President Barack Obama declared defiantly Thursday that the U.S. "went off course" in fighting terrorism over the past eight years, and said his policies will "better protect" the country against al Qaeda.
In a major address at the National Archives, Obama argued that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods "did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts – they undermined them."
The president added that the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay is an inherited "mess" that "has weakened American national security" by providing a rallying cry for enemies.
Seeking to defuse one of Republican's most potent arguments, the president added: "Let me begin by disposing of one argument as plainly as I can: we are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people."
"Decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable – a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions; that failed to use our values as a compass," Obama said. "And that is why I took several steps upon taking office to better protect the American people."
In a stark warning, he said: "We know that al Qaeda is actively planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will be with us for a long time, and that we must use all elements of our power to defeat it."
"I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more," Obama continued. "As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they 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. 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. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts – they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all."
Obama repeated his pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"Rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security," Obama said. "It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That is why I argued that it should be closed throughout my campaign. And that is why I ordered it closed within one year."
In a remarkable split-screen presentation of opposing worldviews, former Vice President Dick Cheney was to speak on the exact same topic moments after Obama finishes. Cheney is appearing at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where the audience will watch the president on large TV screens.
Cheney was to say: “When President Obama makes wise decisions, he deserves our support. And when he mischaracterizes the national security decisions we made in the Bush years, he deserves an answer.”
Cheney was to argue that his intent is not to look backward but will say that a truthful telling of history is necessary to inform our choices going forward. “Though I'm not here to speak for George W. Bush, I am certain that no one wishes the current administration more success in defending the contry than we do,” Cheney will say. “What I want to do today is set forth the strategic thinking that drove our policies.”
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Both the president and Cheney rested a good part of their case on effectiveness, with the president saying the last administration’s approach to fighting terror was not effective, and Cheney arguing that those programs are the reason there has been no second Sept. 11.
"We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe," Obama said. "Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset – in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval."
The president said that while the nation must ensure that its security measures and our justice system are ready to address the threats of the 21st century, the Obama administration will uphold America’s laws and its values that are the reason we have become the strongest nation in the world and persisted through crises that have threatened our core.
Obama said that the paramount responsibility of any president is to keep the American people safe. That is what he thinks about every morning when he wakes up and every night when he goes to sleep. The president believes with every fiber of his being that we cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.
The president referred to the setting, saying that the documents in the National Archives — including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.
Obama pointed out that he is providing the resources to take the fight to the extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan who attacked us on Sept. 11; investing in the 21st-century military and intelligence capabilities; re-energizing a global nonproliferation regime and locking down loose nuclear material to deny the world’s most dangerous people access to the world’s deadliest weapons; protecting our borders and increasing our preparedness for any future attack or natural disaster; building new partnerships around the world to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates; and renewing American diplomacy.
Referring back to the opening week of his presidency, Obama pointed out that he ordered the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. For over seven years, the U.S. has detained hundreds of people at Guantanamo. During that time, the system of Military Commissions at Guantanamo succeeded in convicting only three suspected terrorists.
"In dealing with this situation, we do not have the luxury of starting from scratch," he said. "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 basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country."
Obama contended that the record is clear: Rather than keep Americans safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. Turning to detainees who remain, the president will announce this framework:
--When feasible, try those who have violated American criminal laws in federal courts.
--When necessary, try those who violate the rules of war through Military Commissions.
--When possible, transfer to third countries those detainees who can be safely transferred.