May 21, 2009 -- President Obama today strongly defended his administration's terrorism policies and his decision to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, saying the policies of his predecessor were based on fear ideology rather than sound strategic principles.
"We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability," Obama said at the National Archives in Washington.
"Too often, our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions," he said.
The president's comments did not go unchallenged, as former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke shortly afterward, offering a sharp rebuke to Obama's criticisms and the current administration's national security policy.
"The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism," Cheney said in a competing speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., immediately following Obama's speech. "But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed."
"I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program," Cheney added later in the speech. "The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do."
Obama gave a professorial explanation on why his administration needed to reverse the Bush Administration policies that "established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable."
In a speech that ran nearly 50 minutes, Obama laid out his case for ending so-called enhanced interrogation methods, closing the detention center Guantanamo Bay and moving detainees currently held there. He stressed that he inherited these complex legal and ethical questions from the previous administration.
"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 that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country," he said.
Obama Stands by Decision on Photos
Obama said the toughest issue facing his administration, and the one that is causing him headaches from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, concerns the detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted but also cannot be released because of the threat they pose.
The president did not lay out a specific plan for these terror suspects but said there must be "clear, defensible and lawful standards for those who fall in this category."
"We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified," he said.
The president defended his recent decision to not release photographs showing alleged abuse of detainees held by the U.S. because of the potential impact it would have on the American military.
"There is no debate as to whether what is reflected in those photos is wrong, and nothing has been concealed to absolve perpetrators of crimes. However, it was my judgment -- informed by my national security team -- that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion, and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, endangering them in theaters of war," he said.
Obama rejected calls for an independent "truth commission" that would look into a wide range of Bush administration national security decisions on the grounds that the nation's "existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability."
"The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws," he said.
Obama Puts Blame on Bush Administration
Obama repeatedly pointed the finger at the Bush administration for what he called "a series of hasty decisions" that, while "motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people," led to controversial policies on interrogation and detention of terrorists.
"Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford," he said.
He stressed that the problem of how to move forward with Guantanamo Bay detainees is not a result of his decision to close the facility, but rather the detention center's existence. Even the Supreme Court was not spared a rebuke from the president on this issue.
"The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents," he said.
Cheney Publicly Criticizes Obama Security Policies
Before Obama's words on counterterrorism policies were even able to sink in, Cheney launched into his competing speech, saying the president's policies are making the nation less safe.
Cheney recently has been Obama's harshest critic, and today he continued questioning the president's decisions and defending the policies of his predecessor.
"When President Obama makes wise decisions, he deserves our support. When he mischaracterizes the decisions we made, he deserves an answer." Cheney said. Among Obama's "wise decisions," according to Cheney: his approach to Afghanistan and his decision not to release the detainee abuse photos.
Cheney outlined the Bush administration's "broad strategic approach" behind the key anti-terror policies -- Guantanamo Bay, interrogation, wiretapping -- and argued it is dangerous to dismantle them.
It's not about looking backward, the former vice president said, it's about the best way to protect the country going forward.
"[T]hough I'm not here to speak for George W. Bush, I am certain that no one wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we do," he said. "We understand the complexities of national security decisions. We understand the pressures that confront a president and his advisers."
Cheney Continues Obama Rebuke
Over the last several weeks, Cheney has been on a fierce public campaign to discredit Obama's national security decisions.
"He is making some choices that, in my mind, will in fact raise the risk to the American people of another attack," Cheney said in March.
But Obama has not shied away from engaging with the former vice president.
"Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests," the president said in March.
On issue by issue, the two have squared off and spared no punches.
The president said the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay inflames anti-U.S. sentiment and is inconsistent with American values.
"We will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who have been held there," Obama said right after taking office in January.
Cheney said last week: "Guantanamo Bay is a great facility. It's very well run. These people are very well treated."
Addressing the enhanced interrogation tactics of the Bush administration, Obama last month, "What I've said -- and I will repeat -- is that waterboarding violated our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture."
"It was done legally. It was done in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles," he said.
But perhaps their core disagreement is the fundamental approach to national security.
"We are going to be able to effectively balance our national security needs with our civil liberties concerns," Obama said in March.
Cheney countered: "This is a war. It's not a law enforcement problem."
White House officials say they are happy to have someone as unpopular as former Cheney emerge as their primary opponent in this national security debate. But Republicans say the fact that Obama is delivering a comprehensive national security speech today is evidence that Cheney's criticisms are gaining traction.
Obama Dealt a Rebuke from Senate, Democrats
Obama is facing skepticism from more than just the former vice president.
Yesterday the United States Senate delivered a harsh rebuke to Obama with a 90-6 vote against the $80 million he requested to shut down that Guantanamo Bay prison.
The Senate's message was clear: do not close the Guantanamo detainee center until you have a plan of what to do with the detainees.
Gitmo Detainees to Supermax?
Nearly 540 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were transferred or released to foreign countries under President Bush. Now, 240 detainees remain, including those no other country has been willing to accept, ones the U.S. will eventually prosecute, and prisoners judged too dangerous to release, but the evidence against them would likely not withstand a trial.
The decision on what to do with the remaining prisoners is an especially complicated dilemma for Obama. Democrats and Republicans are promising a fight to keep the detainees not only out of the U.S. but even out of U.S. prisons.
When asked if he'd be comfortable with the prisoners being transferred to American prisons, Reid paused and said, "not in the United States."
Today Obama said that his administration will seek to transfer some detainees to "supermax" facilities in the United States, noting that nobody has ever escaped from one.
Obama is also considering sending roughly 100 detainees from Yemen to a rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia. At least 11 Guantanamo detainees sent there by the Bush administration, however, have graduated and have become involved again with terrorism, including al Qaeda's deputy leader in Yemen.
An internal Pentagon report indicates that 14 percent of the detainees released from the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay under President Bush -- 74 out of 540 -- returned to terrorism.
"In my view, these men are exactly where they belong, locked up and safe is a secure prison," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.