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The Highs and Lows of Obama's Big Speech

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 05/21/2009


Obama at the Archives today. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama's rousing speech on national security today served as an important reminder of how far the country strayed after 9/11 from its core values and how important it is for us to return to them.

His voice echoing in the rotunda of the National Archives, the U.S. Constitution behind him, the Declaration of Independence to his right and the Bill of Rights to his left, Obama made the case that the Bush administration's ad hoc approach to the war on terror now must be laboriously undone and brought under the rule of law -- for the sake of both our enduring principles and our national security.

He explained how the use of torture and the establishment of a prison intended to be beyond the law had hurt us much more than they had helped us.

He rejected the notion that he was continuing the unilateral, absolutist policies of his predecessor. And he actually made some news by announcing new steps he is taking to increase oversight by the courts and Congress in even the most sensitive areas of government.

In a speech that he said was made necessary by all the recent fearmongering and political posturing in the national security debate, he called on members of Congress to put aside their unseemly terror of attack ads and show some spine instead. (Yesterday, the Democratic-majority Senate, by a 90-6 vote, rejected Obama's request for funds to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay, citing concerns about detainee transfers to the U.S.)

Obama spoke of the need to set up a legal framework for detainees and interrogation that rather than reflecting expediency or ideology will stand up for years to come. And he expressed his hope that national security would cease to be a wedge issue, and once again be a cause that unites us all.

But in some parts of his speech, Obama appeared to be defending actions and even taking positions that didn't live up to his own professed standards.

When it came to what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo, he declared that he would work to create a system that would enable the indefinite detention without trial for a limited number of people whom the government is unable to prosecute for past crimes, but whom are nevertheless considered to be threats to the country. Even though he spoke of establishing lawful standards and periodic reviews, that's a dangerously extreme policy proposal. He once again expressed his intention to use a reformed military commission process for some detainees -- but gave no reason to think it won't run into many of the same legal challenges that Bush's process did. He spoke of sending many detainees to face trial in federal courts -- but then promised that no one would be released who endangers our national security. The whole point of a fair judicial system is that the executive can't guarantee the results.

Obama spoke passionately about his commitment to transparency, but offered up the same lousy and unpersuasive excuses he did last week for his decision to fight the court-ordered release of more photos of prison abuse. In particular, the weight he put on his responsibility not to release information that would inflame our enemies was deeply disturbing.

He offered no additional clarity regarding his position on the state secrets doctrine, where his lofty promises still stand in dramatic conflict with what his administration is actually doing.

And in continuing to oppose the creation of an independent commission that would fully investigate the abuses of the Bush administration, he marginalized those of us who want to find out what happened as polarizers, much like those who continue to doggedly defend Bush policies. He said the recent debate has obscured the truth -- when all we want is to let it free.

Here is the transcript of Obama's speech.

On the big picture:

"I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we ... cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we hold in this very hall - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights - are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world...

"I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never - ever - turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake. I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval."

On how fidelity to our values has served us well in the past:

"It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government.

"It is the reason why America has benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries.

"It is the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free people everywhere in common cause and common effort.

"From Europe to the Pacific, we have been a nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology."

On how things went terribly wrong after 9/11:

"Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, that all too our government often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us - Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens - fell silent.

"In other words, we went off course. And this is not my assessment alone. It was an assessment that was shared by the American people, who nominated candidates for President from both major parties who, despite our many differences, called for a new approach - one that rejected torture, and recognized the imperative of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay....

"The decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable - a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions; that failed to use our values as a compass."

An important reminder of what's wrong with torture:

"I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. 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. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts - they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all."

And a reminder of what's wrong with Guantanamo:

"There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law. Indeed, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law - a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

"So the record is clear: rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That is why I argued that it should be closed throughout my campaign. And that is why I ordered it closed within one year."

On the mess he inherited:

"In dealing with this situation, we do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. We are cleaning up something that is - quite simply - a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country....

"In other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place.

"There are no neat or easy answers here. But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo."

On the current political climate:

"Now, over the last several weeks, we have seen a return of the politicization of these issues that have characterized the last several years. I'm an elected official, I understand that these problems arouse passions and concerns. They should. We are confronting some of the most complicated questions that a democracy can face. But I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years. I want to solve these problems, and I want to solve them together as Americans. And we will be ill-served by the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country."

