Obama insists on Guantanamo strategy
by Cory Golden
May 22, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama fought Thursday to retake command of the emotional debate over closing Guantanamo , denouncing "fear-mongering" by political opponents and insisting that maximum-security prisons in the U.S. can safely house dangerous terror suspects transferred from Cuba.
In a unique bit of Washington theater, Obama made his case moments before former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his own address defending the Bush administration's creation of the prison camp as vigorously as the new president denounced it.
Obama, appearing at the National Archives with its immensely symbolic backdrop of the nation's founding documents, said shutting down Guantanamo would "enlist our values" to make America safer. Speaking a day after an overwhelming congressional rebuke to his pledge to close the prison, he forcefully declared the camp a hindrance — not a help — to preventing future terrorist attacks. He contends that the prison, which has held hundreds of detainees for years without charges or trials, motivates U.S. enemies overseas.
The president promised to work with lawmakers to develop "an appropriate legal regime" for those who can't be tried and are too dangerous to be released. Still, he did not provide the level of detail about his plans that lawmakers, including Democrats, demanded in a 90-6 Senate vote denying money for the shutdown on Wednesday.
Cheney, in his own speech, denounced some of Obama 's actions since taking office as "unwise in the extreme" and "recklessness cloaked in righteousness," repeating his contention from a series of headline-grabbing appearances recently that the new president is endangering the country by turning aside Bush-era policies. The former vice president, a primary architect of the Bush approach, accused Obama of looking for "a political strategy, not a national security strategy."
However, neither Cheney nor Obama brought significant new information to bear on the debate that has roiled Washington for weeks. Instead, each presented what amounted to lengthy — and dueling — summations of entrenched positions. Reaction afterward followed well-tilled ground as well, with no sign that Obama was winning the votes he will need to close the prison.
Obama 's speech drew a mixed reaction from one close observer, Almerindo Ojeda , who directs the UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas.
Obama announced several positive steps, Ojeda said, but he said he felt most disappointed that the president has no plans to create an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate detainee treatment since Sept. 11, 2001. In March, Ojeda and 12 others, including retired military officers, human rights specialists, intelligence specialists, and attorneys who have represented detainees, called for just such an investigation.
"Without it, how can we tell whether that the abuses of the past are not being carried on into the future?" Ojeda said Thursday. "History is not a book whose pages we can turn without reading."
As Obama has made one decision after another on Bush-era terror-fighting tools, liberals have expressed dismay at what they view as a Democratic president acting much like his Republican predecessor.
They cite Obama 's moves to reverse himself and fight the court-ordered release of prisoner-abuse photos, to revive military tribunals for some terror suspects (although he is revamping how they would work), to oppose a truth commission to investigate past detainee treatment and to continue using in some cases Bush's "state secrets" doctrine that claims unchecked presidential power to prevent information disclosure in court.
In his speech, Obama backed down from none of these positions, and defended them all. Human rights and civil liberties groups, given a personal preview of the speech by the president a day earlier, were not assuaged.
"The president wrapped himself in the Constitution and then proceeded to violate it," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group.
On the other side, Obama has invited conservative criticism for banning harsh "enhanced" methods of interrogating terrorist suspects, for releasing memos detailing the techniques and the Bush administration's legal justification for them, and for promising to close the Guantanamo Bay facility by next January.
Shutting down the Caribbean island prison, which has left the U.S. open to global condemnation since its inception and still holds 240 prisoners, is the most fraught — both logistically and politically.
Obama wants to release some of the prisoners to their home countries, send some who can't be let go to other nations for detention, and try some either through military tribunals or in regular federal courts. He called a fifth category, an unspecified number who can neither be tried nor released, "the toughest issue we will face."
Actually, each category poses significant problems.
Abroad, U.S. officials are having very minimal success persuading allies to take those deemed suitable for release, some 50 of the 240 by Obama 's count.
At home, politicians from both parties are balking at the idea of terror suspects — either those convicted in a judicial proceeding or those to be held indefinitely — being housed in their communities.
This has handed Republicans a rare point-scoring opportunity. They were even helped this week when FBI Director Robert Mueller said it would be risky to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities. As a result, both the House and Senate now are on record against Obama 's request for $81 million to close Guantanamo without a detailed accounting of where the detainees will go.
The White House announced Thursday's speech last week shortly after news surfaced that Cheney was planning his. Aides scheduled it for the hour just before the former vice president's planned appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think thank.
The aim was to rebut Cheney's campaign with all the power of the presidency — not only Obama 's singular rhetorical skills but also the ability of any White House to apply nearly unlimited resources to event-staging.
But it also had the effect of elevating Cheney even more, to equal billing in television shows, Webcasts and newspapers.
In deliberate tones that echoed off the museum rotunda's high walls and marble floors for over 45 minutes, Obama said he was doing away with the "poorly planned, haphazard approach" under the Bush administration that has seen a portion of the 525 detainees released from Guantanamo return to the battlefield. To do so, his administration was studying each Guantanamo case one-by-one — "quite simply, a mess," he said.
But, the president added, "If we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future."
Republicans were not impressed.
"With all due respect to the president, what we need here is not a speech but a plan," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Obama acknowledged directly for the first time that some Guantanamo prisoners will end up in the U.S. under his plan. He argued it would be done safely. "Nobody has ever escaped from one of our 'supermax' prisons which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," he said.
Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said earlier in the week he would "never" allow Guantanamo prisoners to be released in the U.S., said without specifics that he is willing to work on a "responsible solution."
Obama chastised what he called "absolutist" critics on both sides who he said are more interested in scoring political points than finding solutions.
Some on the left, he said, "would almost never put national security over transparency." Some on the right, meanwhile, are an "anything goes" crowd. "I've heard words that frankly are calculated to scare people rather than educate them," Obama said.
"We will be ill-served by the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue," he declared.
Yet the president himself repeatedly criticized Bush, who he said "failed to use our values as a compass" in devising an anti-terror strategy.
"Too often, our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions," he said.
Cheney, meanwhile, praised Obama for two "wise" decisions — his handling of the war in Afghanistan and his decision on the prisoner-abuse photos. But he forcefully defended the Bush administration's interrogation program and other policies enacted in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Seven-and-a-half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned," Cheney said.