WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday some terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo would be sent to U.S. prisons despite strong congressional opposition, as he defended his plan to close the internationally condemned detention center.
In an extraordinary counterpoint to Obama’s speech, former Vice President Dick Cheney said the president’s reversals of Bush-era detainee policy amounted to “recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe.”
Obama made his case a day after the U.S. Senate, controlled by fellow Democrats, handed him a stinging setback by blocking funds to shutter the prison until he presents a detailed plan on what to do with the 240 terrorism suspects held there.
“This is the toughest issue we will face,” Obama declared in a 50-minute address at the National Archives where he said he had inherited a legal “mess” from the Bush administration that had hurt America’s moral standing in the world.
Obama used a forceful defense of his revamped terrorism policies to try to wrest back control of the debate that has gripped Washington and threatens to divert his attention from his declared top priority of rescuing the ailing U.S. economy.
Obama, who succeeded Republican George W. Bush on January 20, had vowed in his first days in office to close the detention center, located at a U.S. Naval base in Cuba, within a year as part of his effort to repair America’s tarnished image abroad.
His public approval rating remains high, but implementing a revamped approach on detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects has proved more difficult than his aides expected.
Seeking to calm fears that some detainees could eventually be released on U.S. soil, Obama insisted he would not authorize freeing anyone who would “endanger the American people”.
But he said some terrorism suspects would be tried in U.S. courts and would be held in super-maximum-security U.S. prisons while others could be tried by military commissions or transferred to other countries.
His speech, however, contained few concrete specifics and may not fully satisfy Democrats in Congress who have demanded a detailed plan on closing Guantanamo before they give him the necessary money to do it.
Obama stressed that his policies were based on the rule of law and represented a sharp break with those of Bush, which he said had undercut rather than strengthened America’s stature.
“We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe,” Obama said.
Decrying what he called “fear-mongering” on the issue, Obama said, “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”.
Human rights and civil liberties groups lauded Obama for his commitment to the rule of law but criticized the continued detention of terrorism suspects without trial.
Creating the impression of a showdown via dueling televised speeches, Cheney, an architect of Bush’s detainee policy, spoke at a thinktank in Washington just after the president finished his address.
“The administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security,” Cheney said.
Obama accused the Bush administration of having “failed to use our values as a compass” when it crafted detention and interrogation policies after the September 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks on the United States, and said his administration now had to clean up the problems left behind.
He renewed his commitment to a January 2010 deadline for closing the Guantanamo prison, which opened in 2002 as part of Bush’s war on terrorism that followed the September 11 attacks.
The prison has long been the target of criticism by human rights groups and many foreign governments, which accused the Bush administration of condoning torture of inmates held there. In the later years of his tenure, Bush had said that he wanted to close the facility but did little to advance that goal.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has opposed closing the prison, was unmoved by Obama’s arguments, saying, “No one has escaped from there.”
An unreleased Pentagon report concludes that one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from Guantanamo has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials cited by the New York Times.
In a reminder of the security jitters that have periodically shaken the country since the September 11 attacks, authorities said on Wednesday they had foiled a plot to blow up two New York synagogues and shoot down military planes.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the four men arrested in the suspected plot all had criminal records and had no known links to al Qaeda.
Illustrating the problems Obama faces on the Guantanamo issue, fellow Democrats in the Senate rebelled against him and voted down his $80 million funding request on Wednesday after Republicans threatened to brand them as soft on terrorism.
While most Democrats agree Guantanamo should be closed, they are demanding a detailed plan before approving funds to launch the process. If the money is not released soon, it could be difficult for Obama to meet his deadline for decommissioning the prison.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Doug Palmer, Steve Holland and Jeremy Pelofsky)
Editing by Frances Kerry