In Tuesday’s news conference commemorating the first 100 days of his second term, President Obama announced a renewed effort to close Guantanamo Bay. Though he seemed firm in his convictions that “this is a lingering problem that is not going to get better,” Obama did little to offer any concrete solutions in his speech. However, it did serve to remind us all of his campaign promise from 2008 to make closing the prison facility a priority of his administration. For awhile, it did seem like he was going to make good on that promise. In January 2009, Obama signed executive orders expressly directing the CIA to shut down any remnants of the secret prison network. There seemed to be a great amount of support for Obama’s decision, and for finding alternate methods to protect national security that don't violate the Geneva Convention.
When there was a lack of any further effort to close Guantanamo, it appeared as though Obama’s decisive actions were simply a way to create immediate distance between his presidency and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who had supported using the harsh interrogation methods that brought the detainees of Guantanamo to the public’s attention. And Obama’s promise of swift action certainly brought the American people to his side. But plans were never put into place to try, release, or otherwise deal with the Gitmo detainees, and many Americans soon lost interest in their plight.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress thwarted the president’s plans, a point which he emphasized in his short speech on Tuesday. In 2009, Congress’s greatest concern was the danger of transferring detainees to American soil for trial by the U.S. federal court system. But Obama himself also impeded the closure of the prison by signing the Defense Authorization Bill in 2011, which placed limitations on transferring inmates to mainland U.S. or other countries. Public opinion, while vehemently against torture, has remained solidly wary of returning these prisoners to their homelands.
So, why a renewed effort now? Guantanamo inmates have recently been splayed across the headlines as reports surfaced of a mass hunger strike. Out of the 166 prisoners at the facility, at least 100 (some estimate as many as 130) of them have been on hunger strike since as early as February 6. While hunger strikes are not uncommon in the facility, this the longest hunger strike yet at Guantanamo, and some men have lost upwards of 40 pounds. The BBC reports that the strike was provoked by an aggressive search of Camp Six, housing for the more cooperative inmates, leading to the seizure of multiple items and disrespectful treatment of certain detainees’ Korans. Teams of military doctors are being sent in as guards take extreme measures, including force-feeding the protesting prisoners, to ensure that no prisoners die on their watch.
Obama’s announcement opens the door for more questions. Simply directing his team to look into closing Guantanamo Bay barely signifies any forward motion and will only uncover a slew of problems to tackle, including where to send these prisoners, how to deal with public opinion, and the injustice of detaining people for so long without charging them.