- Barack Obama - counter-terrorism - Guantanamo - USA
US President Barack Obama remains determined to close down the Cuba-based Guantanamo Bay prison camp despite recent controversy around the decision. In a much anticipated national security speech on Thursday, Obama vowed to persevere in his decision to definitely close the camp within a year, branding it a “misguided experiment” and a legal “mess” that violates fundamental constitutional principles.
“We must never, ever turn our back on enduring principles for expedience’s sake, not only because of what’s right, but because it keeps us safe”, Obama said, arguing that “so-called enhanced interrogation methods” and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo Bay stained the US image abroad, infringed fundamental US values and was a recruiting tool for al Qaeda. “These methods are not who we are, and they are not America”, he said.
Speaking at Washington DC’s National Archives, in the literal and metaphorical shadow of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Obama argued that “the costs of keeping Guantanamo open far exceed the complications involved in closing it”.
Transfers to ‘Supermax’ federal prisons
A day after the FBI issued a tough warning against bringing detainees onto US soil, the president raised the prospects of holding the most dangerous al Qaeda detainees indefinitely in US “Super-Max” federal prisons, dismissing claims they were not secure enough as “irrational”.
Obama sought to reassure Americans that Guantanamo’s closure would not jeopardize their safety, insisting that his government was “not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security”. “My single most important responsibility as US president is to keep the American people safe”, he stressed. He proceeded to outline the five categories of detainees currently held at Guantanamo, explaining that his administration was carefully reviewing each of the 240 cases individually to determine the best way of dealing with them.
The majority of inmates will be tried in US federal courts “whenever feasible”, and a minority will be “transferred safely to other countries” said Obama, dismissing concerns that the civilian courts aren’t “tough enough” to judge terrorists. Military commissions will try prisoners who “violate the laws of war”, he explained, denying that this stance represents a reversal of his earlier positions. “I always accepted military commissions provided there were several reforms to bring them in line with the rule of law”, he said. A fourth category of prisoners had already been ordered released by courts before Obama entered office. “I cannot ignore these rulings”, he said, blasting “hasty” Bush-era judgments which allowed certain Guantanamo inmates to “return to the battlefield.”
Bush decisions ‘based on fear rather than foresight’
The last type of prisoners pose the toughest challenge: “those who cannot be prosecuted (because evidence against them was obtained through torture, for example), but who pose a clear danger to U.S people”. Obama insisted his administration would never authorize the release of such individuals, and admitted there was “no easy solution”. “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.” He blasted previous government policies “too often based on fear rather than on foresight”.
Obama, however, rejected the idea, popular within his own circle of supporters, of setting up an independent “truth commission” to probe anti-terror abuses in the Bush era, arguing that “existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability”. He explained that he would push for more legal and legislative oversight of his own decisions, and that of the executive branch, during his term.
Cheney fights back
Within minutes of the Obama speech ending, former Vice President Dick Cheney hit back with his own highly public televised speech at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank. He defended the “strategic principles” that drove the previous administration’s policy, saying that “when President Obama makes wise decisions, he deserves our support, but when he mischaracterizes the decisions we made, he deserves an answer.”
Cheney defiantly stressed that he would make the same decisions again "without hesitation." "Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values, but no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things," he said. He defended the Bush administration's record on keeping the country safe since the 9/11 attacks. "After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized," he argued.