President Obama on Thursday vigorously defended his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention site but said some terrorist suspects would be held indefinitely, setting up the prospect of a painstaking fight with Congress over relocating detainees to the United States and disappointing supporters critical of what they saw as a concession to Bush-era policies.
The announcement came midway through a 50-minute address, which kicked off a highly public and impassioned debate between Mr. Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney over how far the government should go to defend itself from terrorism - a back and forth that transfixed Washington and much of the nation.
In a speech that was by turns fiery, analytical and sober, the president sought to rally support for his counterterrorism policies by appealing to the nation’s constitutional ideals and rebuking the “fear-mongering” he said has crept into the debate.
“Every now and then, there are those who think that America’s safety and success require us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. And we hear such voices today,” Mr. Obama told a small audience at the National Archives while standing in front of the nation’s founding documents and next to enormous murals of the Founding Fathers.
“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,” he said, blaming the Bush administration for constructing “an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable.”
Immediately afterward, in a downtown building several blocks away, Mr. Cheney rebutted much of the president’s message. He blasted protests over the enhanced interrogation techniques he approved for use on a handful of detainees - procedures that some in the White House call torture and that the president has outlawed.
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“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, a conservative think tank.
Mr. Cheney characterized Mr. Obama’s ban on techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, as “recklessness cloaked in righteousness” and noted that Mr. Obama has “retained the power to order the same methods in the same circumstances” as they were used under the Bush administration.
But while Mr. Cheney pilloried the president for not going far enough to defend the country, liberal and human rights groups decried Mr. Obama for going forward with indefinite detention.
The president reiterated what he said in January about the prospect of indefinite detention even after Guantanamo is closed, saying that “there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.”
The evidence against them may either be classified or inadmissible in court - the president called it “tainted” - because it was obtained through coercion or harsh treatment.
Mr. Obama called on Congress to help him craft “a clear, defensible and lawful standards for those who fall in this category” and “a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.”
Human rights and liberal groups reacted angrily to the latest move that they interpret as Mr. Obama continuing Bush-era policies.
“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.
Mr. Obama argued that he is not continuing Mr. Bush’s policies as much as untangling a “mess” he inherited.
Despite this finger-pointing, Mr. Obama also said Mr. Bush and his top officials “were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people” and said he still opposes creating an independent commission that would investigate whether Bush administration officials broke the law in authorizing or designing their detention and interrogation policies.
Open-ended detention is just another politically toxic issue to pile on top of the administration’s plan to bring detainees to U.S. prison facilities. Top Democratic leaders have grown increasingly anxious in recent days about the idea of transferring detainees to U.S. soil, aware that if any are released and then carry out a terrorist attack they would reap a political whirlwind.
The Senate voted this week to deny $80 million requested by Mr. Obama to close Guantanamo by January, and Republicans have kept up the pressure, offering legislation to require a threat assessment for every one of the 240 detainees, which passed overwhelmingly, and another called the Keep Terrorists out of America Act, which would express congressional opposition to moving detainees into the United States and require that the federal government receive approval from governors and state legislatures if it did transfer them.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that “the politics in Congress will be difficult” when it comes to moving detainees to the United States and devising rules for indefinite detention, but denounced “fear-mongering” by those “words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them.”
He also expressed confidence in the ability of U.S. prisons to contain 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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, who opposes bringing detainees to the United States, said he was looking forward “to reviewing the details of the administration’s plan when it is released.”
The White House will have detainees transferred to other 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.
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 - another Bush administration construct resurrected by Mr. Obama this week - only “when necessary.”
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.
But it was the give and take with Mr. Cheney that made the day memorable and historically significant.
Mr. Cheney’s speech at the institute had been scheduled for a few weeks, and it appeared that the White House intentionally scheduled Mr. Obama’s speech so that it fell right before the former vice president’s. The White House has already in its four months handpicked conservative figures with low popularity ratings or who are repellent to moderates, such as radio-show host Rush Limbaugh, as foils for them to fight against publicly.
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