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Senators, senior Obama aide vow to close Guantanamo prison

The Northeast gate marks the end of U.S. soil as the road leads into Cuba at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, March 8, 2013. Picture taken Ma
The Northeast gate marks the end of U.S. soil as the road leads into Cuba at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, March 8, 2013. Picture taken Ma

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's chief of staff and two leading U.S. senators said on Friday they were determined to come up with a plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which would fulfill Obama's five-year-old campaign promise.

"We continue to believe that it is in our national interest to end detention at Guantanamo with a safe and orderly transition of the detainees to other locations," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator John McCain said in a joint statement.

"We intend to work, with a plan by Congress and the administration together, to take the steps necessary to make that happen," the group said after a tour of facility, which the United States has used to hold enemy combatants and terrorism suspects since shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The tour included the maximum-security Camp 7, which holds about 15 "high-value captives" sent to Guantanamo in 2006 from former CIA prisons overseas, a source familiar with the trip said. The Pentagon has asked Congress for money to replace the building.

Feinstein, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and McCain, a top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee who lost the 2008 election to Obama, have long argued that the prison should be closed.

Detainees have complained of abuse and torture - Washington has denied the accusations - and rights activists and international observers have criticized the U.S. government's use of the prison.

But other U.S. lawmakers have blocked the move, arguing that the administration has not offered satisfactory alternatives on what to do with the detainees.

In their joint statement, McDonough, McCain and Feinstein said the prisoners were being held "in a safe and respectful way."

Obama, who promised during the 2008 election campaign to close the facility, last month pledged to lift a ban imposed on transfers of detainees to Yemen from the prison, one of the core obstacles to clearing out the detention camp.

Of the 86 detainees who have been cleared for transfer or release, 56 are from Yemen, where al Qaeda has a dangerous presence. An unknown number of the 80 other prisoners at the camp who are not cleared are Yemeni as well.

More than 100 prisoners in the camp have joined a hunger strike to protest the failure to resolve their fate after more than a decade of detention, and 41 are being force-fed through tubes inserted into their noses and down into their stomachs because they have lost so much weight.

Visiting officials typically start with a briefing by base commander Rear Admiral John Smith, followed by a tour of the primary detention facilities, Camp 5 and Camp 6, where the majority of the detainees live.

They also are shown prisoner health facilities, including the hospital and behavioral health unit, and support facilities such as the barracks where troops live and the kitchen where meals are prepared for both the prisoners and U.S. soldiers.

One of the final stops is the naval base's legal complex, including the courtroom where the military tribunals are held.

(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Vicki Allen and Paul Simao)

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