WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saying it was damaging to U.S. interests to keep holding prisoners in legal limbo at Guantanamo, President Barack Obama renewed an old vow on Tuesday to close the camp, where about 100 inmates are on hunger strike to protest against their years in detention without trial.
Human rights groups welcomed Obama’s recommitment to shutting the prison, but some activists called for action, not just words.
Criticism of the camp, set up at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba in 2002 to hold foreign terrorism suspects and now housing 166 inmates, has intensified in recent weeks as the U.S. military is force-feeding some of those on hunger strike.
Obama, who repeatedly pledged to close the camp when he was campaigning for a first term and after he first took office in 2009, put the blame on Congress for his failure to make good on his promise and said he would re-engage with lawmakers on the issue.
At a White House news conference, he lamented the status quo, which has kept most prisoners in detention without trial or charge for more than a decade, but offered no new path to overcoming the political and legal obstacles.
“It’s not sustainable - I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity,” Obama said.
His comments were his first public remarks about Guantanamo since the hunger strike began in early February. Military officials have attributed the protest action in part to a sense of hopelessness among detainees over their open-ended detention.
Long a subject of international condemnation but low on the list of the American public’s policy concerns, Guantanamo returned to the spotlight with the hunger strike. Some inmates have given harrowing accounts of force-feeding and human rights groups have denounced the practice.
Obama defended the military’s decision to force-feed hunger strikers, saying “I don’t want these individuals to die.”
The U.S. military has said 21 prisoners are being force-fed liquid meals through tubes inserted in their noses and down into their stomachs. Forty medical personnel have been sent to reinforce the military’s existing teams at Guantanamo to deal with the hunger strike.
The force-feeding has been criticized by rights groups and also by the American Medical Association. On Thursday, the president of the AMA sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterating the association’s position that it is a violation of medical ethics to force-feed mentally competent adults who refuse food and life-saving treatment.
Asked about the hunger strike, Obama said it was “not a surprise to me that we’ve got problems in Guantanamo” and ticked off a list of reasons why the camp should be shut down.
“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” he said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
Obama said he had asked his advisers to “examine every option that we have administratively” to deal with Guantanamo. It was unclear whether that meant Obama might use executive powers that some legal experts say he has to transfer some detainees.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, backed Obama’s effort. “The deteriorating situation at Guantanamo, including the ongoing and expanding hunger strikes by prisoners ... is disturbing and unacceptable,” he said.
But Howard McKeon, Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said: “The president faces bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo Bay’s detention center because he has offered no alternative plan regarding the detainees there, nor a plan for future terrorist captures.”
Obama has approved military tribunals to try some of the most dangerous suspects, but only nine of the current prisoners have been charged or convicted of crimes.
Of the other inmates, 86 have been cleared for transfer or release, 47 are considered too dangerous to release but are not facing prosecution and 24 are considered eligible for possible prosecution.
U.S. lawmakers, mostly Republicans but including some Democrats, have blocked Obama from transferring Guantanamo prisoners to American jails, saying they would pose a security risk if housed in the United States. They have also made it difficult to repatriate others.
The U.S. government will not send some prisoners back to their homelands because of instability or concerns over mistreatment. Most countries are reluctant to accept them for resettlement when the United States itself will not take them.
Obama said ultimately he would need approval from Congress to shutter the facility and acknowledged that would be an uphill struggle, saying, “It’s easy to demagogue the issue.”
Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, issued a statement saying: “President Obama is right to recommit to closing Guantanamo. But it’s time to do more than talk. Instead of sending more medics to force-feed detainees, a process that can amount to ill-treatment, he should take concrete steps to keep his promise to close the detention facility.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights said: “We praise the president for reaffirming his commitment to closing the base but take issue with the impression he strives to give that it is largely up to Congress.”
It said that if Obama were “really serious” about closing Guantanamo, he could use a “waiver process” to transfer some of the detainees who have already been cleared for release, lift the moratorium on transfers to Yemen and appoint a senior administration official to shepherd the closure.
The United States has not sent prisoners back to Yemen, where 56 of those eligible for release are from, since a foiled plot in 2010 to bomb an American passenger aircraft was hatched my militants in Yemen.
The Guantanamo camp was opened by Republican President George W. Bush, to hold foreign terrorism suspects captured overseas after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Obama failed to meet his promise to close the prison within a year of taking office in early 2009 and it has become an enduring symbol of widely condemned U.S. interrogation and detention practices during the Bush era.
An independent U.S. task force issued a report on April 16 calling indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo “abhorrent and intolerable.” It called for the camp to be closed by the end of 2014 when NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan is due to end and most U.S. troops will leave the country.
The U.S. military on Monday counted 100 prisoners as hunger strikers. Five of those being force-fed have been hospitalized for observation but did not have life-threatening conditions, a spokesman for the detention camp, Army Lieutenant Colonel Samuel House, said on Tuesday.
A few Guantanamo detainees are allowed to watch television and likely saw Obama’s news conference, he said.
“We are confident that some saw it, but much of the talk was about Boston,” House said, referring to Obama’s remarks about the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15. “We are sure that word will get around very quickly.”
Hunger strikes have occurred at Guantanamo since shortly after the United States began detaining suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives there in January 2002.
The current hunger strike began in early February, after guards seized photos and other belongings during a cell search. Prisoners said the guards had mistreated their Korans during the search. The U.S. military has denied that.
Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami.; Editing by Frances Kerry and Christopher Wilson