Obama Defends Guantanamo Policy

21 May 2009

US President Barack Obama delivers speech on closure of Guantanamo prison in Washington, 21 May 2009
US President Barack Obama delivers speech on closure of Guantanamo prison in Washington, 21 May 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama is defending his policy for the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the treatment of terror detainees. The president says his administration can close the prison, and keep America safe.

President Obama says he never had any doubts that closing Guantanamo would be difficult and complex.

"We are cleaning up something that is - quite simply - a mess," said President Obama.

No easy answers

He says there are no neat and easy answers, but he stresses something must be done.

"I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo," said Mr. Obama. "As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester."

Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo during his campaign for the White House, and he began the task of reversing the Bush administration's detainee policy immediately after taking office. He banned harsh interrogation techniques, and vowed to shutter the detention facility by 2010.

Senate votes no

But Wednesday, the U.S. Senate joined the House in refusing the president's request for $80 million to close Guantanamo, saying he must first come up with a concrete plan to deal with the remaining 240 detainees.

For the first time, members of Mr. Obama's own political party stood against him. By a lopsided margin, Democrats joined with opposition Republicans to send a message to the White House.

The president says Congress must put politics aside, and understand that America has the ability to handle detainee cases - from those easily transferred to civilian courts, to those considered a severe threat who for one reason or another cannot be prosecuted.

"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States that endanger the American people," he said.

He says there are maximum security prisons in the United States that hold convicted terrorists. And he vows to establish a valid legal framework for the continued detention of the most dangerous detainees.

Fear must not rule

Mr. Obama says he knows Congressional politics will make the task more difficult, and he predicts opponents will wage a campaign to scare the public. He says fear must not be permitted to rule the day.

"If we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes," said President Obama. "And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts [a big obstacle] to combat terrorism in the future."

The president spoke in the National Archives, which houses the nation's founding documents. He stood before a glass and wood case holding a copy of the United States Constitution, and talked about morality, rights and ethical standards.

He went into his decision to release Bush administration legal memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques, while refusing to make public old photographs of abuses on the grounds it might inflame anti-U.S. passions and put American troops in danger.

"The common thread that runs through all of my decisions is simple: we will safeguard what we must to protect the American people, but we will also ensure the accountability and oversight that is the hallmark of our constitutional system," said Mr. Obama.

Turning the page

The president stressed that America has turned a new page, and is forging a framework to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. He said it is time to move on, adding the nation will not be safe as long as national security is used as a wedge to divide America.

But just moments after he spoke the debate intensified, as former Vice President Dick Cheney took strong issue with the Obama administration's Guantanamo policy.

Former US Vice President Dick Cheney
Former US Vice President Dick Cheney
"The administration has found that it is easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo, but it is tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security," said Cheney.

Cheney, who has become one of the most prominent Republican critics of the Obama White House, said the Bush administration acted within legal guidelines to keep America safe after the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States. He said the harsh interrogation techniques used on a few detainees were legal, essential and justified.