Just days after promising to close the controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, President Barack Obama said he will instead backtrack and do nothing.
Obama said Tuesday that he wanted to fulfill a broken campaign promise to close the prison, where about 100 of the 166 inmates are now on a hunger strike in protest of them being detained there without charges. Obama said the prison – which costs $150 million a year to operate – is inefficient, expensive and harmful to U.S. interests, and that he did not want any of the striking inmates to die of starvation.
To close the prison and relocate the inmates to U.S. prisons or other countries, Obama would need the support of Congress, including Republicans who control the House of Representatives.
But today Obama told reporters he expected strong resistance from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress over closing the prison and transferring inmates to prisons in the U.S. as he did in 2009, so he decided to back off his proposal and avoid a possible fight.
“In politics, you learn how to pick your battles very carefully,” Obama said. “I need Congress’ support, including House Republicans, to close Guantanamo as I believe it does not represent who we are as a country and because it is used by religious extremists as a recruitment tool.
“But almost immediately after I said I would close Guantanamo, I heard that the Republicans and a few Democrats were not in favor of the idea. In fact, they were pretty opposed to it, and I didn’t think I could change their minds. Instead we’re just going to keep the prison open for now and maybe try again later.”
Obama added he might be open to a compromise with Congress, where the prison might be closed just on weekends and holidays.
When asked why he wouldn’t stand up to opponents to push for closure of the prison, Obama said it's not worth his time.
“I couldn’t convince Congress to pass stricter background checks for guns or to make a deal on the debt ceiling even when I had a lot of public support,” Obama said. “Why bother fighting for something if I’m just going to lose? So I’ll try again in 2014 or 2015 when Congress might change its mind.”
Obama said most inmates will remain at Guantanamo Bay for the time being. Obama added that he plans to send over more feeding tubes to the prison so that staff members can continue to force-feed the inmates on hunger strike.
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The Guantanamo Bay military prison, which opened in 2002 to interrogate and house terrorism suspects, has long been a source of controversy over the alleged torture and legal status of the prisoners, many of whom have been held at the prison without charges.
The prison has housed a total of 779 prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch. Seven inmates, including Osama bin Laden’s driver, have been convicted through military commissions while the majority of inmates have been transferred or released without being charged.
Obama had promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in 2009 and to move all its prisoners to maximum security prisons in the United States or to other countries. Some prisoners would be tried in U.S. civilian courts.
But the plan met steep resistance from Congress, so Obama backed off.