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“Bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal ‘supermax’ prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists,” he said.

The White House will have detainees transferred to third countries “when possible,” pending assurances that the detainee will not be mistreated. Mr. Obama said his administration has cleared 50 detainees so far for transfer to foreign countries.

He also said his administration is near the end of a review of the state secrets privilege, and plan to restrict its use, though the oversight measures he endorsed were self-contained within the executive branch and did not give Congress or the judicial branch any real power to restrict the privilege.

The president’s speech comes one day after the Senate voted 90-to-6 to strip $80 million for the closing of Guantanamo — a prison site in Cuba outside the reach of U.S. courts — out of a war funding bill, complicating Mr. Obama’s efforts to close the facility by next January.

And on Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers have grown increasingly uneasy with the idea of bringing detainees to the U.S., fearing that they will be held responsible if a terrorist is somehow released into U.S. territory and then carries out an attack on Americans.

Even as he lambasted the Bush administration for constructing “an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable” and for taking the country “off course,” Mr. Obama also said he had “no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years.”

He said he continues to oppose an independent commission that would investigate whether or not Bush administration officials broke the law in authorizing or designing their detention and interrogation policies.

“I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that 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.

And while he defended the motives of the Bush administration, he also criticized those who knew of what the government was doing but said or did nothing, in a subtle swipe at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has denied she knew waterboarding was being used even as the CIA has maintained she was briefed about the practice in the months following the 9/11 attacks.

“During this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists and citizens — fell silent,” Mr. Obama said.

Somewhat predictably, the president’s speech drew fire from both conservatives and liberals.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, criticized Mr. Obama for rushing forward with the closure of Guantanamo.

“Aside from a few members of Congress choosing to go against the will of their constituents, a bipartisan majority agrees that terrorists should not be brought to America’s shores,” he said. “Closing Guantanamo Bay is too complex an issue to rush to resolution in order to appease those outside the mainstream.”

But Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First, said the specific policies that Mr. Obama is pursuing fall short of the ideals he expressed.

“The president rightly recognized that our values are our best national security asset; however, his specific proposals undermine the vision he presented,” she said. “If the president really wants to ‘enlist the power of our fundamental values,’ he will turn to our federal courts and away from the flawed military commissions system, and he will abandon the misguided plans for indefinite detention of individuals without trial.”