WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has delivered a ringing defense of his national security policies and vowed to forge ahead with his plan to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which he said “has weakened American national security” and become “a rallying cry for our enemies.”
Obama spoke at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., one day after the Senate overwhelmingly rejected his request for funds to close the detention center and blocked his plan to transfer some of the most dangerous detainees to high security prisons within the United States.
The building houses some of the nation’s most revered documents of democracy -- including the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights -- and Obama vowed that his policies would always reflect the fundamental values of “freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity” that they embody.
"We have been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are," Obama said. "And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology."
He characterized the policies of harsh interrogation and illegal detentions of his predecessor, George W. Bush, as “hasty decisions” that were “based on fear rather than foresight.”
That lack of foresight was evident in the Bush administration’s decision to open Guantanamo Bay in the first place, Obama said, which now presents his administration with a tangled legal mess that has prompted heated responses from across the political spectrum.
"We are cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess -- a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country," he said.
Human rights groups are angry that Obama has decided to revive, albeit with significant reforms, the Bush-era military commissions system, and both Republicans and Democrats are upset that he has proposed transferring some 80 of the most dangerous detainees to high security “supermax” prisons in the United States. The U.S. Senate on May 20 also denied Obama's request
for $80 million to close Guantanamo.
In his speech, Obama assured his critics that he would never release anyone that poses a danger to the American people and said his administration is conducting a painstaking review of each case of the 240 detainees left at the camp to determine the appropriate legal solutions to each.
Those remaining will fall into one of five categories, he said -- eligible for open trial in U.S. courts; suitable only for trial by secret military commission; cleared for release; cleared for transfer to a foreign country; and finally, those who can’t be prosecuted but also cannot be released.
Obama called this last category “the toughest issue” and said it included prisoners who have expressed allegiance to Osama bin Laden "or otherwise made it clear they want to kill Americans."
He argued that transferring this small group of prisoners to federal supermax prisons -- which already hold hundreds of convicted terrorists and have never had an escapee -- would not endanger national security. But he acknowledged that there are no easy solutions.
“Now, let me be blunt. There are no neat or easy answers here. I wish there were," Obama said. "But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo. As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. I refuse to pass it on to somebody else. It is my responsibility to solve the problem. Our security interests will not permit us to delay. Our courts won’t allow it. And neither should our conscience.”
Obama said he knew that dealing with Congress on the issue of Guantanamo detainees “will be difficult,” but promised that his administration would work with legislators to come up with an acceptable solution.
But he warned against the “politicization” of the issue, and delivered something akin to a preemptive strike to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been scathingly critical of Obama’s security policies and delivered the equivalent of a rebuttal speech
elsewhere in Washington just moments after the president finished speaking.
"And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue," Obama said. "Listening to the recent debate, I’ve heard words that, frankly, are calculated to scare people rather than educate them, words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country."
Cheney has been the most outspoken critic of Obama’s decision to end the brutal interrogation technique known as waterboarding, which the former vice president says was an effective means of getting prisoners to talk. Obama ended the practice as soon as he took office, and in his speech hit back at those who argue for its reinstatement, saying, “As commander in chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation."
"What’s more, [brutal interrogation methods] undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America," Obama said. "They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured."
Throughout his speech, Obama returned repeatedly to the theme that American values must be upheld as the nation redrafts its wartime policies. Around the world, he said, people are right now plotting how to kill Americans -- and conceivably will still be doing so 10 years from now.
But the terrorists can succeed, Obama said, only if they manage to separate America from her allies -- something they won’t be able to do if the United States stays true to its values. “Not only because doing so is right,” he said, “but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe.”