Obama Wants Guantanamo Closed But His Efforts Are Thwarted

It's been a year since President Obama renewed his pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But more than 150 prisoners are still housed there.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

We have an update now on efforts to refocus the fight against terrorism. Congress has been debating a range of powers granted to presidents since 9/11.

INSKEEP: A controversy over surveillance has added urgency, so is the coming end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan. But as we'll hear in this part of the program, it is not proving easy to redirect the American war machine.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the prison at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama has been vowing to close it since before he was even elected. Yesterday, the House rebuffed his latest effort, which would've closed the facility and sent some prisoners to the U.S.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: There was a time when President Obama thought all it would take to close Guantanamo was the stroke of a pen. He signed an executive order to do just that on his second full day in the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.

HORSLEY: But with cameras clicking, it soon became clear the new president and his staff had not yet ironed out all the details.

OBAMA: Is there a separate executive order, Greg, with respect to how we're going to dispose of the detainees? Is that written?

GREG: We're setting up a process.

OBAMA: We will be setting up a process whereby this is going to be taking place.

HORSLEY: Five-and-a-half years later, that process hasn't moved very far, much to the dismay of advocates like Andrea Prasow. Prasow served as a defense attorney for some of the prisoners held at Guantanamo. She's now Senior National Security Counsel at Human Rights Watch.

ANDREA PRASOW: When Obama took office, there was a lot of hope. A lot of people believed that when he pledged to close Guantanamo within one year, he meant it. I think that's become much harder over the years.

HORSLEY: One-hundred-fifty-four prisoners are still housed at Guantanamo. Just 12 have been allowed to leave since Obama renewed his call to close the prison a year ago. And there's still a congressional ban reaffirmed just yesterday on moving any prisoner from Guantanamo to the United States.

REPRESENTATIVE DOUG LAMBORN: I don't think it's a good idea to have these prisoners of war mixing with a civilian U.S. population. I don't think that's a good idea.

HORSLEY: Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn represents a district in Colorado with a super-max prison, and he doesn't want the government moving Guantanamo inmates there. Lamborn is content to leave the facility at the Guantanamo Bay military base just as it is.

LAMBORN: The prison should stay open as long as this war is going on, the war of terror, of those who are wanting to destroy America and kill Americans.

HORSLEY: But with the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, Obama argues it's time to reconsider that open-ended approach. While efforts to combat terrorism must continue, he said in his speech last year, this war, like all wars, must end.

OBAMA: And I know the politics are hard, but history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it.

HORSLEY: By far, the toughest challenge of closing Guantanamo is what to do with the 60-odd prisoners judged too dangerous transfer, but who cannot be tried, for example because the evidence against them was obtained through torture.

Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch says that kind of indefinite detention without trial is wrong, whether the prisoners are held on a military base in Cuba or here the United States.

PRASOW: Obama tries to get it both ways. He says that Guantanamo is terrible and should be closed and harms U.S. national security. All of that is true. But by accepting the premise that it's OK to hold people without charge and without trial, he's basically adopted the core principle of Guantanamo.

HORSLEY: Prasow believes Obama genuinely wants to close Guantanamo and deliver on the promise he made two days into office. But doing so, she says, will require action, not just another speech.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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