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Obama says he’s undoing ‘mess’ left for him
President Obama on Thursday defended his counterterrorism policies from critics on the right by appealing to the nation’s founding values in a speech delivered in front of the Constitution that was by turns fiery, analytical and sober, and also defended his left flank by arguing he is not continuing President Bush’s policies as much as untangling a “mess” he inherited.
“Every now and then, there are those who think that America’s safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. And we hear such voices today,” Mr. Obama said, moments before Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a speech in a downtown building several blocks away that rebutted much of the president’s message.
Mr. Cheney answered with a no-holds-barred speech of his own, blasting protests over enhanced interrogation techniques, which some in the White House call torture and which the president has outlawed as “recklessness cloaked in righteousness.”
“In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists,” Mr. Cheney said, during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Obama, speaking in the National Archives where he was flanked by huge murals of the nation’s Founding Fathers, forcefully rejected the idea advanced by Mr. Cheney recently that enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding saved American lives.
“As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation,” he said. “We must leave these methods where they belong — in the past. They are not who we are. They are not America.”
But Mr. Obama also addressed liberal and human rights groups who have grown unhappy with Mr. Obama’s failure to outright reject the whole of Mr. Bush’s counterterrorism regime, coming on the heels of the president’s decision to restart the use of military commissions, a Bush-era construct that Mr. Obama initially froze upon entering office.
“In dealing with this situation, we don’t 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, almost-daily basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country,” he said.
One of the most controversial issues that Mr. Obama raised and appeared to endorse was the practice of “prolonged detention” for a class of detainees at Guantanamo Bay who “cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.”
“This is the toughest issue we will face,” he said. “We must have clear, defensible and lawful standards for those who fall in this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don’t make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.”
The human rights community immediately condemned this decision.
“Allowing detention without trial creates a dangerous loophole in our justice system that mimics the Bush administration’s abusive approach to fighting terrorism,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
The president explained that he will try as many of the 240 detainees in Guantanamo Bay in criminal courts as is “feasible,” and will only try detainees in military commissions only “when necessary.” But the government will have to house detainees in U.S. prisons or military facilities in order to do so, a prospect that has grown more politically radioactive on Capitol Hill by the day.
Mr. Obama said he understood that “the politics in Congress will be difficult” but expressed confidence in the ability of U.S. prisons to contain dangerous detainees.
“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.”
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