And again later:

"Now, as our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult. These are issues that are fodder for 30-second commercials. 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 they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.
I have confidence that the American people are more interested in doing what is right to protect this country than in political posturing. I am not the only person in this city who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution; so did each and every member of Congress. And together we have a responsibility to enlist our values in the effort to secure our people, and to leave behind the legacy that makes it easier for future presidents to keep this country safe."

On the notion that terrorists can't be safely held in American prisons:

"Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders - highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety.
As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact. Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal Supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists. As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, the idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees, within the United States, is not rational."

On how, when it comes to transparency, even though he keeps some things secret, he's not like Bush. Includes his big news:

"Here's the difference....: whenever we cannot release certain information to the public for valid national security reasons, I will insist that there is oversight of my actions - by Congress or by the courts. We are launching a review of current policies by all of those agencies responsible for the classification of documents to determine where reforms are possible, and to assure that the other branches of government will be in a position to review executive branch decisions on these matters. Because in our system of checks and balances, someone must always watch over the watchers - especially when it comes to sensitive information."

On his general approach to transparency:

"[T]he common thread that runs through all of my decisions is simple: we will safeguard what we must to protect the American people, but we will also ensure the accountability and oversight that is the hallmark of our constitutional system. I will never hide the truth because it is uncomfortable. I will deal with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of government. I will tell the American people what I know and don't know, and when I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why."

On how he's really, really not like Bush:

"In all of the areas that I have discussed today, the policies that I have proposed represent a new direction from the last eight years. To protect the American people and our values, we have banned enhanced interrogation techniques. We are closing the prison at Guantanamo. We are reforming Military Commissions, and we will pursue a new legal regime to detain terrorists. We are declassifying more information and embracing more oversight of our actions, and narrowing our use of the State Secrets privilege. These are dramatic changes that will put our approach to national security on a surer, safer and more sustainable footing. Their implementation will take time, but they will get done.

"There is a core principle that we will apply to all of our actions: even as we clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly re-evaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from the other branches of government, as well as the public. We seek the strongest and most sustainable legal framework for addressing these issues in the long-term. Not to serve immediate politics, but to do what's right in the long term. By doing that, we can leave behind a legacy that outlasts my Administration, and that endures for the next President and the President after that; a legacy that protects the American people, and enjoys broad legitimacy at home and abroad."

On how those nutty people who want to find out what really happened are really only interested in finger-pointing, and are just as bad as the Bush dead-enders:

"It's no secret that there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And it's no secret that our media culture feeds the impulse that lead to a good fight and good copy. But nothing will contribute more than that than an extended relitigation of the last eight years. Already we've seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different sides to laying blame. It can distract us from focusing our time, our efforts and our politics on the challenges of the future.

"We see that above all in the recent debate -- how the recent debate has obscured the truth and sent people into opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism and would almost never put national security over transparency. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: 'Anything goes.' 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 it is a president with whom they agree.

"And both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right. The American people are not absolutist, and they don't elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems."

On Cheney (OK, not by name):

"Every now and then, there are those who think that America's safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. And we hear such voices today. But the American people have resisted that temptation. And though we have made our share of mistakes and course corrections, we have held fast to the principles that have been the source of our strength, and a beacon to the world."

On killing al Qaeda, and coming together as a nation:

"And I do know with certainty that we can and will defeat al Qaeda. 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. I ran for President because I believe that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together. We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America - it can and must be a cause that unites us as one people, as one nation."

In an astonishing bit of political theater, the cable networks cut away right after Obama's speech to show former vice president Cheney, the ultimate torture dead-ender, launching into his own speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Here is his prepared text. I'll have more on that tomorrow, but I can't imagine he said anything new. So read this and this and this for background.

Meanwhile, in other national security news, Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "An unreleased Pentagon report concludes that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials.

"The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against the transfer or release of any more detainees as part of President Obama's plan to shut down the prison by January."

But, as Bumiller writes: "The Pentagon has provided no way of authenticating its 45 unnamed recidivists, and only a few of the 29 people identified by name can be independently verified as having engaged in terrorism since their release. Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.

"'It's part of a campaign to win the hearts and minds of history for Guantánamo,' said Mark P. Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has represented Guantánamo detainees and co-written three studies highly critical of the Pentagon's previous recidivism reports. 'They want to be able to claim there really were bad people there.'"

Devlin Barrett writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration is pressing ahead with its plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, deciding to put a 'high value' detainee on trial in New York City despite resistance from some in Congress.

"Attorney General Eric Holder announced early Thursday that Ahmed Ghailani will be sent to New York City for trial, which would make him the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court."

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