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The Meeting Before the Gitmo Speech

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?"

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 21, 2009; 10:22 AM ET
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"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."

Actually, if he got Harry "I'm Scared, so I'm Tough and Serious" Reid and the rest of the Democratic Leadership to dismiss the Republicans as nothing more then fear mongers, and dismiss them consistantly for a few weeks, Mr. Obama would indeed succeed in waving a magic wand and making this go away.

Posted by: kcsphil | May 21, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

It's a tangled mess, involving different grades of detainees (depending on the quality of evidence and seriousness of their activities). It'll take a long time to untangle, and yes, I do think a new paradigm of justice, specifically to deal with terrorist conspiracy, is called for. And Obama certainly seems to take his responsibility of protecting the country seriously.

I suspect most of the Gitmo detainees will have to be tried in military tribunals. I just wonder to what extent Obama will be willing to go to war against his own party to accomplish it. Perhaps only after the health care bill is passed?

Posted by: whizbang9a | May 21, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Preventive detention? The Nixon administration was proposing this 40 years ago. There is nothing more contrary to our heritage and values than barring arrest absent probable cause to believe (1) that a crime has occurred and (2) that the arrestee is culpable for the crime.

Preventive detention should more accurately be labeled political detention.

There are ways to detain without preventive detention. Enemy aliens (and, shamefully, U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestryt) were detained and otherwise regulated during WWII.

So, I guess in light of Al Qaeda not being a nation we could say that any non-citizen who comes from a nation where Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group is known to be operating, or from any nation that funds terrorism, or from any nation that a known terrorist comes from, has the status of an enemy alien, and is thus subject to administrative internment in that capacity.

The irony of this approach is that by making a blanket classification of enemy aliens and rounding them all up regardless of their beliefs or their conduct, we'd be more faithful to the Constitution and the rule of law than if we singled out people for preventive detention because of what they said or what we thought they might do.

Another irony is that this approach would probably result in a population of internees that is about 90% Saudi. Pretty chilling, I'd say, when we know that we are dealing with only scores, hundreds at most, of terrorists who are training to do harm to US citizens and interests abroad or to attack the "homeland."

Another thing gives me pause. In his speech today the president used the term "torture" and also the term "enhanced interrogation methods," and repeated the Bush mantra that "the United States does not torture," by which he appears to be leaving himself some "wiggle room" with regard to the interrogation methods that will be employed in the name of the USA.

Finally, with regard to the detainees coming here from Guantanamo, let's not forget that during WWII almost 400,000 POWs from the Axis powers, plucked from the battlefields where about an equal number of GIs gave their lives, were housed in POW camps here, in most if not all of the then 48 states. Somehow, the nation survived.

(An irony there is that many of those POWs were sent to farms in the "Wheat Belt" to help bring in the harvest, replacing GIs (including my father) who were requisitioned to do teh same work before they were shipped overseas.)

So, don't try to scare me into thinking that we can't safely handle 250 detainees.

Posted by: bfieldk | May 21, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I concur.
Are we not the land of the free and home of the brave? Or the land of the fearful and home of cowards?

Dick Cheney bravely extolls cowardice and fear.

Posted by: boscobobb | May 21, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Cheney also insists wrongly that they picked up only the hardened terrorists for Guantanamo, and refuses to address the fact that torture was used for many objectives besides ostensibly discovering further plots against the US. He's also desperate for the US public to ignore how we outsourced torture to other countries--like the British national whose testicles were cut with knives in Morocco.

In other words, Cheney's speech today was more sophisticated bullying from a commonplace bully.

Posted by: whizbang9a | May 21, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

"And so he said that, in thinking through this, he was focused on how his successor might operate."...

I would suggest that his successor might bring transparency to the government, end "don't ask, don't tell", quit using the "state secrets" line to limit the courts, end preventive detention, close the Bagram prison, and try to not commit a war crime within 4 months of being sworn in.

Posted by: dickdata | May 21, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Darth and the American Taliban are in DEFCON 5 noisemaking mode because the gooey center of this scandal - that the Bush administration ordered torture to manufacture a case for invading Iraq - was briefly exposed for all to see last week. Massive distraction was their only hope, and they found a dual-purpose target in Pelosi: the base already hates her so it's easy to whip them into a frenzy, and her potential complicity is an insurance policy against investigations.

There is so much at stake for the GOP in making sure that the "tortured evidence" narrative quickly drains down the memory hole that I expect many more manufactured outrages will be floated through the media in the weeks to come. The Irrelevant Elephants have their backs against the ropes and they know the public would jettison them for (additional) decades if the Iraq link was confirmed to be manufactured by an investigation. Get ready for an even crazier Crazy Season in American politics!

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 21, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Dan, Thanks for reporting about last night's meeting; you're one of the few who did.

Have you heard which attendee told Obama (according to Michael Isikoff on last night's Rachel Maddow Show) that Obama " ... is allowing President Bush‘s policies to become his own."? Isikoff went on to say " ... that the president was demonstrably not pleased with that characterization ..."

Posted by: whenpigsfly | May 21, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

As an Obama supporter who often overreacts to any of his actions that are not the exact opposite of what Bush-Cheney did, I have to step back and think about not only the problems he inherited but the personnel of the Congress. How can he get the Senate moving with Harry Reid in charge? Please Democrats get a leader in the Senate! Reid makes Trent Lott look like a heavy weight.

Posted by: Barbara5 | May 21, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

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