Of 166 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, 100 are refusing to eat in a protest over… (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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.