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The Meeting Before the Gitmo Speech

By Dan Froomkin
10:22 AM ET, 05/21/2009

Here's something to chew on while we listen to and digest the president's big speech: Obama and several top aides met yesterday at the White House with leaders of about a dozen human and civil rights organizations, as well as several law professors.

The money quote, it seems to me, came from Elisa Massimino, CEO of Human Rights First, in her interview with Sam Stein of Huffington Post:

On Gitmo, Massimino said, the President "emphasized that he was in this for the long game. He said he realized that you can't change people's misperceptions overnight, that they have had eight long years of a steady dose of fear and a lack of leadership and that is not something that you wave a magic wand and make it go away."

Stein also writes:

"Obama expressed frustration with Congress' decision to remove funding for the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. The president declared that his hands were tied in some ways regarding the use of reformed military tribunals, though he pledged to try as many detainees as possible in Article III federal courts....

"We talked a lot about the framework in which he is operating, and he talked about his strong desire to reestablish a system under which the executive is not exercising unfettered authority," said [Massimino]. "One of the chief differences between him and his predecessor was that he didn't think he ought to be making these decisions in an ad-hoc, unaccountable way. And so he said that, in thinking through this, he was focused on how his successor might operate."...

As for the criticism of Senate Republicans, who suggest that moving terrorism suspects to America would be tantamount to releasing them on the streets, Massimino recalled Obama's remarks as being relatively brief. He dismissed it, she said, "as really an unfounded fear that is being fanned by people who are seeking political advantage."

Overall, however, Massimino still registered concerns:

"I think that many of us were disappointed by the announcement about the military commissions and wondered what the reasoning was behind that. And to be honest, I am still wondering having been in this meeting today. I don't think that this fits the overall framework that the president had articulated about using our values to reinforce a counter terrorism strategy against al Qaeda."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post:

Several participants discussed the meeting on the condition of anonymity. One said Obama argued that there was no trade-off between American values and national security, but that GOP demagoguery in Congress was dominating the issue. Another said Obama seemed irritated that some of those who attended the meeting had recently compared his policies to those of Bush.

Anthony D. Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, who has used that comparison, declined to discuss what Obama said but in an interview after the meeting repeated the comparison.

"President Obama's decision to continue George Bush's policies essentially means that they become his own," Romero said. "And if he continues down this path, these policies will certainly become known in the history books as the Bush-Obama doctrine." Romero described the discussion as "freewheeling" and said Obama was "clearly deeply steeped in the issues. But he had little interest in revisiting his recent decisions."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times:

President Obama told human rights advocates at the White House on Wednesday that he was mulling the need for a "preventive detention" system that would establish a legal basis for the United States to incarcerate terrorism suspects who are deemed a threat to national security but cannot be tried, two participants in the private session said....

They said Mr. Obama told them he was thinking about "the long game" — how to establish a legal system that would endure for future presidents. He raised the issue of preventive detention himself, but made clear that he had not made a decision on it. Several senior White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on the outsiders’ accounts.

"He was almost ruminating over the need for statutory change to the laws so that we can deal with individuals who we can’t charge and detain," one participant said. "We’ve known this is on the horizon for many years, but we were able to hold it off with George Bush. The idea that we might find ourselves fighting with the Obama administration over these powers is really stunning."

The other participant said Mr. Obama did not seem to be thinking about preventive detention for terrorism suspects now held at Guantánamo Bay, but rather for those captured in the future, in settings other than a legitimate battlefield like Afghanistan. "The issue is," the participant said, "What are the options left open to a future president?"

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