Obama Urges Caution on Syria, Action on Gitmo

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 30 2013 12:17 PM

Obama Talks Gitmo, (Loosely) Defines Red Lines, and Shrugs Off Fox News' Benghazi Question

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President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Major news was a little hard to come by at President Obama's morning press conference, where he took a half-dozen questions from the White House press corps on topics ranging from Syria to Boston to Gitmo. Nonetheless, a few of the president's remarks were noteworthy if for no other reason than it was the first time—or the first time recently—that we heard the administration's current position straight from Obama's mouth. Here are the highlights:

On Gitmo: The president's most surprising remarks came after he was asked about the ongoing hunger strikes at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the closing of which is one of Obama's unfulfilled promises remaining from his first presidential campaign. The president called the detention center unnecessary, inefficient, and harmful to U.S. interests, and suggested he still hopes to shutter it before leaving office despite congressional opposition. "I'm going to go back at this," Obama said. "I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people."

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On Syria: Obama reiterated his administration's position on the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria. In short: The president suggested he needs more time to make a decision on what comes next. "What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," Obama said. "When I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts." The president called the use of chemcial weapons by Syria a "game changer" several times but when pressed whether that meant military intervention, Obama ducked. "By game changer I mean we would have to rethink the range of options that would be available to us," he said.

On Boston: The president offered his support of the FBI's handling of the Russian intel that suggested that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was potentially dangerous. "Based on what I’ve seen so far, the F.B.I. performed its duties, the Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing," Obama said, before conceding the obvious: "But this is hard stuff." He said that the intelligence community would continue to evaluate what happened to see what, if anything, they could have done better. "We want to leave no stone unturned,” he said. "We want to see, is there in fact additional protocols and procedures that could be put in place that could further improve and enhance our ability to anticipate a potential attack."

And the most buzzed about non-newsworthy exchange:

ABC News' Jonathan Karl: "Mr. President, you are a hundred days into your second term. On the gun bill, you put, it seems, everything into it to try to get it passed. Obviously, it didn't. Congress has ignored your efforts to try to get them to undo these sequester cuts. There was even a bill that you threatened to veto that got 92 Democrats in the House voting yes. So my question to you is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?"

President Obama: "Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. You know ... as Mark Twain said, you know, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."

And because no news conference is complete without it, a quesiton from Fox News about Benghazi:

Fox News' Ed Henry's second of two questions to kick things off: "On Benghazi, there are some survivors of that terror attack who say they want to come forward and testify, some in your State Department, and they say they've been blocked. Will you allow them to testify?" And later, reminding the president of his question: "I know pieces of the story have been litigated, and you've been asked about it. But there are people in your own State Department saying they've been blocked from coming forward, that they survived the terror attack and they want to tell their story. Will you help them come forward and just say it once and for all?"

Obama: "Ed, I'm not familiar with this notion that anybody's been blocked from testifying. So what I'll do is I will find out what exactly you're referring to. What I've been very clear about from the start is that our job with respect to Benghazi has been to find out exactly what happened, to make sure that U.S. embassies not just in the Middle East but around the world are safe and secure and to bring those who carried it out to justice. But I'll find out what exactly you're referring to."

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. Follow him on Twitter.