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POLITICS: White House

White House insists President Obama 'remains committed' to closing Gitmo

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Politics Digest

The White House on Wednesday insisted that President Obama "remains committed" to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, an assertion widely dismissed more than four years after Obama vowed to shutter the prison in Cuba, where suspected terrorists are being held indefinitely.

Obama has long faced criticism from within his own Democratic Party for failing to close the facility in his first year in office, as he promised during the 2008 campaign. It was seen as one of a series of Bush-era policies that Obama decried as a presidential candidate but continued as president.

U.S. officials reported Wednesday that at least 31 of the 161 prisoners still being held at Guantanamo have stopped eating, a protest that once again puts the prison front and center for a White House that has shown scant, if any, progress toward fulfilling Obama's campaign promise.

"I can tell you that the administration remains committed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "But given the legislation that Congress has put in place, it's clear it's going to take some time to fully close the facility."

One of Obama's first acts as president was to issue an executive order calling for Gitmo's closing. But Congress blocked the closing by barring any of the detainees from being brought to the United States for detention and trial.

Legal analysts and human rights organizations responded with a collective eye roll.

"There is nothing new here," said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on legal issues surrounding the war on terrorism. "It's a restatement of a long-standing position -- and a long-standing position that has long since lacked any substance."

Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights Campaign, added: "Talk is cheap. It's time for President Obama to take real action to fulfill his Guantanamo promise. He should work with Congress to ensure that the restrictions on Guantanamo transfers are not renewed this year."

As the hunger strike began to spread at Guantanamo, the Marine Corps commander in charge of overseeing the facility, Gen. John Kelly, told lawmakers that the demonstration was a direct response to the president's inaction.

"They were devastated when the president backed off -- at least their perception -- of closing the facility," Kelly said in recent testimony on Capitol Hill. "He said nothing about it in his inauguration speech. He said nothing about it in his ... State of the Union speech."

Lawmakers who fought to keep the prison open are now pressing for nearly $200 million in renovations to the facility. And the special envoy that Obama dispatched to close the prison has since been reassigned, and his post will not be filled.

Some "enemy combatants" have remained at the prison for more than a decade without ever being formally charged and with no court date in sight. And their hunger strike, analysts said, could become a "serious problem" for the White House.

"It's just a mark on our national character and integrity to have these individuals there without any sense of how to process them," said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. "It goes on and on -- time is of the essence here."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner