“In dealing with this situation, we do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. 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,” Obama said. “The problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place.”
Moments after Obama spoke, Vice President Dick Cheney rose at the American Enterprise Institute to deliver what amounted to a rebuttal to Obama on Gitmo – including a full-throated defense of the Bush administration’s actions, saying he would carry out the same policies again “without hestitation.”
Cheney said Obama should make future national security choices based not on “slogans and campaign rhetoric, but on a truthful telling of history.”
In his remarks, Obama renewed his pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, made in an executive order issued on his second full day in office – but he did not repeat his promise to shutter the facility by January of next year.
In his address, delivered in front of a display of U.S. founding documents at the National Archives, Obama did not rule out releasing some Guantanamo prisoners in the U.S. However, he did not affirmatively say that he would do so.
“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,” the president said. “Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders – highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety.”
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Obama acknowledged the uproar on Capitol Hill this week that led to a 90-6 Senate vote blocking funding for any transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S.
“As our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult. These issues are fodder for 30-second commercials and direct mail pieces that are designed to frighten. I get it,” he said. “We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America.”
Still, much of Obama’s speech pinned blame squarely on the Bush administration both for opening Guantanamo and for authorizing aggressive interrogation techniques critics have compared to torture. The president said the U.S. essentially ceded the moral high ground by undermining America’s historic role as a beacon of freedom.
“Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions,” Obama said. “I believe that many of those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I believe that – too often – our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.”
While Obama laid considerable blame on the Bush administration, he said most Americans shared responsibility for the excesses by not speaking out more vocally in the wake of the 9/11 attack.
“During this season of fear, too many of us – Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens – fell silent. In other words, we went off course,” he said.
Obama argued that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques empoyed on alleged Al Qaeda operatives were unnecessary and counterproductive.
“I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. 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,” Obama said. “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 noted that waterboarding and other aggressive techniques were opposed by influential figures in the Bush administration, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate and the wrong side of history,” the president said.
“I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we…cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our must fundamental values,” Obama said. “We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens out country and keeps us safe. Time and again, out values have been our best national security asset.”
Obama said a “poorly planned and haphazard” approach to release of more than 500 detainees under the Bush administration had resulted in some ex-prisoners returning to the battlefield.
“Two third of the detainees were released before I took office and ordered the closure of Guantanamo,” Obama said indignantly in a message that seemed aimed at Republican critics of his Gitmo plans.
Obama sought to portray the urgency of closing Guantanamo as driven not simply by his own desires, but by a growing number of court rulings in favor of legal challenges brought by prisoners.
“The courts have spoken. They have found there is no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the people confined at Guantanamo….I cannot ignore these rulings,” Obama said.
However, the legal situation is not as dire or urgent as the White House suggests. For example, only one judge has ordered the release of Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. That ruling, involving 17 Uighur men, was stayed and later overturned by a federal appeals court.
While about two dozen detainees have been ordered released by federal judges, at the moment those orders are largely unenforceable due to a D.C. Circuit ruling denying judges the authority to bring detainees to the U.S.
Obama also suggested he is likely to seek to hold some of the Guantanamo prisoners without formal charge or trial. However, he said he will seek Congressional authorization for any such preventive detention regime.