POLITICS: White House

What could Obama do about Gitmo?

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes

With escalating hunger strikes putting the spotlight back on the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, President Obama has been quick to blame Congress for what others have called the most glaring broken promise of his White House tenure. But Obama's own polices have kept the covert prison running -- and he could unilaterally end indefinite detentions there.

In his first week in office, Obama issued an executive order to shutter Guantanamo, which was blocked when lawmakers prevented detainees from being transferred to the United States. And a funding bill passed earlier this year prohibited spending any money on transferring Guantanamo inmates to the U.S. or overhauling current facilities to house them.

At the same time, 86 Guantanamo prisoners have been "approved for transfer," but Obama blocked their release, extending dozens of indefinite detentions off the coast of Cuba. The president could instruct the Pentagon to move those prisoners but has opted not to do so.

Just a handful of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo are facing actual charges. Many of those prisoners are from Yemen, where the president has prohibited the release of Gitmo inmates in the wake of an attempted Christmas Day bombing aboard a U.S.-bound plane.

The president has maintained his opposition to Guantanamo but hasn't made its closure a top priority. That could change with 100 Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strike, many of them being force fed to stay alive.

"This Left could revolt on this issue," warned a veteran Democratic strategist. "If people start dying, this will be a major embarrassment for the White House. In fact, I'd argue that it already is. He has to start talking about this more forcefully."

Obama is looking to reappoint a State Department official who would analyze possible transfers out of Guantanamo, and he vowed to review the administration's procedures for releases.

Political reality has motivated the president's relative silence. Polls consistently show that most Americans are against closing the prison, which they label as necessary in the so-called war on terror.

While the president has taken no decisive action to close the facility, his rhetoric has grown more forceful.

"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," the president argued last week. "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."

But some analysts said those words rang hallow.

"Does the president not understand when he frets about the 'notion that we're going to continue to keep ... individuals in a no-man's land' that if Congress let him do exactly as he wished, he would still be doing exactly that?" asked Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Does he not understand when he intones that we are wiser now than we were after 9/11 and no longer need a site like Guantanamo to hold noncriminal terrorist detainees, that he is proposing to build a new one?"

Obama gave no timetable for his renewed push to shutter the prison. And administration officials privately conceded that it would take a back seat to the president's most pressing priority: passing comprehensive immigration reform.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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