Washington — President Barack Obama fought Thursday to retake command of the emotional debate over closing Guantanamo, denouncing “fear-mongering” by political opponents and insisting that maximum-security prisons in the U.S. can safely house dangerous terror suspects transferred from Cuba.
In a unique bit of Washington theater, Obama made his case moments before former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his own address defending the Bush administration’s creation of the prison camp as vigorously as the new president denounced it.
Obama, appearing at the National Archives with its immensely symbolic backdrop of the nation’s founding documents, said shutting down Guantanamo would “enlist our values” to make America safer. Speaking a day after an overwhelming congressional rebuke to his pledge to close the prison, he forcefully declared the camp a hindrance — not a help — to preventing future terrorist attacks. He contends that the prison, which has held hundreds of detainees for years without charges or trials, motivates U.S. enemies overseas.
The president promised to work with lawmakers to develop “an appropriate legal regime” for those who can’t be tried and are too dangerous to be released. Still, he did not provide the level of detail about his plans that lawmakers, including Democrats, demanded in a 90-6 Senate vote denying money for the shutdown on Wednesday.
Cheney, in his own speech, denounced some of Obama’s actions since taking office as “unwise in the extreme” and “recklessness cloaked in righteousness,” repeating his contention from a series of headline-grabbing appearances recently that the new president is endangering the country by turning aside Bush-era policies. The former vice president, a primary architect of the Bush approach, accused Obama of looking for “a political strategy, not a national security strategy.”
However, neither Cheney nor Obama brought significant new information to bear on the debate that has roiled Washington for weeks. Instead, each presented what amounted to lengthy — and dueling — summations of entrenched positions. Reaction afterward followed well-tilled ground as well, with no sign that Obama was winning the votes he will need to close the prison.
As Obama has made one decision after another on Bush-era terror-fighting tools, liberals have expressed dismay at what they view as a Democratic president acting much like his Republican predecessor.
They cite Obama’s moves to reverse himself and fight the court-ordered release of prisoner-abuse photos, to revive military tribunals for some terror suspects (although he is revamping how they would work), to oppose a truth commission to investigate past detainee treatment and to continue using in some cases Bush’s “state secrets” doctrine that claims unchecked presidential power to prevent information disclosure in court.
In his speech, Obama backed down from none of these positions, and defended them all. Human rights and civil liberties groups, given a personal preview of the speech by the president a day earlier, were not assuaged.
“The president wrapped himself in the Constitution and then proceeded to violate it,” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group.
On the other side, Obama has invited conservative criticism for banning harsh “enhanced” methods of interrogating terrorist suspects, for releasing memos detailing the techniques and the Bush administration’s legal justification for them, and for promising to close the Guantanamo Bay facility by next January.
Shutting down the Caribbean island prison, which has left the U.S. open to global condemnation since its inception and still holds 240 prisoners, is the most fraught — both logistically and politically.
Obama wants to release some of the prisoners to their home countries, send some who can’t be let go to other nations for detention, and try some either through military tribunals or in regular federal courts. He called a fifth category, an unspecified number who can neither be tried nor released, “the toughest issue we will face.”
Actually, each category poses significant problems.
Abroad, U.S. officials are having very minimal success persuading allies to take those deemed suitable for release, some 50 of the 240 by Obama’s count.
At home, politicians from both parties are balking at the idea of terror suspects — either those convicted in a judicial proceeding or those to be held indefinitely — being housed in their communities.
This has handed Republicans a rare point-scoring opportunity. They were even helped this week when FBI Director Robert Mueller said it would be risky to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities.