Obama discusses secrecy during speech on Guantanamo

Friday, May 22, 2009

WASHINGTON — During a speech yesterday that focused on the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo, President Barack Obama said there was no “simple formula” for deciding when sensitive information should be disclosed.

But he vowed both to safeguard the information that's necessary to protect the American people, and to assure “accountability and oversight” of government actions.

Obama said past presidents may have overused the privilege allowing them to keep secret sensitive national security information.

He vowed to apply a “stricter legal test” to determine what material can be protected. And he said he would let Congress have oversight over his administration's use of the privilege.

Obama said he wouldn’t withhold information simply because it embarrassed the government. “I will never hide the truth because it is uncomfortable,” he said.

The president fought yesterday in his speech 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.

In a unique bit of Washington theater, former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his own address just one minute after Obama wrapped up his speech. The former vice president defended the Bush administration's creation of the prison camp at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba as vigorously as Obama 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.

Obama brought little new to his extended speech, but most deliberately appeared to be planting himself squarely in the middle ground between the conservatives behind Cheney and the critics on Obama's left who charge he has stopped short of a true defense of American legal protections.

“On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency,” Obama said in a pointed return of fire from those to his left.

“On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: 'anything goes,'” Obama said. “I've heard words that frankly are calculated to scare people rather than educate them. “

“We will be ill-served by the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue,” he said.

The counter-fire on Cheney, who was never mentioned by name, was clear: “Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the president should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants provided that it is a president with whom they agree.”

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 May 20 in a 90-6 Senate vote denying money for the shutdown.

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.

During his speech yesterday, Obama also defended his decision to oppose the release of photos showing abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. personnel.

Obama said he had an obligation to protect Americans who are serving in harm's way, and that the release of the photos would endanger them by inflaming anti-American opinion.

He also said those who are guilty of wrongdoing depicted in the photos have been held accountable, and that there is no dispute the conduct was wrong.

He concluded that there was no reason to release them — but there was a “clear and compelling reason” not to.

Obama said that wasn't the case with Bush administration memos that authorized controversial interrogation techniques. He said they allowed Americans to better understand how the methods came to be used — so Obama authorized the memos' release.

Last night the Senate voted to back Obama's efforts to ramp up the war in Afghanistan, granting his request for $91.3 billion for military and diplomatic operations there and in Iraq. Senators added several amendments to the bill, including one by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to block the release under the Freedom of Information Act of government photographs showing the abuse of detainees. The administration is fighting the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court over the release of the photos, and the move was intended to bolster the government's legal position.

The spending bill, approved on an 86-3 vote last night, goes to congressional negotiators to work out a compromise with a similar measure the House passed. Lawmakers expected to present a bill for Obama's signature next month.

The major difference in what Obama sought and what the Senate granted was the $80 million the president wanted for closing the Guantanamo prison camp.

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