A Conversation With Obama Press Secretary Gibbs
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR news, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Today, the White House took on its critics on national security. In a lengthy speech, President Obama defended his anti-terrorism policies, as well as his plans for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite public misgivings and push-back from lawmakers, including some Democrats, the president stuck by his plan to close Guantanamo.
The White House effort to regain its footing in this debate falls squarely onto Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Late this afternoon, my co-host Michele Norris went to the White House to talk with Gibbs.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Well, we're glad that you made time for us today. It's a big news day at the White House.
ROBERT GIBBS: It is. Busy.
NORRIS: The president laying out his anti-terrorism vision today at the National Archives. Why did the White House feel that it had to go on the defensive?
GIBBS: Well, I think the president believed we have had, and this has been going on for many years now, debates and discussions in this country about how to make sure that we're keeping the citizens of our country safe, which is his very first job, and doing it in a way that upholds the values that we hold as individuals, and as a country and in the institutions that our country has created.
And I think this is something that, very uniquely, that President Obama can do, is frame a series of decisions and his thinking on a topic in a way that the American people understand what he's having to go through, what he's having to decide, why he's having to decide it. Some of these decisions anybody would have to make as president.
Because courts are deciding the legal rationale for them being held at Guantanamo doesn't meet the standards for evidence in our nation - that people can't be held because we don't have the evidence to hold them. So I think he wanted to use today to put a lot of these decisions and his thinking process into perspective for the American people.
NORRIS: Now, the president has pledged to close...
NORRIS: ...the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by January. The Senate this week voted to block the funding to close Guantanamo.
NORRIS: And they said that one of the reasons they did that is that they just didn't see enough details. Today we heard the president spell out a lot of ideas, but not a lot of details. Where are the specifics?
GIBBS: Well, the president signing the executive order, January 22nd, 2009, to close Guantanamo no later than a year from then, set up a process and stood up a series of task forces that are making the very decisions that the president outlined today.
First and foremost, we want a rigorous review of all of the cases currently at Guantanamo. Prosecutors are going through these individual cases with a fine- tooth comb in order to figure out how justice can best be served, whether it's through a reformed military commission, a decision that the president made and was announced last week, whether we can try somebody in a federal court, as we have others that have been charged with terrorism.
And as we go through this process, these cases will be evaluated, these decisions will be made. And we'll get a sense of who's there, who can be prosecuted, either in a military commission, who can be prosecuted in a federal court, who doesn't present a danger to the United States anymore. And sometimes, as I said, courts are determining that each and every day.
NORRIS: But what about those cases that cannot be tried...
NORRIS: ...either in the criminal courts or in the military tribunals, and yet cannot be released because they pose a threat to the U.S.? Those are the hard cases.
NORRIS: And that's what the senators are really - many of them are concerned about, including Democrats. And if you have a hard time convincing your friends...
NORRIS: ...members of your own party, how do you push the ball forward?
GIBBS: Well, what the president outlined today, and he agrees that Congress deserves a more detailed plan, that he wants to work with Congress and the courts to ensure that for those number of cases, as you mentioned - they can't be transferred, they can't be tried in a military commission or in a federal court - that there's a situation that might cause our need to institute preventive detention. You can't put these people back out.
So we're going to have to work with Congress and with the legal system to ensure, as the president said, that whatever delineation is made about preventive detention, it's done in conjunction with the law.
In a sense, the president laid out today that he's not the decider. He wants to ensure that Congress and the judicial system all play a role in collective decisions about how to keep this country safe. That somebody, as he said before, has to watch the watchers. And I think that's what he laid out today.
NORRIS: Now, you know former Vice President Dick Cheney also delivered...
NORRIS: ...an address today called Keeping America Safe, in which he had some very sharp comments about the president. How irked is the president as he listens to these darts from Dick Cheney?
GIBBS: Well, look, there obviously is a great disagreement. There's a disagreement with people that used to serve with Dick Cheney in his own administration. I think today's speech, to me, sounded as if the former vice president was continuing arguments that he's probably had in many of the same rooms that we're working in right now.
NORRIS: You mean here at the White House.
GIBBS: Right. One of the things the president talked about this morning was the last presidential election, both he and Senator McCain agreed that Guantanamo Bay needed to be closed.
NORRIS: The Democrat and the Republican.
GIBBS: The Democrat and Republican. The Democrat and Republican both agreed that it is not in the security interest of this country to torture. There's obviously a disagreement between our administration and the former vice president about whether or not we have to sacrifice who we are as a people in order to keep our people safe. The president and many in our party and even many Republicans believe you don't have to sacrifice your values to keep the country safe. The vice president believes, I think, something different.
NORRIS: There are, I guess, questions of political decorum and what you should or what you should say when you have left office, whether or not it is appropriate to constantly critique the administration that is now in office.
Has Vice President Cheney, former Vice President Cheney become an irritant for this administration? When you talk about policy, is he a consideration? Is that something that seeps into the walls here at the White House, the statements that you hear from him out and about?
GIBBS: No. The president is undertaking a series of decisions and policies that he believes will keep our country safe, keep its citizens safe, restore our image around the world, closing Guantanamo Bay. The reason that Republicans believe that we ought to close Guantanamo Bay is because it's created a stain on our image around the world and it's become a rallying cry and a recruitment tool for the very same people that wish to do us harm. That's why we have close Guantanamo Bay. That's why we have to change the way our foreign policy is conducted, not because it makes us feel good, but because it makes us safer day in and day out.
We're not worried about Vice President Cheney. Again, we understand that it appears as if he's having an argument with people that have also left public life. And the president would strongly agree that people have the right to disagree with him. But the president is convinced that many of these arguments were settled in the last election, and they chose a foreign policy that's different than the one that was conducted by the vice president.
NORRIS: Robert Gibbs, thank you very much.
GIBBS: Thank you.
NORRIS: We've been speaking to Robert Gibbs, press secretary at the White House.
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