Obama Renews Call To Close Guantanamo Amid Hunger Strike

For months now prisoners at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay have been on a hunger strike. It started in January with dozens of men refusing meals. Now more than 100 of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo have joined the protest. More than a dozen of them are being force-fed. Defense attorneys say the reason for the strike can be summed up in one word: Hopelessness. The men think they will never leave Guantanamo. But now the protest appears to have worked. On Tuesday, the White House appeared to be paying attention. President Obama said he would make a fresh attempt to close the prison.

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Now to the hunger strike underway in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It began back in January. At first, a few dozen prisoners refused meals. Now, more than 100 of the 166 men still at the facility have joined the protest, and more than a dozen of those are being force-fed. Well today, their action drew a response from the president. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, President Obama vowed at a news conference to try once again to close the island prison.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Today's comments were the president's first public response to the hunger strike.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo, which is why when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008, and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In one of his first acts as president, Mr. Obama signed an executive order vowing to shutter the detention center. But Congress had a say in the matter.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Simply stated, the American people don't want to close Guantanamo Bay, which is an isolated military-controlled facility, to bring these crazy bastards that want to kill us all to the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Republican Senator Lindsey Graham late last year. Senator Graham led the charge during the president's first term to pass a law that made transferring detainees out of Guantanamo virtually impossible. The president has hardly spoken about the prison until today.

OBAMA: I am going to go back at this. I've asked my team to review everything that's currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I am going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that's in the best interest of the American people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Defense attorneys say the hunger strike was sparked by hopelessness. According to guards at the prison, the detainees felt forgotten because President Obama didn't mention them in his inaugural address or State of the Union speech. There are 166 men at the prison now, down from more than 700. They fall into three categories: 86 detainees are either slated for transfer to prisons in third countries or are cleared for conditional release - a kind of parole. Another 31 are expected to face charges. The third group: Those considered impossible to try but too dangerous to release. President Obama seemed to speak of them today.

OBAMA: 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.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's unclear whether the president was signaling that he would no longer support holding these men indefinitely. Then he addressed the hunger strike directly.

OBAMA: I don't want these individuals to die. Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The president didn't say how he plans to get Congress to reverse itself on Guantanamo, but the hunger strikers clearly got his attention. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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