By Daphne Eviatar
(Reuters) - At his news conference on Tuesday, President Barack Obama for the first time in years spoke about the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which he had promised to close when he first took office.
"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama said, responding to a reporter's question. "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." He went on to acknowledge that more than half the detainees have been officially cleared for release.
As if to forestall the obvious next question (then why hasn't he closed it?) the president blamed the prison's continued existence on Congress. "Congress," he said, "determined that they would not let us close it."
Though Congress has made closing the prison difficult, Obama is the one who put his legacy on the line by ordering its closure within days of assuming office. It's still in his power to follow through.
In his remarks, Obama began to acknowledge this, pledging to "examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue." He actually has many such options.
The National Defense Authorization Act that Congress passed last year specifically allows the president to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo if the defense secretary certifies that it's in the interest of U.S. national security and that measures will be taken to substantially mitigate any risks they may pose.
So here are the steps Obama can take right now to start closing the Guantanamo prison:
First, he can direct Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to certify that all detainees already cleared for release, either by courts or internal Defense Department reviews, should be transferred out of the prison in the interest of national security.
Second, he can lift the self-imposed ban on transferring detainees back to Yemen. Of the 86 prisoners cleared for release from the prison, 56 are Yemenis. Obama imposed the ban after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines plane headed for Detroit in 2009. But just because Abdulmutallab received terrorist training in Yemen shouldn't mean that none of the Guantanamo detainees should ever be returned to Yemen.
The ban was an easy political move at the time, widely supported by a frightened public. At this point, though, it does more harm than good.
Obama can work with the Yemeni government, a strong ally in the U.S. fight against al Qaeda affiliates, to provide security assistance that would allow Yemeni detainees to live safely in their own country.
As Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who supported the ban on returning prisoners to Yemen back in 2009, wrote recently to Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon: "I believe it would be prudent to revisit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi's government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana."
Third, the president can create the Periodic Review Boards that he promised in an executive order two years ago. They would scrutinize the legal basis for continuing to hold the rest of the detainees, who have neither been tried by military commission nor cleared for release. It is unclear why those boards aren't working, much less even been formed.
To make sure closing the prison remains a priority, the president should immediately appoint a senior White House official to be responsible for transferring all detainees back home or to a third country, and for shuttering the prison.
Daniel Fried, the State Department special envoy who used to have this job, in January was reassigned to coordinate sanctions against countries such as Iran and Syria. No one was hired to replace him. His old envoy position should be recreated at a higher level, within the White House, to signal Obama's commitment to finally getting this done.
There's no question that the situation at Guantanamo Bay has grown desperate and must be addressed quickly. This week the military confirmed that 100 of the 166 men there are on hunger strike, officially starving themselves to death. Twenty-one are being force-fed, strapped to a chair with a tube snaked up their nose and pumping Ensure into their stomachs. This is a violation of medical ethical guidelines, according to the American Medical Association, the International Committee for the Red Cross and the World Medical Association.
Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently called the continued operation of the Guantanamo prison a "clear breach of international law."
The prison camp is also, as Obama acknowledged on Tuesday, costly for U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. government pays about $800,000 per detainee per year to keep the 166 men imprisoned at Guantanamo. In contrast, the secure imprisonment of a criminal convicted in a U.S. federal court costs about $30,000.
Obama was right when he said on Tuesday that the situation at Guantanamo is not sustainable. "The notion that we're going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no-man's-land in perpetuity," he said, "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 the al Qaeda core, we've kept the pressure up on all these trans-national 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."
The president also needs to stop blaming Congress for his failure to do what is within his power: shuttering the prison.
Some lawmakers have certainly made it difficult for him to make good on his pledge to close the detention center, but as he acknowledged on Tuesday, there are steps he can take now to move toward that goal.
(Daphne Eviatar is a Reuters columnist but her opinions are her own.)
(Daphne Eviatar is a senior counsel in the law and security program of Human Rights First. She reported on legal issues, focusing on terrorism, for The Washington Independent. Human Rights First does not support or oppose candidates for public office.)