Four years have passed since President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay prison. The facility remains open and those who have been held for years now without charges have begun a hunger strike.
Obama has pushed for the closing a time or two during the last four years, only to be rebuffed by a Congress backed by the force of public opinion that has an aversion to suspected terrorists being held in their friendly neighborhood federal prison.
On Tuesday, Obama said he would renew efforts to shut the detention center, but the politics haven’t changed much.
As the hunger strikers continue to draw more and more media attention — the main purpose of a hunger strike — Obama will need to take some action to prevent this situation from consuming precious time and political capital in his second term.
The force feeding of some of the hunger strikers has raised ethical questions in the medical community. The American Medical Association and Red Cross have opposed the force feeding, citing World Medical Association edicts that say if a prisoner is mentally capable of understanding their actions in a hunger strike, it is unethical to force feed them.
The hunger strike began as a protest by some detainees that Korans were handled disrespectfully by the military, a charge leaders deny. Whatever the legitimacy of the complaints, the hunger strike is really Obama’s problem.
While the administration claims Congress is blocking resolution of this issue, law allows the secretary of defense to transfer certain prisoners on its own accord if it deems such transfers in the national security interest of the U.S. That process would call for sending home or finding other countries for 86 of the 166 detainees who have been cleared by an interagency task force for a transfer.
Lawyers representing the detainees are pushing for this option, saying Congress can still step in but some of the transfers could be carried out in a couple of weeks.
The Washington Post reports that Obama may appoint a senior State Department official to oversee transfer of detainees and review status of others being held without charge. That would seem to be a good start.
Obama needs to bite the bullet on this one. He needs to take decisive action to get this process going and be willing to take the political fallout.
The situation has become intolerable. The country that espouses freedom at every turn and files a report from its own State Department every year chastising others for unjust imprisonment will lose its credibility in this arena should Guantanamo be allowed to stay open. Four years is already too long.
Factchecking organizations rightly claim that this is a campaign promise Obama is failing to keep. Obama has options. He just has to have the political courage to take them.