President Obama talks terrorism at the National Archives
In his much-anticipated speech on counter-terrorism issues, President Obama broke no new ground but offered a strong defense of his decisions to close Guantanamo, create a revised system of military tribunals to try some hard-core al Qaeda detainees, and transfer some detainees from Gitmo to highly secure prisons in the United States. He also took the opportunity presented by former Vice President Dick Cheney's delivering another speech on the same day castigating him for barring harsh interrogations to offer a tough defense of his actions.
However, there was nothing new in this speech. His principal aim seemed to be to push back against bi-partisan Congressional resistance to relocating any detainees to the U.S. no matter where they are housed, as well as opposition from the left of his own party to a renewal of military commissions in any form. If that resistence were to prove unrelenting, Obama's order to close Gitmo by next January would be impossible to fulfill. In my view, the speech was largely an effort to persuade Democrats and some Republicans to give him a chance to work out a system of tribunals that would try some detainees and land them in secure federal, prisons.
[T]he president promised to work with Congress to develop a safe and fair system for dealing with those Guantánamo detainees 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,” the President said.
“I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges,” Mr. Obama said. “Other countries have grappled with this question, and so must we. But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for Guantanamo detainees — not to avoid one. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man.”
Obama also confirmed that he will detain indefinitely some currently at Gitmo who cannot be tried and are too dangerous to release:
Finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo 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. We are going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.
These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.
As I said, I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture – like other prisoners of war – must be prevented from attacking us again.
A policy of indefinite detention will put him at odds with a large part of the left, whatever the legal justifications may be.
Of course, he blamed what he called the "mess" of Guantanamo on "hasty decesions" by his predecessor. Be that as it may, President Obama has found that he cannot close Gitmo without establishing much the same system of detention, sometimes indefinte, and trial by military tribunal somewhere else.
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