WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he still wants to close the military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that he's renewing efforts to work with Congress to shut it down. His comments came in the midst of an ongoing hunger strike, which includes 100 of the 166 detainees who are still being held at the naval base, according to the military.
"I don't want these individuals to die," Obama said of recognized hunger strikers. "Obviously the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?"
Obama issued an executive order to close Guantanamo’s prisons at the beginning of his first term, but the effort was stymied by legislative restrictions and inaction by the executive branch. During a press conference at the White House on Tuesday, Obama called Guantanamo a "lingering problem that is not going to get better," adding that it would "get worse" and would "fester."
"I continue to believe that we need to close Guantanamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep us safe. It is expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed," he said.
Obama said keeping the prison open forever doesn't make sense.
"The notion that we're going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity -- even at a time when we've wound down the war in Iraq, we're winding down the war in Afghanistan, we're having success defeating al Qaeda, we've kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we've transferred detention authority in Afghanistan -- the idea that we would still maintain, forever, a group of individuals who have not been tried, that's contrary to who we are, it's contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop," Obama said.
"Now, it's a hard case to make, because for a lot of Americans, the notion is out of sight, out of mind, and it's easy to demagogue the issue," Obama said.
"I understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with the traumas that had taken place, why for a lot of Americans the notion that somehow we had to create a special facility like Guantanamo and we couldn’t handle this in a normal, conventional fashion -- I understand that reaction. But we’re now over a decade out. We should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute terrorists," Obama said.
The military recently dispatched additional medical personnel to Guantanamo to handle the hunger strike. Twenty-one detainees are being force-fed, and the military’s Muslim advisor has predicted that multiple detainees would die before the hunger strike ended.
UPDATE: 11:17 p.m. -- Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, offered rough details of Obama's renewed push to close Guantanamo in a statement:
"As you heard the President say, he is determined to see the detention facility at Guantanamo closed. Keeping it open is not efficient, effective, or in the interest of our national security. He is considering a range of options for ways that we can reduce the population there and move toward ultimate closure, some of which we can take on our own but some of which will require working with the Congress, which we hope will engage more productively on this process than it has in the past. One of the options is re-appointing a senior official at the State Department to renew our focus on repatriating or transferring those detainees we determine can be returned to their home countries or third countries. We will also work to fully implement the Periodic Review Board process, which we acknowledge has not moved forward quickly enough."