Obama To Defend Closing Guantanamo

In a speech at the National Archives on Thursday, President Obama will outline his plan for closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of course, the big question remains where those detainees would go. And we do know a little more this morning about what will happen to one detainee. An administration official says one al-Qaida suspect at Guantanamo will be sent to New York for trial. He was indicted for his alleged role in bombing U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

So that is the situation as President Obama speaks today at the National Archives. And for some analysis of that speech and a competing speech, NPR's Juan Williams is with us this morning. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are White House officials telling you about today's speech?

WILLIAMS: Well, they say they want the message to be that the president is transcending politics on national security. So the idea is that he will present himself as an intellect wrestling with a difficult problem.

His goal will be to come across as a reasoned, trustworthy moderator for a national debate on how a nation of laws - you know, going back to that setting at the National Archives that you described - how a nation of laws can set a framework or a range of options for dealing with terrorists that Americans can agree to before any crisis erupts - can agree to that should be available for all future presidents.

So, what you'll get today is no specifics, no more deadlines, no prescriptions, but the sense that there's a need for a national consensus and that he's wrestling with the issue.

INSKEEP: Unfortunately for the president, Juan, it seems there's a national consensus on what people don't want. The Senate voted 90-6 yesterday to say they do not want detainees to go to the United States if they go from Guantanamo to anywhere.

WILLIAMS: Right. Because the Senate Democrats, you know, they don't doubt President Obama's clout, his popularity, but they're worried about themselves and they're worried about possible Republican ads that say they've agreed to release terrorists in the United States.

You know, in the House already, Republicans have introduced a bill - this was two weeks ago, Steve - that was pointedly titled: Keeping Terrorists Out of the USA. So the Democrats are protecting themselves and keeping their votes away from the White House for now, waiting for President Obama to offer some specifics that won't come today, but some time down the road, for dealing with the 240 or so detainees still at Guantanamo Bay before they make any decisions about their own political - putting themselves at some political risk by backing the president.

INSKEEP: Any chance this camp could just remain open, as some Republicans now want?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know what? I think that there's a chance that the deadline that the president set will be undone. Yesterday, he was talking to one White House official. He used language like unwinding some of the decisions that had been made maybe hastily. So, for the moment, you know, the White House and President Obama, I think, know they've lost control of this conversation because they've opened lines of attack for conservatives, meanwhile just setting off alarms within their own party.

INSKEEP: Well, Juan, let me just ask you: When you talk about losing control of the conversation, the president is not the only person giving a speech today. At something close to the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney will be speaking in Washington on very similar issues, but with a very different viewpoint.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely, because what you get is Vice President Cheney at the Conservative American Enterprise Institute reiterating that his position that the U.S. is more vulnerable to terror because of decisions that the president has made on release of memos about detainees, you know, even the decision -initial decision was since reversed on releasing photographs.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR News analyst Juan Williams talking with us on this morning when President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney will both speak on the issue of detainees and national security.

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