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Obama on Gitmo: I don't want prisoners to die

Updated 3:05 p.m.
File Photo: This January 19, 2012  file photo reviewed by the US military shows the front gate of \"Camp Six\" detention facility of the Joint Detention Group at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo by Jim WATSON/AFP/Getty)
File Photo: This January 19, 2012 file photo reviewed by the US military shows the front gate of \"Camp Six\" detention facility of the Joint Detention Group...

Updated 3:05 p.m.

President Obama on Tuesday reiterated his commitment to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, which he described as a "lingering problem that is not going to get better, it's going to get worse. It's going to fester."

"I've asked my team to review everything that's being done in Guantánamo, everything we can do administratively and I'm going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that's in the best interest of the American people," Obama said at a White House press conference.

Currently, 100 of the 166 men being held at the detention camp are participating in a hunger strike that continues to grow. The protest began early February following what detainees felt to be inappropriate searches of their Korans. The hunger strike has since escalated the lingering controversy over the facility's existence—of those detainees engaged in the protest, five have been hospitalized and 21 are being tube-fed, according to tracking by the Miami Herald.

"I don't want these individuals to die," Obama said of recognized hunger strikers. "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? Why are we doing this?"

Obama made his promise to close Guantánamo a centerpiece of his 2008 presidential campaign, but has been thwarted by Congress. He issued an executive order to close the facility and transfer captives to U.S. soil in his first year in office, but was blocked even when his Democratic colleagues controlled Congress. In late last November, the Senate voted 54-to-41 to prevent transfer of terrorist detainees. Obama said today he still hopes to be joined in his fight by "folks over there who care about fighting terrorism but also care about who we are as a people."

"The notion that we're going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity—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 Al Qaeda, we've kept the pressure up on all these transnational 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's contrary to who we are, it's contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop," he said.

The ACLU responded by welcoming Obama's "continuing commitment to closing Guantánamo and putting an end to the indefinite detention regime there."

"There are two things the president should do,"  Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. "One is to appoint a senior point person so that the administration's Guantánamo closure policy is directed by the White House and not by Pentagon bureaucrats. The president can also order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantánamo population."

The Center for Constitutional Rights also released a statement calling on Obama to take action beyond Congressional authority "if he is really serious about closing the prison," including using a "certification/waiver process created by Congress to transfer detainees, starting with the 86 men who have been cleared for release."

CCR also said in the statement that "The President must demonstrate immediate, tangible progress toward the closure of Guantanamo or the men who are on hunger strike will die, and he will be ultimately responsible for their deaths."

A petition authored by the former Chief Prosecutor for the Terrorism Trials at Guantanamo Bay began appeared to gain steam after Obama's renewal.

The Pentagon announced plans last month for a $150 million overhaul of the facility, including construction of a new dining hall, hospital and barracks for the guards. That's roughly equal to the facility's annual operating costs.

Although no new detainees have been brought to the camp during the Obama administration, 166 currently remain at the camp, 86 of whom have been approved for release.