Obama Regrets Not Closing Guantanamo Prison 'On The First Day'

03/18/2015 05:38 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2015

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Wednesday that if he could go back and do his presidency over again, he would have immediately shut down the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"I think I would have closed Guantanamo on the first day," Obama said to applause at an event in Cleveland, Ohio.

Obama went on to say that he didn't rush to close the military prison when he first took office because there was already bipartisan agreement that it should be closed. He noted that his GOP presidential opponent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had also called for shutting it down.

"I thought we had enough consensus where we could do it in a more deliberate fashion," Obama said. "But the politics of it got tough, and people got scared by the rhetoric around it. Once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it's not who we are as a country and it's used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists."

The prison, which has been operating at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base since 2002, is being used to detain unlawful combatants from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries who were captured in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The U.S. has come under international scrutiny for holding prisoners there who haven't been charged, for torturing prisoners and for denying Geneva Convention protections. As of January 2015, 122 prisoners were still there -- down from a total of 779.

It's unclear how Obama thinks, in retrospect, that he could have simply shut down the prison. He had ambitious plans during his 2008 campaign to shutter Guantanamo within a year, calling it a "sad chapter in American history." But even then, military law experts weren't sure how Obama could expect to close it so quickly, given that he hadn't consulted yet with Pentagon lawyers and how politically unpopular it still is to move terror suspects into U.S. prisons.

In more recent years, the administration has been signaling the prison is here to stay, at least for the remainder of Obama's term. The president's Guantanamo Task Force concluded in 2010 that 46 detainees are "too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution," which means they're stuck in limbo. In 2013, the administration closed the State Department office tasked with planning Guantanamo's closure.

"We've had to just chip away at it year after year after year," Obama said Wednesday.

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