Video: Obama tries to reframe Gitmo debate

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/21/2009 2:27:06 PM ET 2009-05-21T18:27:06

President Barack Obama forcefully defended his plans to close the Guantanamo detention camp Thursday and said some of the terror suspects held there would be brought to top-security prisons in the United States despite fierce opposition in Congress.

Across town, former Vice President Dick Cheney offered his own take on national security — boldly asserting that in the "fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground."

Obama spoke one day after the Senate voted resoundingly to deny him money to close the prison, and he decried "fear-mongering" that he said had led to such opposition.

He insisted the transfer would not endanger Americans and promised to work with lawmakers to develop a system for holding detainees who can't be tried and can't be turned loose from the Navy-run prison in Cuba.

"There are no neat or easy answers here," Obama said in a speech in which he pledged anew to clean up what he said was "quite simply a mess, a misguided experiment" at Guantanamo that he had inherited from the Bush administration.

Moments after Obama concluded, former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his own address defending the decisions of the Bush administration in dealing with terrorism.

Expressing no remorse for the actions the Bush White House had ordered, Cheney said under the same circumstances he would make the same decisions "without hesitation."

He denounced Obama's announcement on his second day in office that he would close Guantanamo. He said the decision came with "little deliberation and no plan."

Obama's Gitmo plan
Obama noted that roughly 500 detainees already had been released by the Bush administration. There are 240 at Guantanamo now. The president said that 50 of those had been cleared to be sent to other countries — although he did not identify which countries might be willing to take them.

Obama conceded that some Guantanamo detainees would end up in U.S. prisons and said those facilities were tough enough to house even the most dangerous inmates.

Obama decried arguments used against his plans.

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"We will be ill-served by the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue," he declared.

Speaking at the National Archives, Obama said he wouldn't do anything to endanger the American people.

He said opening and continuing the military prison "set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world."

Obama spoke in front of a copy of the Constitution, to members of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, diplomatic, policy and development officials and representatives of civil liberties groups.

"I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo," Obama said. "As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won't permit it. Our courts won't allow it. And neither should our conscience."

Video: Cheney: 'No middle ground' in war on terror Obama said his administration was in the process of studying each of the remaining Guantanamo detainees "to determine the appropriate policies for dealing with them."

"Nobody has ever escaped from one of our 'supermax' prisons which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," Obama said.

Obama used the speech as an effort to try to retake the initiative on the matter. He spoke a day after the Senate, led by majority Democrats, followed the lead of the House and voted decisively to deny his request for $80 million to close the prison.

Lawmakers said they would block the funds until he gave a more detailed accounting of what would happen to the detainees.

He provided some details in his speech but stopped short of offering specifics on what to do with detainees who won't be tried for war crimes but are likely to be held indefinitely.

He described this group as those "who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people."

"I want to be honest: This is the toughest issue we will face," Obama said.

He said his administration would "exhaust every avenue that we have" to prosecute detainees but there would still be some left "who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes" yet remain a threat.

Among these, he said, are prisoners who have expressed allegiance to Osama bin Laden "or otherwise made it clear they want to kill Americans."

"So going forward, my administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime" to handle such detainees "so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution."

Obama also defended his decision to try to block the court-ordered release of detainee abuse photos. "Release would inflame anti-American opinion" and threaten American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said. His decision against releasing the photos has been criticized by human-rights groups.

Obama had first suggested he would allow the photos to be released, but changed his mind after listening to advice from the military and intelligence advisers.

On another recent controversy, he defended his decision to release CIA interrogation memos, saying there was "no overriding reason to protect them." He said the interrogation methods, which included waterboarding, were already known — and that he had banned them.

Cheney on the attack
At the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Cheney praised Obama for two "wise" decisions — his handling of the war in Afghanistan and his decision to try to block the court-ordered release of detainee-abuse photos.

"He deserves our support" for such actions, Cheney said.

But, the former vice president said, the current administration's actions on Guantanamo and other steps in the war against terrorism "should not be based on slogans and campaign rhetoric, but on a truthful telling of history."

"Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago... I think the president will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come," said Cheney.

"In seeking to guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our administration gave intelligence officers the tools and lawful authority they needed to gain vital information," he added.

"Our government prevented attacks and saved lives through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which let us intercept calls and track contacts between al-Qaida operatives and persons inside the United States," he said.

"In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the worst of the terrorists. And in a few cases, that information could be gained only through tough interrogations... The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do," contended Cheney.

Video: Liz Cheney: 'Disappointed' with Obama speech "The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism... But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed," added the former vice president.

Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama's former White House challenger, issued a statement following the president's speech, saying, "Unfortunately, the Administration does not have specific plans to resolve major issues concerning the detainees. Consulting with Congress is a good start, but not a substitute for a comprehensive plan."

Looking back
Obama said he had no intention of looking back and "relitigating the policies" of the Bush administration.

But at the same time, he strongly criticized former President George W. Bush's actions. "Our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions," he said.

"In other words, we went off course."

The president again rejected the idea of an independent commission that would investigate the whole range of national security issues under the Bush administration.

"I recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the past. When it comes to the actions of the last eight years, some Americans are angry; others want to re-fight debates that have been settled, most clearly at the ballot box in November," Obama said.

But according to Cheney, "If Americans do get the chance to learn what our country was spared, it'll do more than clarify the urgency and the rightness of enhanced interrogations in the years after 9/11."

"For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history — not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them," he concluded.

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