President Obama called for the closure of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay and encouraged the use of federal courts to prosecute terrorists, during a press conference in the White House Briefing Room Tuesday morning.
“Well, it is not a surprise to me that we’ve got problems in Guantánamo, which is why, when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantánamo,” the president said, in response to a question about the ongoing hunger strike at the camp that has been reportedly joined by more than 100 prisoners.
“I continue to believe that we’ve got to close Guantánamo,” he said. “I think — well, you know, I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for Guantánamo to be closed in 2009.
However, both Republicans and Democrats resisted moving the prisoners to a facility inside the United States. The 2011 Defense Authorization Bill prohibited “the use of funds to modify or construct facilities in the United States to house detainees transferred from United States Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” The president signed the bill but announced that he would try to repeal or mitigate these restrictions in the future. Obama’s critics have pointed out that even if the president has objected to the camp’s location, he still supports the “core injustice” being practiced there: indefinite detention.
The president insisted Tuesday that the continued use of the camp was not sustainable.
“I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no-man’s-land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority in Afghanistan — the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried — that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop,” he said.
He then articulated the argument his government has made implicitly in the way it handled the arrest of the Boston bombing suspect: The federal justice system can handle terrorists who attack the United States.
“I mean, we’ve got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country,” he said.
“Nothing’s happened to them. Justice has been served. It’s been done in a way that’s consistent with our Constitution, consistent with due process, consistent with rule of law, consistent with our traditions. The — the individual who attempted to bomb Times Square — in prison serving a life sentence. Individual who tried to bomb a plane in Detroit — in prison serving a life sentence. A Somali who was part of al-Shahab [sic] who we captured — in prison.”
He went on do a quick genealogy of how America got into this situation. “And I understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with the traumas that had taken place, why, for a lot of Americans, the notion was somehow that we had to create a special facility like Guantánamo, and we couldn’t handle this in — in a normal, conventional fashion,” he said. “I understand that reaction.”
But he then suggested it’s time to phase out that approach.
“But we’re now over a decade out,” he said. “We should be wiser. We should have more experience at — in how we prosecute terrorists. And this is a lingering, you know, problem that is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester.”
The president also addressed the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria — something he has said would be a “game changer” in the conflict. Here Obama again sought to contrast himself with the post 9/11 mentality by stressing caution on evidence related to weapons of mass destruction.
“And what we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don’t have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” he said. “And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”
If the regime of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad had indeed used such weapons, the president did not promise a direct military conflict. Instead he said that “we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.”
Fox News’ Ed Henry, who asked about Syria, also confronted the president with discredited rumors his channel has been circulating that survivors of the Benghazi attacks were being prevented from speaking to the public. Obama said he would look into them.
Responding to a reporter who asked about a comment from Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) that Obamacare’s implementation is looking like a “train wreck,” the president pointed out that a huge chunk of the law was already in effect, helping millions of Americans.
“But I think the main message I want to give to the American people here is despite all the hue and cry and, you know, sky-is- falling predictions about this stuff, if you’ve already got health insurance, then that part of ‘Obamacare’ that affects you, it’s pretty much already in place,” he said. “And that’s about 85 percent of the country. What is left to be implemented is those provisions to help the 10 to 15 percent of the American public that is unlucky enough that they don’t have health insurance.”
The president closed his press conference by saying he largely supports the immigration reform bill that has come out of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight.” But he came back to the mic to comment on Jason Collins, who became the the first active athlete in one of America’s four major professional sports leagues to admit he is gay.
“I think America should be proud that this is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly,” he said. “And everybody’s part of a — part of a family, and we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance, and not their sexual orientation. And so I’m very proud of him.”