By returning to the intractable and charged issue of closing the detention facility in Cuba, Obama has regenerated a political battle that could prove as demanding as gun control, immigration or health-care reform — and as defining for his legacy.
In a speech at the National Defense University on Thursday, Obama recommitted himself to shuttering the facility and announced a series of steps to kick-start that process.
“He should get credit for an important speech,” Harold Koh, former legal adviser at the State Department and an advocate of closing Guantanamo, said in an interview. “But now the time for talking is over and the administration needs to act and act quickly if they want to be taken seriously. This is the president’s last, best chance.”
The detention of 166 men at the facility drew the president’s fresh attention in part because of a mass hunger strike there. On Friday, 103 detainees were fasting and 32 were being force-fed twice a day, according to a spokesman for Joint Task Force Guantanamo.
“Detainees follow all coverage of Guantanamo closely, including the president’s speech, and the post-speech commentary, analysis and editorials,” said Lt. Col. Samuel E House, the spokesman. “There is interest and discussion, but no discernible reaction.”
Among the current population at Guantanamo, 86 detainees have been cleared for transfer home or resettlement in a third country, according to U.S. officials. Former officials and human rights activists said the president needs to quickly start moving some of these men out of Guantanamo to build momentum for the much tougher political battle of convincing Congress that some detainees will have to be brought into the United States.
And, they said, the administration will have to show more steel than it did in 2009 to face down political opponents.
Although Congress has barred the administration from moving Guantanamo detainees into the United States for any reason, some key Republicans on Capitol Hill seemed to suggest after the speech they might reconsider the issue as part of a broader bipartisan plan on detention.
“One red line is you don’t want to bring terrorist detainees to the United States with all the risk that comes with it, and all the cost that comes with it, without a substantive, robust and bipartisan detainee policy going forward,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday.
But Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H) said, “There is bipartisan opposition in Congress to bringing foreign terrorists at Guantanamo to U.S. soil, as evidenced by the 54-41 vote on my amendment to permanently prohibit the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States.”