Members of the group "Witness Against Torture" dressed in orange prison jump suits protest against the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. January 10, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Barack Obama mentioned closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay for the first time in a State of the Union speech since he took office.
"With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay,” Obama said in his speech Tuesday, which largely focused on economic inequality. “We counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world."
The 12-year-old prison in Cuba, which Obama vowed to close while on the campaign trail in 2008, holds just 155 remaining prisoners, most who have never been charged with a crime. Half of the detainees have been cleared for transfer to other countries, but various political and diplomatic hurdles have left them languishing there. The president vowed to shut it down in his first address to the joint chambers of Congress in 2009, which was not technically a State of the Union speech. He hasn't mentioned it in a State of the Union speech since.
Obama signed an executive order closing the prison down on his third day in office, but the order was never acted upon.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York who is an outspoken opponent of Guantanamo, told Yahoo News last week that if Obama mentioned closing the prison in his speech, it “could change things” after years of inaction.
“If the president decides to make a big fight of it, that might result in real change,” Nadler said.
Like many liberals who want the prison closed, Nadler believes the White House has not put its full political weight behind Guantanamo’s closure. In 2010, the administration designated 48 of the prisoners who have not been charged with a crime too dangerous to release, effectively endorsing their indefinite detention. (A parole board was set up to review these cases periodically.) Congress also hasn’t helped — it passed laws preventing the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil for trial or prison and made transfers to other countries more difficult.
Only three Gitmo detainees were released in all of 2011 and 2012, a much lower rate than under George W. Bush’s second term. That in part reflected the Obama administration’s decision not to repatriate any of the cleared detainees to Yemen, because of al-Qaida’s strong network there. Since August, eight detainees have been transferred, suggesting a renewed commitment to closing the prison. And in December, Congress lifted some of its barriers to transferring detainees to other countries.
Last May, the president renewed his promise to close the prison, citing the mass hunger strike that more than 100 prisoners participated in to protest their indefinite detention. A protester heckled him about the prison during his speech on counterterrorism policy in May. “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike,” he said then. “I am willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it is worth being passionate about. Is this who we are?”