Obama outlines plans for Guantanamo detainees

McClatchy NewspapersMay 21, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress said Thursday that they weren't yet ready to endorse President Barack Obama's plan to bring some suspected terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the United States to stand trial, and to hold others in prison without trial indefinitely.

In a major national-security speech Thursday, Obama tried to convince Americans that he'll be tough on terrorists, but he failed to persuade lawmakers to give him the money to close the Guantanamo prison, and he deeply disappointed human rights groups, who heard a different message from the one last year from candidate Obama.

Obama said that while most detainees could be dealt with in civilian courts, military commissions or transfers to other countries, some probably couldn't be tried because the evidence against them was inadmissible in court, having been obtained through illegal methods.

Yet the president said that some of the detainees at Guantanamo still posed such an ongoing threat to Americans that they shouldn't be released, either, so he's prepared to hold such detainees indefinitely without trial.

"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people," he said.

He spoke from a podium in the room at the National Archives that houses the Constitution.

Obama didn't say how many detainees fall into this category, though some analysts have estimated that it could be 50 to 100 of Guantanamo's remaining 240 detainees.

Seeking to rebut Republican charges that he intends to bring terrorists into this country who'll pose a danger to U.S. citizens, the president used some form of the word "safe" 18 times in his speech.

Still, many Democratic lawmakers remain worried that if they support Obama's intention to hold trials for some detainees in the United States, voters will see the lawmakers as opening the door to allowing terrorists into their communities.

The Justice Department on Thursday announced the first such transfer of a Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, who's accused of being an al Qaida member involved in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. He's to be tried in a federal court in New York.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised Obama for offering a "broad vision," but he stood by the Senate's 90-6 vote a day earlier to block the $80 million that the president has requested to close Guantanamo.

Reid suggested that the speech wouldn't immediately change congressional Democrats' strategy on the issue, but that as the president provides more details about how the detainees will be handled, expected in July, lawmakers could be more receptive to his plan.

"Whatever happens with Guantanamo will happen in the next fiscal year," said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., saying "a lot of our members feel they are in a vulnerable position." The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said it would take at least several more weeks to convince lawmakers and the public to side with Obama.

Republican lawmakers continued their drumbeat.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio charged that Obama had "dismissed the concerns of the American people and a strong bipartisan majority in Congress about releasing these terrorists or importing them into our local communities."

In one of the most ambitious speeches of his presidency so far, the president sought in 49 minutes to extinguish an accumulation of competing criticisms from the right and left, saying he'll strike a balance that protects national security while restoring America's credibility as a nation that respects the rule of law.

"The existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained," Obama said. He noted that "nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists."

He also answered accusations of hypocrisy from the left over his use of the state secrets privilege, which former President George W. Bush used to shield government information about terrorism in lawsuits, and over Obama's refusal to release photos of detainee abuses.

The president said he wanted to tighten the limits on how the state secrets privilege could be invoked, but that the government must have some ability to do so.

As for the photos, he said, "I had to strike the right balance between transparency and national security. I have never argued, and I never will, that our most sensitive national-security matters should simply be an open book."

Obama's support of indefinite detentions, and his willingness to revive military commissions to try some detainees, angered human rights advocates.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that "allowing detention without trial creates a dangerous loophole in our justice system that mimics the Bush administration's abusive approach to fighting terrorism."

Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that the president had "wrapped himself in the Constitution and then proceeded to violate it by announcing he would send people before irredeemably flawed military commissions and seek to create a preventive detention scheme that only serves to move Guantanamo to a new location and give it a new name."

Obama said that his approach to these issues wasn't the same as Bush's. He said his military commissions wouldn't permit evidence obtained through cruel interrogations and would give detainees expanded rights, and that he'd always left open that possibility on the campaign trail.

As for the indefinite detentions, Obama said he'd "construct a legitimate legal framework" for such detainees.

He also sought to refute the notion that Bush was more committed than he is to protecting Americans from terrorists. Under Bush, he said, more than 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo and only three were convicted.

"The legal challenges that have sparked so much debate in recent weeks here in Washington would be taking place whether or not I decided to close Guantanamo," Obama insisted. "There are no neat or easy answers here . . . the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo."

The president also framed the decisions he's made so far in the context of "a mess" created by Bush.

As Obama spoke, former Vice President Dick Cheney was gearing up to criticize him in a speech nearby at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center. Cheney postponed his address while the crowd there watched Obama's speech on television.

Cheney said that Obama's decision to close Guantanamo had come "with little deliberation and no plan." Cheney, who's emerged as the most vocal Republican critic of Obama's national-security policies, accused the president of putting U.S. security at risk by releasing previously secret Bush administration memos on its abusive interrogation techniques, which he said "prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."

Cheney also accused Obama of deliberately withholding documents that Cheney claimed sustained his assertion that the use of abusive interrogation techniques provided information that averted terrorist attacks after 9-11.

Kirk S. Lippold, who commanded the USS Cole when al Qaida attacked it in 2000, said that blaming Bush "diminishes" Obama's credibility as a leader. Lippold, who's now a senior military fellow with the advocacy group Military Families United, also disagreed with Obama's plans.

"Detainees should not be tried in civilian courts with nearly the same protections as American citizens," Lippold said. "Releasing detainees to countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen will only serve to ensure that terrorists will be returned to the battlefield."

(Jonathan S. Landay, Nancy A. Youssef and Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.)

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