Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama's Speech on War on Terror

President Barack Obama fiercely defended his anti-terrorism policies from critics on the right and left yesterday in a speech he delivered at the National Archives yesterday.

Mr. Obama's conservative critics claim he is exposing this country to another terrorist attack by forbidding CIA operatives from using "enhanced interrogation techniques" like water boarding, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and relocating some of those detainees in U.S. military and civilian prisons located on the mainland.

Liberal critics say he is betraying the core values he stood for while running for the White House since he is preserving the military tribunals and the indefinite detention policies adopted by his predecessor. They also fault President Barack Obama for his reluctance to prosecute those Bush administration officials who are responsible for the torture of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. military facilities abroad.

Mr. Obama's response against the conservatives was measured but forceful and passionate defense of our democratic values. "The documents that we hold in this very hall," the president said speaking before a larger-than-life copy of the United States Constitution, "-- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights ... ... 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 around the world."

"I've studied the Constitution as a student," the president continued. "I've taught it as a teacher, I've been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. 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."

Mr. Obama's attributed our constitutionally dubious practices to a "season of fear," that led many otherwise good and decent people (in his view) to make bad decisions. "I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people," the president said. But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions." And, perhaps alluding the troubles that are now haunting Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) he noted that our senators and Congressmen on Capitol Hill "fell silent"

That "season of fear" is still with us as we saw earlier this week when the Senate overwhelmingly voted to deny the president the funding needed to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told a reporter at a press conference that he was adamantly opposed to any plan that would relocate those detainees on American soil. "We have to release the prisoners," he said, before we can send them to prison. Senator Thune (R-South Dakota) said he didn't want any Al Qaeda terrorists roaming our streets, as if such detainees would be released into the American public at large once the detention facility is closed.

Mr. Obama calmly reminded his former colleagues on the hill that our prisons, particularly the maximum security prisons, hold dangerous criminals, including terrorists. To some of us the president was merely stating the obvious. "We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people," the president said. His colleagues' fears aren't just wrong, they are irrational. "Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists. As Republican Lindsey Graham said, the idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational."

Though he was no less forceful and calm in defending himself from his liberal critics. He defiantly rejected calls to prosecute those who engaged in torture, saying he didn't want to "rehash what was done." He forcefully and persuasively made the case for denying the public at large access to some torture photos. And he laid out a broad outline of what he plans to do with the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Some will be tried in civilian courts. Those who violated "the laws of war" will be tried before military commissions. Those whom the courts have ordered released will be transferred to their home countries or a third-party country willing to take them and an undisclosed number of detainees who cannot be tried but who nevertheless pose a risk will still be held at a detention facility indefinitely.

Mr. Obama's decision to uphold the military commission system and his predecessor's indefinite detention policy in general has exposed him to crticism from the left. The president says he and his advisers will establish a "legal framework" to help them determine whether a given prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay should be tried before a civil court of law, military commission, released, or held indefinitely at a war detention facility.

The details as of present remain murky at best. Mr. Obama must somehow find an objective means to determine which crimes are violations of "the laws of war" and which crimes are not since that ultimately would determine whether such prisoners are tried before a civil or military court. My reading of his description of the military tribunal and the successes at the civilian court level suggests whether to try a suspect before a civilian or military court on an ad hoc personal basis, dependent upon his ability to win in either court). I hope I'm wrong. Justice requires an unbiased "legal framework" as he describes it from which everything else follows.

Perhaps most vexing was his refusal to maintain his predecessor's indefinite detention program for those who cannot be released because their confessions or their testimony was coerced through illicit practices (like water boarding). The president, in effect, is telling us these people have to be punished and deprived of their day in court because we violated their human rights by extracting confessions and testimony from them. It also appears to contradict Mr. Obama's lofty rhetoric in defense of habeas corpus rights, the rule of law, the constitution, and the viability of our legal court system.

"Some have derided our federal courts as incapable of handling the trials of terrorists," Mr. Obama said. "They are wrong. Our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists. The record makes that clear."

Strong words. "Except when they aren't, he implicitly told us.

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