Obama Seeks Help From Congress On Guantanamo
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Here in Washington today, the president and the former vice president laid out their visions on some of the central issues of our time. President Obama delivered a wide-ranging speech on national security. Mr. Obama argued the nation can be kept safe from terrorists while respecting all of its laws and values. Moments later, Dick Cheney stepped up to the mic at a nearby location. He accused the new president of recklessness cloaked in righteousness. We'll hear about Mr. Cheney's speech in a few minutes, first to the president and NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA: The White House billed this as a major speech by the president and with Mr. Obama up against serious challenges in Congress on how, when and even whether to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo, the stakes were high. The president opened by stating that even with the serious economic challenges the nation is facing...
BARACK OBAMA: My single most important responsibility as president is to keep the American people safe. It's the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning, it's the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.
GONYEA: He said that after 9/11, the focus for the U.S. shifted to the prevention of future attacks. But then Mr. Obama said that Bush administration too often based its decisions on fear rather than foresight, trimming facts and evidence to fit its agenda. His words echoed in the marble hall as he spoke at the National Archives, behind him under glass were the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, not so subtle symbolism for the president's message.
OBAMA: Now, let me be clear. We are indeed at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process, in checks and balances and accountability.
GONYEA: He restated that the U.S. will not torture prisoners. He said there will be no more of what the Bush administration called enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding which he called a losing proposition.
OBAMA: They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America.
GONYEA: Those techniques were used at Guantanamo which the president said again he would close by January of next year. He said Guantanamo has become a rallying cry for enemies of the U.S.,.
OBAMA: So the record's clear. Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security.
GONYEA: But this week the White House met overwhelming resistance to its plan to close the prison. The Senate, by a vote of 90 to six, rejected the funding the president wants for the shutdown. The debate featured talk of terrorists being transferred to U.S. prisons and of potentially dangerous detainees being released outright. The president noted that maximum security prisons in the U.S. already hold many terrorists and reminded his audience that the Supreme Court three years ago ordered up a new plan for Guantanamo detainees. The president said the debate in Congress had been more about fear mongering than finding a solution.
OBAMA: You can almost picture the direct mail pieces that emerge from any vote on this issue, designed to frighten the population. I get it. But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that there will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.
GONYEA: The president also defended his recent decisions to release legal memos on the use of certain interrogation techniques but not to release pictures of prisoners abused in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the focus of the speech was the notion that the nation will be safer for following its highest ideals.
OBAMA: Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies. And they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are, if we forge tough and durable approaches to fighting terrorism that are anchored in our timeless ideals. This must be our common purpose.
GONYEA: In closing, the president said no one can be certain there won't be another terrorist attack on America, but he promised to do all in his power to keep the nation safe.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.