message to the nation since Democrats lost control of the House in 2010. His domestic agenda has largely ground to a halt since then.
Now his window for progress in Congress is even smaller than it once was, and may close entirely after the 2014 midterms unless his party can take control of both chambers.
It was unclear Tuesday how he intends to revive his political prospects after setbacks on gun control and fiscal negotiations to avoid across-the-board spending cuts — known as sequestration — that he acknowledged are undermining the economy.
“Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point,” Obama said during the news conference, in a phrase reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s 1995 assertion of his own relevance after his party lost the House the previous year.
But in responding to a journalist’s assertion that he appears powerless in dealing with Congress, Obama responded, “You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave.”
“That’s their job,” he said.
The news conference fell on the 100th day of what for Obama has already been a difficult second term. Just this month, he lost his high-profile bid for stricter gun control following the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six educators.
Days after that Senate defeat, the first large-scale bombing in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era killed three and wounded more than 250 others near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Last week, his administration also informed Congress that it has “varying degrees of confidence” in evidence suggesting that chemical weapons have been used in Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people.
One issue that is making progress in Congress, largely without Obama’s direct help, is immigration legislation that many Republicans back as a way to bolster support among Hispanic voters.
The president said that passing an immigration overhaul would be a “historic achievement.” He also expressed optimism that a series of recent meetings with Republican senators could lead to a budget agreement.
“There’s a genuine desire on many of their parts to move past not only sequester but Washington dysfunction,” Obama said.
Even his health-care law — the signature legislation of his presidency — remains a work in progress. Obama defended the complicated implementation process that will extend health care to the estimated 15 percent of the population that does not have it.
In assuring the public that the process is not nearly as messy as some members of Congress have portrayed it, Obama said anyone who has health insurance will probably see no further changes as the law takes full effect. He also warned of challenges ahead.
“Even if we do everything perfectly, there will still be glitches and bumps,” Obama said.
His pledge for a renewed effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay comes as the hunger strike by detainees has highlighted the legal ambiguities surrounding their detention. Obama has been working to shutter the prison since the day after he took office in 2009; on Tuesday he again cited Congress as the chief obstacle.
Of the 166 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, 100 are on a hunger strike, with 21 being force-fed, according to Lt. Col. Samuel House, a spokesman for Joint Task Force Guantanamo. House said five of the hunger-striking detainees are being treated in a hospital at the base, but none has a life-threatening condition.
The Navy also sent 40 additional medical personnel to Guantanamo Bay over the weekend in response to the increasing numbers of detainees on hunger strike. The military said the move was planned several weeks ago.
Defending the move, Obama said Tuesday, “I don’t want these individuals to die.”
Manhandling the Koran?
According to lawyers for the detainees, the initial catalyst for the three-month-old hunger strike was newly aggressive searches by guards that involved the manhandling of the Koran.
The military said all searches of Korans were conducted by Muslim cultural advisers, not by the guard force. They noted that in the past detainees have used their Korans to hide contraband.
The hunger strike has since become a wider protest against what the detainees viewed as the administration’s abandonment of its effort to close the facility, according to both the military and detainees’ lawyers.
About 86 detainees at Guantanamo have been cleared for transfer home or resettlement in a third country by a Justice Department-led interagency task force. But the transfer process ground to a halt after Congress imposed restrictions on moving detainees.
Human rights groups praised Obama’s decision to resurrect efforts to close the military detention facility, but said he already has the power to act despite congressional restrictions.
“President Obama is right to recommit to closing Guantanamo. But it’s time to do more than talk,” said Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security With Human Rights Campaign, in a statement.
Obama is considering appointing a new senior State Department official to work out how to transfer detainees to permit the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
The White House said Wednesday that Obama would consider the measure as part of a new effort to close the controversial facility that he promised during a press conference on Tuesday.
“One of the options available to us that we’re examining is reappointing a senior official at the State Department to renew our focus again on repatriating or transferring detainees that we determine can be returned to their home countries or third countries,”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Earlier this year, the State Department reassigned Daniel Fried, who was the envoy for closing Guantanamo Bay, and he has so far not been replaced.
Cuba calls for closure
Also on Wednesday, Cuba’s foreign minister demanded that Washington shut Guantanamo Bay and return the long-held military base to Havana.
The comments were made by Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We are deeply concerned about the legal limbo that supports the permanent and atrocious violation of human rights at the illegal naval base in Guantanamo, a Cuba territory that was usurped by the United States, a centre of torture and deaths of prisoners who are under custody,” Parrilla said.
He said 160 people had been detained in Guantanamo for 10 years, “without any guarantees, without being tried by a court or the right to legal defence”.
“That prison and military base should be shut down and that territory should be returned to Cuba,” he said.
Parrilla also slammed the force-feeding of more than a dozen hunger strikers who, like the bulk of the detainees in the “war on terror” lock-up, have been refusing food for weeks.
Earlier Wednesday, the U.N.’s human rights office had said that feeding hunger strikers against their will was a breach of international law.
Even before the creation of the jail, the U.S. Navy base was a source of dispute between Havana’s communist rulers and bitter rival Washington.
The United States signed a long-term lease for Guantanamo Bay after helping Cuba throw off Spanish colonial rule at the end of the 19th century.
Already strategic for Washington’s Caribbean regional policy, it acquired additional importance during the Cold War after the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Since then, Cuba has pressed for its return and has refused to cash the rent which Washington pays into an escrow account.
Parrilla’s comments came during a U.N. Human Rights Council review of Cuba’s own record – nations are required to submit to scrutiny every four years.
Parrilla underlined Cuba’s successes in fields such as housing, employment, health and education, contrasting the failings in rich nations.
He also noted that a law passed in January enabled Cubans to leave the country without a permit – controls on travel have long been spotlighted by the regime’s international critics.
U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe did not react to the remarks about Guantanamo and instead told the Council that Havana had a “wide, complex web” of measures to stifle dissent and freedom of expression.
A string of Western delegates denounced the imprisonment of political dissidents and journalists, demanding that Havana allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Cuban jails something not done since 1988.
Ahead of the review, Cuba’s deputy chief prosecutor Rafael Pino Becquer had told reporters in Geneva there were no political detainees among the 57,000 individuals in its prisons.
According to Cuban dissidents, the number of political prisoners has fallen to around 50, from 300 in 2003.
“The Cuban government has missed a unique opportunity to make an honest assessment of its human rights record, by denying all the restrictions imposed on the press, the Internet and freedom of movement,” dissident Elizardo Sanchez told reporters in Geneva.
Peter Finn and AFP contributed to this report. © 2013, The Washington Post and AFP