Obama to wait on Gitmo closure

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President-elect Barack Obama said Sunday that some of his campaign promises will have to wait - domestic-policy changes may be on hold because of the dire economic situation, and legal and national security concerns have postponed his promised closure of Guantanamo Bay.

In an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that aired Sunday, Mr. Obama said he has come to realize that his pledge to close the federal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within his first 100 days in office won’t happen that soon.

When he was campaigning for the presidency, Mr. Obama regularly said the prison “sends a negative message to the world” and taints even trade-deal negotiations.

“To the extent that we are not being true to our values and our ideals, that sends a negative message to the world, and it gives us less leverage then when we want to deal with countries that are abusing human rights,” he said during a primary-season debate in Iowa in December 2007.

Guantanamo faded as an issue during the general election campaign because the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also wanted to close the facility.

But after Mr. Obama won the presidency, his transition co-chairman, John Podesta, said Nov. 11 that closing Guantanamo was “under review” and nothing definitive could be said because the situation is “complicated.”

On Sunday, Mr. Obama said that closing Guantanamo Bay was a challenge.

“We are going to get it done, but part of the challenge that you have is that you have got a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom may be very dangerous, who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication,” he said.

He said his legal and national security teams strive to balance creating a fair legal process that “doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.”

“I don’t want to be ambiguous about this,” Mr. Obama said Sunday. “We are going to close Guantanamo, and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our Constitution. That is not only the right thing to do but it actually has to be part of our broader national security strategy, because we will send a message to the world that we are serious about our values.”

In the wide-ranging ABC interview, Mr. Obama also said he would take a piece of advice from outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney: that he will not commit to changing interrogation practices until he has all of the information that the current administration holds.

“I’m not going to lay out a particular program because, again, I thought that Dick Cheney’s advice was good, which is that let’s make sure we know everything that’s being done,” Mr. Obama said.

He was responding to the vice president’s warning in a recent CBS Radio interview that “before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric, you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it” to keep the nation safe.

But Mr. Obama said he disagrees with the vice president and thinks that waterboarding is torture.

The most popular question on the Obama transition team’s Web site is whether he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping conducted by the Bush administration.

The transition team did not answer the question, and Mr. Obama on Sunday would not say firmly what he plans to do, in part because he doesn’t want CIA officials or others worrying about “looking over their shoulders” and legal action.

“We’re still evaluating how we are going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions and so forth,” he said. “When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

The president-elect, in the discussion with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, also stressed that he would take a “new approach” with Iran, but he declined to go into detail about foreign policy, despite the turmoil in the Middle East, until he is sworn in.

The economy dominated the discussion, as Mr. Obama attempted to sell his proposed economic stimulus package as “bold,” warned repeatedly that “tough” choices will have to be made, and insisted that Congress must pass the plan by mid-February.

Mr. Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Obama whether he is seeking “some kind of a grand bargain” that includes tax reform, health care reform and entitlement reform. Mr. Obama agreed when Mr. Stephanopoulos asked whether he wanted Americans to know that “everybody … is going to have to sacrifice something, accept change for the greater good.”

“Everybody is going to have to give. Everybody is going to have to have some skin in the game,” Mr. Obama said during the interview, taped Saturday in Washington.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, who worked in the Clinton White House, asked which campaign promises Mr. Obama will be forced to cut as a result of the grim economic situation.

“I want to be realistic here: Not everything that we talked about during the campaign are we going to be able to do on the pace that we had hoped,” he said.

Mr. Stephanopoulos also pressed Mr. Obama on earmarks, since one of the proposals for his stimulus package is a construction project that would build the Museum of Organized Crime in Las Vegas. It would create jobs but would smack of the special earmarks that Mr. Obama said would not be inserted into his plan.

Mr. Obama said the museum was proposed by the nation’s mayors and not by his team, and he would not say whether or not he would fund it.

“What we have to do is evaluate whether or not these are projects that, as I said, are going to provide long-term benefits to the economy,” he said.

He said there “certainly” will be projects that don’t fall into his top criterion of health care, energy or education, but that those are his priorities and he does not want the package loaded with pet projects.

Mr. Obama lauded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, for saying recently that she would keep Congress in session rather than adjourning for the Presidents Day recess if the package is not complete by then.

“Congress exercises all sorts of prerogatives. They’ve got all sorts of procedures. Everybody wants to be heard,” he said. “I’m respectful of that. … One of the things that we’re trying to set a tone of is that, you know, Congress is a co-equal branch of government. We’re not trying to jam anything down people’s throats.”

He urged patience, saying: “I think we can fix it. But it’s going to take some time.”

The ABC interview followed Mr. Obama’s weekly radio address on Saturday, in which he increased the figures for his stimulus plan, saying it could save or create between 3.3 million and 4.1 million jobs, a jump of more than 1 million from his previous estimate.

The president-elect’s week ahead will be busy.

On Monday, Mr. Obama will meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The majority of his Cabinet picks face confirmation hearings this week in the Senate.

Mr. Obama said he is confident his attorney-general nominee, Eric Holder, will be confirmed despite expected resistance from Senate Republicans. He noted that Mr. Holder has said his role in President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich was a mistake, and he insisted no one is more qualified.

“This is a man of unimpeachable integrity. I have every confidence that he will be confirmed,” he said.

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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