WASHINGTON-Flanked at the National Archives by portraits of America's Founding Fathers as well as copies of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, President Obama Thursday laid out his argument for closing Guantanamo Bay.
The island prison in Cuba, which currently holds 240 detainees, "created more terrorists than it ever detained," the president said in his speech (the full transcript can be found here), and indicated that the past administration had turned its back on constitutional principles. "[The Bush administration] established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable," he said.
"Our values are our best national security asset," Obama said, adding that maintaining national security while safeguarding American values was not simply "idealism."
But the president's plan to close the facility by January has hit a snag. Congress on Wednesday denied his request for funding to close the facility by an overwhelming majority, citing the administration's lack of a plan. While Obama provided some details about the future of detainees, the map forward is still sketchy. He acknowledged "politics in Congress will be difficult," which was likely an understatement.
Despite the distance Obama places between himself and former President Bush, he is adopting approaches to the detainees that are similar to the last administration-and today in his speech he said clearly, "We are indeed at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates," a declaration members of his administration has shied from making previously.
The Obama administration will continue the Bush administration approach of trying some detainees by military commissions, though Obama has promised that detainees will have more "latitude" in their choice of counsel. Also, he is forbidding any use of evidence obtained through enhanced interrogation techniques. Some detainees who have broken "American criminal laws" will be tried in federal courts, and 50 have been designated for release to other countries-though only two detainees have been accepted abroad, one by France and one by Great Britain.
The president did indicate that some detainees will be brought to U.S. soil-a concern to lawmakers-but pointed out that no one has ever escaped from an American "supermax" prison. The country, he said, is "ill-served" by "fear-mongering." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell along with other Republicans has spent the last several weeks harping on the dangers of bringing detainees to the United States, and most of his Democratic colleagues, including the Democratic leader Harry Reid, have concurred.
Downtown, former Vice President Dick Cheney was waiting for the president to finish his speech so he could rise to defend the Bush administration's record (see "Cheney takes on Obama while defending the past," by Edward Lee Pitts).
Enhanced interrogation techniques, Cheney declared, "have without question made our country safer," and were "the right thing to do."
"As commander in chief, I see the intelligence," he said. "I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation."
Under Bush, Obama said, "our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions."
Again in his speech, he left the door open to prosecution of Bush administration officials, though he said he had no interest in "re-litigating the policies of the last eight years."
At the same time, the president pointed out that two-thirds of detainees at Guantanamo were released before he took office.
One member of the Bush administration, who now serves in Obama's Cabinet, sat on the front row in front of Obama-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whom the president mistakenly acknowledged as "William Gates." Other interested parties looked on from the audience: Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and CIA Director Leon Panetta. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accused the CIA of lying to Congress, recently, did not attend.
In issues relating to Guantanamo, state secrets, interrogation memos, and detainee photos, Obama said he is trying to achieve a balance between national security and transparency.