Obama defends Guantanamo closings
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday argued that closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center is necessary for the safety and moral authority of America, saying the country “went off course” in its use of the facility over the last eight years.
In a speech at the National Archives beside displays of the U.S. Constitution, Obama said that he remains committed to closing the detention facilities by the end of the year, and acknowledged that it will mean transferring some of the prisoners to secure locations within the United States.
“Rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security,” he said. “It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries.
“By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it.”
Obama’s speech came amid growing criticism from Congress over specifics about how to deal with the complex legal status of the detainees. Many of them have been imprisoned in Cuba for years without charges.
Since 2001, about 780 detainees have been held at the Guantanamo facility; currently, 240 are held. About 100 are natives of Yemen, and the rest come from more than 20 foreign countries, according to Pentagon officials.
So far 24 detainees have been charged with crimes under the Military Commissions Act, and three have been convicted by military tribunals. Obama called that approach inefficient and flawed, and promised to use federal civilian courts to prosecute at least some of the men being detained.
“There are no neat or easy answers here,” he said. “But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo.”
Before Obama’s speech, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Ghailani will be sent to New York City for trial, making him the first from the prison to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
Ghailani, captured in 2004, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, which killed 224 people.
Obama said some detainees will be sent to foreign countries for trial and detention, while others will be transferred to secure U.S. prisons or simply released if they pose no threat to the country. He did not offer specifics of which countries or U.S. states might accept the prisoners. , but according to The Associated Press, he said 48 suspects currently held at Guantanamo are waiting to be released to other nations.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strip $80 million from the latest war supplemental budget, money that would have funded closing the controversial prison.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they needed more details on the plan before they’d fund the work, and they vehemently opposed plans to move prisoners to U.S. soil. Lawmakers did not promise any immediate reversal of that vote in light of Thursday’s speech.
Republican critics of the president’s plans noted that many of the detainees still pose a serious battlefield threat to U.S. troops, and that no detainees have escaped from the base in Cuba. On Thursday, Obama responded that likewise no one has ever escaped from federal Supermax prisons, which house both domestic and international terrorists.
Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called that an important check for lawmakers worried about housing the terrorism suspects within the United States.
“The president has been losing ground politically on this, so I think it was a smart move to address it head on,” he said. “He’s formulated a pretty sensible strategy here.”
Still, without information on where the prisoners might land — military bases in Kansas, California and Virginia have been rumored — the speech is unlikely to sway any critics, according to Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes.
“It’s an act to reassure anxious Democrats ... but we’re getting to the point of erosion of support in the absence of any details,” he said.
Defense officials said they have not begun any of the advance work needed to move the detainees or shut down the prison because of the Capitol Hill funding fight. No decisions have been made on what to do with the detention facilities after it’s shut down.
In his speech, Obama connected the closing of Guantanamo’s detention facilities with his executive order earlier this year to ban "enhanced interrogation techniques," blasting the Bush administration for shifting the country off its moral center in its effort to fight terrorism.
"After Sept. 11 ... our government made a series of hasty decisions," he said. "And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people.
"But I also believe that too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford."
Obama promised his administration will submit to more oversight of executive branch decisions by the Justice Department and Congress. That includes voluntary reports to Congress whenever the president invokes executive privilege to withhold sensitive information.
"We are indeed at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat," he said. "But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability."