“These are extraordinary times for our country,” said the President at his press conference on the disposition of Guantanamo Bay detainees. “So there’s no shortage of work to be done… But my single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe.”
The best way to do this, he said, was to close Gitmo, resettle the prisoners — in domestic prisons when appropriate — and follow policies and institute reforms that would preserve “a delicate balance” between security and transparency.
“We are only eight years removed from the deadliest attack on our soil,” he said, “and Al Qaeda is still at it. He says America is “taking the fight to” the terrorists, by upgrading intelligence, with a “reenergized a global non-rolfieration regime,” “renewed American diplomacy,” etc.
“But I believe with every fiber of my being,” he said, that “we cannot keep our country safe” unless we honor the values as expressed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
“We must never, ever turn our back on [their] enduring principles for expediency’s sake,” the President said, “not only because doing so is right, but because it keeps out country safe.” For example, American soldiers have surrendered to us in battle” because they knew they’d be fairly treated.
After 9/11 “we needed new tools” to prevent attacks rather than just reacting to them, he said. But America “made a series of hasty decisions,” which he believes were “motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people.”
But “all too often” the previous Administration set Constitutional principles aside as “luxuries that we could no longer afford,” and “Republicans and Democrats, journalists and citizens, fell silent. We went off course.”
He pointed out that both parties nominated candidates in 2008 that opposed torture and favored closing Guantanamo.
He described his approaches thus far: “First, I banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States of America.” (Applause.)
“I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more… I see the intelligence, and I categorically reject that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more they undermine the rule of law… they serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists… while decreasing the willingness of others to cooperate with us.. and make it more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured… that is why I ended them once and for all…
“I should add the arguments against these techniques did not originate from my Administration. He quoted John McCain, and said “Even under President Bush,” there were those who spoke against them, “including a Secretary of State… those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of history.”
His second decision was to “order the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.” (Applause.) “For over 78 tears we have detained nundreds of people at Guantanamo Bay. During that time, the system of military commissions that were in place… succeeded in convicting a grand total of three suspected terrorists.” Instead of “bringing terrorists to justice,” this system encountered “setback after setback” and over 500 detainees — two-thirds of those held — “were released before I took office.”
Also, Guantanamo “set back the moral authority” of the United States. “Part of the rationale” of Gitmo was the “misplaced notion” that a “prison there would be beyond the law, a decision that the Supreme Court firmly rejected.” And its existence “likely created more terrorists than it ever detained… rather than jeeeping us safer,” it has become a “rallying cry for our enemies.”
Third, Obama said he ordered a review of all pending cases at Gitmo. “I knew when I ordered it closed it would be difficult and complex… there are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo… We are cleaning something that is a mess.”
The courts ordered 17 Guantanamo detainees released “when George Bush was President,” and the Supreme Court that invalidated its authority was “overwhelmingly appointed by Republican presidents, not wild-eyed liberals… The problem was not the decison to close it, but the decision to open it in the first place.”
There are “no neat or easy answers,” but we can’t pretend “this problem will go away,” and “as President I refuse to allow this problem to fester… or to pass it on to somebody else. It is my responsibility to solve the problem.”
Obama recognized that there has been some “politicization” of the issue. As an elected official, he said, he understood. “But I have no interest,” he said, “in re-litigating the problems of the past eight years.”
And “we will be ill-served by the sort of fear-mongering… words calculated “more to scare people than to educate” that he has heard among the opposition.
So here’s what he said he’s doing:
“We are not going to release anyone if it were to endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United State if it would endanger the security of the American people”
He said remanded Gitmo prisoners would be going to “highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety.” He reminded hose who have complained about this that “nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal Supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of terrorists.” Fears that they cannot hold Guantanamo prisons, he said, are “not rational.”
He stipulated five categories action on detainees:
1. Whenever feasible, the U.S. will try these detainees in federal courts, “as provided for by the US Constitution.” He said he isn’t worried about jury trials — “Our citizens are tough enough to convict terrorists.”
2. Detainees who have violated the rules of war are “best tried by military commissions,” as they were in the time of George Washington. Such commissions “allow for protection of sensitive sources of intelligence gathering, and allow from the presentation of evidence from the battlefield that cannot be effectively presented in federal courts.” He denied that this is a reversal of his own policies, and inists that he has always supported military commissions if they were reformed — as he said his Administration is now doing.
3. As for those detainees “ordered released by the courts… the courts have spoken.” Of the 21 who have been released, 19 were set free before he was sworn into office. “I cannot ignore these ruling because as President I too am bound by the law.”
4. “Detainees who we have determined can be transferred safely to another country” will be thus remanded, and he is in “ongoing discussion with other countries” as to how to go about it.
5. Regarding detaines who “cannot be prosecuted but who cannot be released without severe danger to the American People,” he said that while his Administration will “exhaust every avenue we have” to get convictions, detainees with “extensive explosive training,” or those who were Al Qaeda commanders, or have expressed allegiance to bin Laden, he considers to be “at war with the United States… those that we capture, like other prisoners of war, must be prevented from attacking us again” — that is, indefinitely detained. “These detention policies cannot be unbounded, they cannot be based simply on what I and the executive branch decide alone.” But he wants “clear, defensible, and lawful standards” for these cases.
He expected his actions will be “fodder” for campaigns against him. “But if we continue to make decisions in a climate of fear,” he said, “we will continue to make mistakes,” which will become an “albatross” around the neck of national security.
He said he was seeking “a delicate balance” between security and transparency. He admitted that some information must remain classified, as with the movements of troops. He said he released the Bush torture documents because “the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known.. and I had already banned those methods”; therefore the argument that their release endangered the United States “makes no sense.”
He decided not to release the torture photos, however, because his advisors convinced him that this would “inflame anti-American opinion,” especially against our troops, “thereby endangering them in theaters of war,” which he found “a clear and compelling reason not to release these photos.”
As to those citizens who feel that the truth has “been withheld from them… I understand that. I ran for president on transparency, and I meant what I said.” But “I have never argued, and I never will, that our most sensitive national security matters should be an open book.” He added that “whenever we cannot release certain information to the public… I will insist that there is sufficient oversight of my actions, by Congress or by the courts.” He won’t assert state secrets privileges in court “without review by a Justice committee and the Attorney General.”
He insisted “I will never hide the truth because it’s uncomfortable… I will tell the American people what I know and don’t know… and when I release something or keep it secret, I will tell you why.”
As is his wont, he tried to split the difference between his opponents on the right and on the left. “I understand,” he said, “that many have a strong desire to focus on the past” and “refight debates that have been settled — in many cases, debates that they have lost.” He opposes setting up commissions dedicated to exploring the Bush Administration’s malfeasances: “Our existing instituions” — Congress, Justice, the courts — can handle “any miscarriages of justice.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 21, 2009