By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told Americans on Tuesday that 2014 should be the year to finally close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay as the United States winds down its military role in Afghanistan and shifts away from a "permanent war footing."
In his annual State of the Union address, Obama renewed his old vow - dating back to the start of his presidency five years ago - to shut the internationally condemned jail at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, and he called on Congress for further action to help him do so.
"This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay," Obama said. "Because 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."
While seeking to add a sense of urgency to the issue, Obama stopped short of offering any new prescriptions on how he intends to empty Guantanamo of its remaining 155 prisoners. They were rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001, attacks and have been held without trial ever since.
After U.S. lawmakers made it easier late last year to transfer Guantanamo inmates to their home countries, Obama is now in a better position to gradually reduce the detainee population. But signaling that major obstacles remain, he said Congress needed to give him further flexibility.
The effort to close Guantanamo is a critical part of Obama's broader drive to roll back some of controversial aspects of the global fight against Islamist militants as he presses ahead with plans to formally end the long, unpopular war in Afghanistan by the end of the year.
"Even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks," Obama said, "America must move off a permanent war footing."
In a speech that focused mostly on domestic issues, Obama reminded Americans that he had already imposed "prudent limits" on deadly U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda and its allies - a campaign that has drawn criticism for civilian casualties in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
"We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence," he said.
He also reasserted the pledge he made earlier this month to reform U.S. surveillance activities. The move was triggered by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of the government's vast collection of phone data, including eavesdropping on some allied foreign leaders.
Reaction from human rights groups was initially muted. "President Obama's legacy is at stake and his time is slipping away," said Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's Security and Human Rights Program.
"We've heard this before and now is the time for action, to finally transfer the 77 Guantanamo detainees cleared to leave, reveal the names of people killed by drones, end mass surveillance and end the constant state of war," he said.
GETTING PAST BUSH'S 'WAR ON TERROR'
Opened by President George W. Bush in 2002, Guantanamo became a symbol of the excesses of his administration's "war on terror" interrogation and detention practices. Even he expressed a desire to close the camp near the end of his presidency.
While seeking to turn the page on the Bush era, Obama failed to meet his promise to shut the prison within a year of taking office in early 2009. Though he recommitted several times to his pledge, he was reluctant to set a new time frame for achieving it.
Long a subject of international criticism but low on the list of the American public's concerns, Guantanamo was thrust back in the spotlight last year by a hunger strike and the military's decision to force-feed prisoners to keep them alive.
Obama's renewed promise followed congressional passage in December of a broader defense spending bill that loosened some restrictions on his ability to send more of the detainees home.
Despite that, he still faces limits on his room to maneuver. Lawmakers refused to budge on a ban on bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. mainland.
On top of that, complications remain with Yemen, where U.S. officials fear released prisoners might join up with an active al Qaeda branch. Yemen's government also has yet to build a long-promised detention center for any prisoners sent home.
About half of Guantanamo's remaining detainees have been cleared for transfer or release since 2009, but most were blocked from going home because of congressional restrictions.
Still, nearly four dozen prisoners are considered too dangerous to release. And Obama can also expect continued pressure from some lawmakers, including Republican critics, who want to keep Guantanamo open.
Despite that, the administration has shown signs of a more active transfer policy in recent months. It sent two detainees back to Sudan, two to Saudi Arabia and two to Algeria, and it sent the three remaining ethnic Uighur Chinese inmates to Slovakia.
Obama also used his speech to reassure a war-weary American public that the U.S. military was on track to withdraw from Afghanistan after more than a decade of war there.
"We will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over," he said.
He also sent a thinly veiled warning to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is locked in a test of wills with Washington over efforts to reach a long-term security pact that would enable a small contingent of U.S. forces to remain in the country beyond 2014.
The White House has warned that it will resort to a "zero option," pulling out all U.S. forces at the end of the year unless he signs a security deal soon.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jim Loney)