Obama Lays Out National Security Policies

President Obama laid out his plans for handling Guantanamo detainees Thursday. Some human rights groups say Obama's policies are too similar to those of the last administration. Conservative critics say the new administration is making Americans less safe.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now as dramatically as the two men differed yesterday, it was hard to miss a few similarities. President Obama says he is willing to hold dangerous suspects without trial, just like the last administration. The president is continuing the military commission system for reviewing the cases of the detainees, a system that the last administration drew fierce criticism for implementing.

And that helps to explain why some human rights groups are furious now. They suggest that not enough has really changed in the new administration. NPR's justice correspondent Ari Shapiro is following this story. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So what, if anything, is really different about the way that President Obama wants to hold people without charge when he thinks they're dangerous?

SHAPIRO: Well, he says he's making changes to what the Bush administration created by - for example, he says he will work with Congress to create a system for holding people that will have judicial oversight, Congressional oversight, regular periodic review to make sure people are not being held inappropriately for a very long time.

He said prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. And you contrast that with President Bush, who in the early days after 9/11, basically said we can keep people at Guantanamo forever with no judicial review. It's a different system, but human rights and civil liberties groups say it's not enough to tinker at the edges of this system. They say any system of indefinite detention without trial is anathema to the American justice system.

And there's a reason that President Obama called this the toughest issue we will face. Even if you can get support for this in theory from enough people to make it happen, the specifics of the program are going to be very, very difficult to get a consensus on.

INSKEEP: Now what about military trials rather than civilian trials for terrorism detainees? And that's significant because in a military trial, the rules of evidence are very different. It seems to be much easier to get somebody convicted. Is that system going to change at all?

SHAPIRO: Yes. And, again, this is an instance of a place where NGOs, groups that advocate human rights, civil liberties and privacy say military commissions are fundamentally flawed and we have to get rid of them. The Obama administration says military commissions as designed by the Bush administration were fundamentally flawed.

They say the answer is not to get rid of them all together. They say the answer is to make changes so that, for example, it's harder to admit coercive evidence, so that hearsay evidence is not as easy to use in these trials.

The administration says detainees will have more freedom to choose their lawyer in these commissions than they did under the Bush administration. But, again, you have groups saying those changes just aren't enough. You've got to get rid of these systems as a whole.

INSKEEP: They don't like just tweaks, is what you're saying.

SHAPIRO: Exactly, right.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about something else where some human rights groups would say that the administration is just tweaking rather than really changing, and it has to do with government secrecy.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. On the issue of state secrets, there have been several decisions from a court case about sending terrorism detainees overseas for torture to photographs of detainee abuse, where the Obama administration has said in the interest of national security, we need to keep this a secret. And groups that advocate government transparency say there just isn't enough of a compelling reason to do that.

Now, on the other side, you have decisions the Obama administration has made about, for example, declassifying memos authorizing harsh interrogations that create heartburn on the right, saying the Obama administration is making Americans less safe.

INSKEEP: One more bit of heartburn on the right: Vice President Cheney had said yesterday that the new administration is treating terrorism as a criminal problem rather than a war. Setting partisanship aside, is there some truth to that?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think both administrations used a mixed approach. You know, the Bush administration tried many terrorists in civilian criminal court. And Attorney General Eric Holder said he believes we were at war with al-Qaida before 9/11 and the battlefield…

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

SHAPIRO: …includes the United States.

So, you know, clearly there's a mixed approach on both sides. The question is where do you draw the line?

INSKEEP: Okay, Ari. I'll let you get the phone there. Thanks very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Have a good day.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's justice correspondent Ari Shapiro following up on yesterday's dueling speeches and more.

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