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Obama renews call to close Guantanamo prison

WASHINGTON — Confronted with a mass hunger strike and the use of forced feedings to keep inmates from starving, President Obama broke a long silence on the military prison for suspected foreign terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, declaring it “not sustainable” and making a strongly worded plea Tuesday for its closure.

Guantanamo is “a problem that is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester,” Obama said at a White House news conference in his most extensive comments on the issue in two years.

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By speaking directly and putting a spotlight on the hunger strike, Obama is seeking to force Congress to reexamine an issue that has been close to moribund in Washington recently.

He cannot close Guantanamo on his own; Congress has passed several laws restricting the Pentagon from transferring detainees elsewhere. But he can take some steps to address complaints raised by prisoners and their advocates, and late Tuesday the White House announced procedural changes that responded to some of them.

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A highly visible remnant of President George W. Bush’s counter-terrorism policies, the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba long has been a symbol of frustration for the Obama White House. Obama pledged to close it during his 2008 campaign, saying that the prison was a “sad chapter” in U.S. history. He failed after fierce opposition in Congress. With little prospect of changing the status quo, he said little about it during his reelection campaign.

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The hunger strike, which has expanded quickly since it began in February, has changed the situation, White House officials said. Of 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, 100 are refusing to eat in a protest over their indefinite imprisonment without trial or prospect of release, military officials said. Many have been in custody for more than a decade.

So far, 21 prisoners are being given liquid supplements, including some fed via tubes inserted in their noses and down into their stomachs, officials said. Five are in the camp hospital for observation, although their conditions are not considered life-threatening, said Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, which oversees operations at Guantanamo.

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“There’s been a steady increase” in hunger strikers, especially since mid-April, when most prisoners were moved from communal to single cells, Julian said. The Navy sent 40 extra medical personnel to assist at Guantanamo Bay this week.

In his remarks, Obama defended the Pentagon’s handling of the hunger strike, including the forced feeding.

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“I don’t want these individuals to die,” he said.

But he strongly condemned the prison.

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“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.

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“The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no man’s land in perpetuity,” he added, “is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.

“I’m going to go back at this,” he said. “I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.”

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Reacting to Obama’s remarks, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said opposition in Congress to closing Guantanamo was likely to remain because the president “has offered no alternative plan regarding the detainees there, nor a plan for future terrorist captures.”

Obama’s previous silence on Guantanamo Bay may have contributed to the hunger strike.

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When Obama did not mention closing the prison in his second inaugural speech, in January, many prisoners began to lose hope of ever getting out, Gen. John F. Kelly, the head of Southern Command, told reporters at the Pentagon recently.

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Some of the hunger strikers occasionally eat regular meals, exchange small snacks with other prisoners, or voluntarily drink nutritional supplements once they are alone with medical personnel, military officials said. But a small number refuse the supplements and are forcibly restrained so a feeding tube can be inserted into their noses, military officials say, a process that advocates for the prisoners call violent and painful.

Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group that represents detainees, said she met in early April with several prisoners who had joined the strike. Several had lost 30 or 40 pounds and were kept in their cells for 22 hours a day, she said.

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A Yemeni prisoner who began refusing meals last fall after the death of another prisoner was down to 107 pounds, she said.

“He looked like skin and bones,” she said. “He did not seem well, either physically or mentally. He was very scattered.”

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She said prisoners complained that conditions had grown more harsh in recent months as officials sought to break the hunger strike.

“We’re seeing a crackdown, a return to the way it was before President Obama took office,” she said.

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Military officials dispute those claims, arguing that most prisoners were moved to individual cells after they blocked surveillance cameras and made it impossible to monitor communal areas.

The prison opened shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and since then, nearly 800 suspected terrorists or militants captured overseas have been held there.

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The Pentagon says about half of those still there — 86 — are eligible for transfer to their home countries or third countries. Fifty-six would require continued detention in those countries. Thirty others, all from Yemen, could be released as long as Yemeni authorities agreed to continue monitoring them.

A small group awaits trial before a military tribunal.

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U.S. officials say several dozen others are considered too dangerous to release, but cannot be put on trial in either a civilian or military court, in some cases because the evidence against them involves intelligence too sensitive to be revealed in court, or was obtained through torture or is otherwise unusable. The administration once proposed to move those detainees to a prison in Illinois, but since Congress blocked that plan the administration has not said where they might be housed.

Transfers and releases stopped in recent years, deepening a sense of hopelessness among prisoners, military officials and defense lawyers say. Only two transfers took place in 2012. The last occurred in September, when Omar Khadr, who was held for more than a decade, was turned over to Canadian authorities.

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Tuesday’s White House statement, released by National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, pledged to “work to fully implement” a system of periodic reviews of prisoners’ cases, “which we acknowledge has not moved forward quickly enough.” The statement also said Obama would consider appointing a senior official at the State Department to “focus on repatriating or transferring those detainees we determine can be returned to their home countries or third countries.”

Officials say their ability to transfer prisoners out of Guantanamo is hampered by requirements imposed by Congress and signed into law by Obama. The law bars transfers unless the receiving country takes adequate security steps to prevent a former detainee from joining or rejoining militant groups fighting the U.S. and its allies.

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Even if those legal requirements can be met, some U.S. officials say they are deeply concerned that some militants who leave Guantanamo will return to violence.

“Any country into which detainees might be transferred, resettled or repatriated must meet some very specific security assurances,” said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman. “It’s not only something we’re legally bound to do but also something that’s the right thing to do — making sure the proper security assurances are in place.”

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david.cloud@latimes.com

christi.parsons@latimes.com

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David Lauter in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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