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President Obama Renews Pledge to Close Guantanamo Detention Center

April 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In a White House news conference, President Barack Obama renewed a pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where more than half of the prisoners have recently been on hunger strike to protest their legal limbo. Gwen Ifill talks to Charlie Savage of The New York Times.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The president made at least one straightforward pledge today, to keep the promise he made before he was elected to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

But is that even possible?

Charlie Savage has been covering the issue for The New York Times. And he joins us now.

Charlie, the president said that keeping Guantanamo open is not necessary to keep the country safe. What does he base that on?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, President Obama’s plan for closing Guantanamo involves bringing the detainees there who can’t be sent home because they’re deemed too dangerous to release or because they are from countries where security conditions are poor, taking those detainees and bringing them to another prison inside the United States.

His original plan, which Congress blocked, was to use an empty maximum security prison in Thomson, Ill., to amp up its security further to supermax conditions. And his notion there is, we have terrorists all over the country, in supermax prisons in particular, and that’s fine. It’s not like that is actually a threat to national security. So we can still detain in wartime detention, is his view, without having to necessarily do it at Guantanamo, where things are so much more expensive and where there is this symbolic public relations problem that causes all sorts of foreign policy problems for the country.

GWEN IFILL: What — first of all, how many detainees are we talking about here?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: There are currently 166 detainees remaining at Guantanamo. That’s down from 240 when he took office, and about 800 total whom the Bush administration brought there. President Obama has not brought anyone to Guantanamo.

GWEN IFILL: And when you mention the expense and the president mentioned the expense, what are we talking about?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: It’s more expensive to build anything there. It’s more expensive because it is so far away. You have to barge things in around Cuba. It’s more expensive to operate anything there.

And currently the facilities there are sort of falling apart. The SOUTHCOM, which oversees Guantanamo, has a pending request for $200 million dollars in new construction to replace deteriorating facilities, which it says needs to be done right now. This would effectively build permanent structures to replace what had been temporary guard barracks and camps and so forth set up over 10 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: The president also made another claim today, assertion. He said that the presence of Guantanamo makes it a recruitment tool for extremists. Is there any evidence to back that up?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, certainly, intelligence agencies have occasionally picked up propaganda or you see radical Muslim clerics and so forth mentioning Guantanamo in a list of grievances.

I would say in the current era, probably drone strikes occupy the number one spot on that list. But there’s also the continuing problem involving the low-level detainees at Guantanamo, not the high-level guys that are never going to get out, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We’re talking about — about half the detainee population, 86, have been cleared unanimously by national security agencies for more than three years to be released if security conditions have been met.

And the outward flow of those detainees has dried up for several years. That’s what is leading to this turmoil and unrest at Guantanamo right now. And I think that’s currently the issue that is attracting the greatest blowback globally, including from the — recently from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

GWEN IFILL: And part of the blowback, part of the upheaval there right now has to do with this hunger strike which is under way. Is this what has forced the president to get tough on this issue again? Or was this always — is this what the administration has been saying quietly all along?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, the administration’s stated policy has been since Obama took office in 2009 that it wants to close Guantanamo.

But in the face of congressional opposition to its plan to bring the detainees into the United States, and later some restrictions imposed by Congress on transferring them elsewhere to countries with troubled security conditions, that stated policy has been basically stated only. There has been very little effort by the administration for the past several years to actually do anything about it.

It’s been sitting on its hands, essentially waiting for the political winds to shift again. Even after Congress granted it in 2012 the power to issue case-by-case waivers to those transfer restrictions to send people back to places like Yemen, the administration has not exercised that authority once.

And earlier this year, it transferred away the high-level State Department diplomat whose job it was to negotiate detainee transfers. And it didn’t replace him. And so it is against that backdrop of ossification that the turmoil in Guantanamo, which for the first years of his presidency had been quite quiet, has recently grown up. The detainees have grown desperate that they are never going to go home, even the ones long since designated for potential release.

They think the world has forgotten about them. And both the military and lawyers for detainees agree that that sense of growing hopelessness is the underlying condition that is driving this hunger strike and larger protest.

GWEN IFILL: So why is the president’s statement today any different from the assertions the administration has made before? Is there anything he can now do administratively in the face of congressional opposition?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, that’s what is sort of interesting about this. Of course, he made this because someone asked him. It is not like he went out and chose, sui generis, to say something about Guantanamo, when he has been quiet about the topic for quite a long time.

So he’s saying, yes, in addition to trying to get Congress to budge, he has ordered a review of what could be done administratively. And both Republicans in Congress and civil libertarian groups on the other side are saying, well, there are things he could have already been doing right now, he could have been doing for some time. He could have been issuing or directing the secretary of defense to issue these waivers on a case-by-case basis to get some of the low-level detainees who have been jammed up out.

He could appoint a high-level person in the White House with the authority to resolve interagency disputes that have slowed down certain policies like the creation of parole boards. They missed a deadline over a year that he had set up for — to have parole hearings for detainees who are deemed too dangerous to release to see if they are still too dangerous. Nothing has happened because of an interagency dispute, and no one has resolved that dispute.

And the ban on transfers to Yemen is not something that Congress imposed. It’s something that President Obama himself created a year earlier after the attempted underwear bombing of that Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas in 2009. That’s where 56 of the 86 detainees long since approved for conditional release are from, Yemen.

And it is Mr. Obama’s own self-imposed ban on any transfers to that country which has primarily kept them locked up.

GWEN IFILL: Still in a tough position.

Charlie Savage of The New York Times, thank you so much.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all of Mr. Obama’s press conference on our website.