President Barack Obama repeated his vow to shut down Guantanamo, saying he can protect Americans as well as their cherished values, but he had barely finished his speech before former Vice President Dick Cheney blasted back with a fierce rebuttal.
Obama said Thursday that America "lost its way" in the fight against terror, sacrificing long-held values by curtailing liberties and mistreating suspects with harsh interrogation techniques that he said do not work. The Cuba-based prison is a "mess" and a "misguided experiment" that illustrates the Bush Administration's failures, he said, undermining America's moral authority and becoming a rallying cry for enemies.
"We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe," said Obama, in a speech at the National Archives. "We have been the nation that shuts down torture chambers."
Minutes later, Cheney lashed out at the Obama Administration for "criminalizing" Bush-era efforts to combat terrorism, saying harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding had yielded valuable information and saved American lives. Cheney also defended Guantanamo, and alluded to the obstacles Obama has encountered in his effort to close the detention facility.
“The [Obama] administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo,” Cheney said. “But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security.”
The national security showdown was a rare faceoff between the past and current administrations, pitting deeply polarized views on how best to fight terrorism and handle terror suspects. But Obama had to defend himself against both ends of the political spectrum, as he has come under fire from some left-wing groups for refusing to end military tribunals and not releasing photos that may show prisoner abuse at Guantanamo.
Cheney, who has been the most vocal defender of the Bush Administration's terror-fighting policies, spoke shortly after Obama at the American Enterprise Institute, where reporters had watched the Obama speech as they waited for Cheney to take the podium. The ex-vice president defended waterboarding, which he said was done to three terror suspects, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and dismissed Obama's moderate tone as inadequate in the face of the terror threat.
“If liberals are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the President is on the path of sensible compromise,” Cheney said. “But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed.”
The former vice president said the fact no major terror plots on U.S. soil succeeded after 9/11 affirms the Bush policies, and that harsh interrogation techniques used during the Bush years were legal and effective and "made our country safer, no question."
The dueling speeches came a day after the Senate overwhelmingly denied Obama's request for $80 million to close the prison.
The 90-6 vote followed a similar move last week in the House threw into question a pledge Obama made on his second day in office: To close the prison within one year. Guantanamo, according to Obama, has become a "recruiting poster" for al-Qaida because prisoners were being held indefinitely without charges and some were subjected to "enhanced interrogation," including waterboarding — a simulated drowning technique that Obama has called torture.
The problem is what to do with the detainees. Efforts to get allies to take some have yielded disappointing results, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle don't want them brought onto U.S. soil and FBI Director Robert Mueller warned Congress Wednesday that even if confined, there is a risk that Guantanamo detainees could radicalize their cellmates if kept in U.S. prisons.
In fact, a terror ring broken up by the FBI on Wednesday in New York City involved four former convicts who became radical Muslims while serving time, according to authorities.
In Thursday's speech, Obama scoffed at claims terror suspects can't be held safely in U.S. prisons. He said his plan for Guantanamo detainees will vary according to circumstances. When feasible, suspects will be tried in U.S. courts, Obama said, adding that "our citizens are tough enough to convict terrorists." Military tribunals may be appropriate and necessary for detainees accused of violating the rules of war, he said.
In spite of lawmakers' concerns, the Obama administration plans to send a top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay to New York to stand trial for the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, an administration official said. The suspect, Ahmed Ghailani, would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
While Democrats have their own reasons for blocking Guantanamo's closure, Republicans see it as a further repudiation of former President Bush. But both parties have been retreating from an uproar in their districts over the possibility that terror suspects would be housed in local prisons. Efforts to persuade European and Muslim allies to take some of the detainees have gone almost nowhere.
France has accepted one prisoner, fulfilling a promise made when ABM attended a NATO summit in April, other European allies have refused or given nonspecific commitments.