President Obama began speaking at 10:28 a.m., 18 minutes late, and spoke until 35 minutes after Cheney's scheduled start, but Cheney delayed and began at 11:20. Obama had scheduled his own speech to coincide with Cheney's, no doubt to defend against some of Cheney's statements, but also probably because of the politically advantageous contrast with someone so very unpopular and someone always advocating greater illegality and abusiveness.
Obama began by talking about keeping Americans safe from an extremist ideology, 9-11, and al Qaeda (which he said, based on what I know not, was "actively plotting to attack us again"). He depicted war in Afghanistan and Pakistan as revenge: "taking the fight to the people who attacked us." But he said this standing in the National Archives in front of a Constitution that requires a declaration of war by Congress before launching a war against Pakistan or Afghanistan or anywhere else. Just as I had that thought, President Obama named the documents in the room (the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence, but not the Magna Carta which is usually there too). The words "CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" appeared behind the president as he spoke.
Obama said we'd grown into "the strongest nation in the world" because of our principles. And yet, the Constitution says nothing about being "the strongest nation in the world". Obama said that "from Europe to the Pacific we've been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law." (But is our imposition of power on other nations around the world, where we have some 1,000 bases in some 130 nations at a cost of roughly $140 billion per year, itself within the rule of law? Is that what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan? Is that why we're redrawing the boundaries of Iraqi cities in order to stay in them despite a treaty requirement that all troops leave by June 30th?)
Obama referred to the Bush-Cheney decision to create new torture programs as "hasty". And he only used the word "torture" when announcing, just as Bush did, that "the United States does not torture." Whenever referring to the actions of his predecessors, he said "enhanced interrogation techniques." The "hasty decisions" were aimed at protecting the American people, Obama claimed, but were based on fear. Our principles were treated as luxuries that we could no longer afford, he said. And citizens and journalists fell silent. (Hey, Mr. President, please don't lump us with journalists!!) Nowhere did Obama mention other motivations for torture, including what we now know to have been the primary motivation, the eliciting of agreement to false justifications for war. I suspect that another motivation was the fear mongering of the American people, which Obama later denounced in his speech without connecting it to the establishment of torture policies.
Obama listed the three things he'd done when he first took office, but said little of the many contradictory things he'd done since. He said that he had "banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques." That is absolutely and recklessly false. And I don't mean just because torture is ongoing. I mean that torture was always banned by the anti-torture statute and the war crimes statute, not to mention the Eighth Amendment, and presidents do not have the Constitutional power to make laws.
Obama went on to say that "these techniques undermine the rule of law," as well as that torture is ineffective, serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists, endangers troops, etc. But how do you restore the rule of law? By enforcing laws or by claiming that you've newly and royally created as law things that already were law and can be found in the 8th amendment behind you in the bulletproof case?
Secondly, Obama said that he had ordered the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. There have been 3 convictions in over 7 years, he pointed out. In 2006, he added, the Supreme Court invalidated the entire system. Moreover, two-thirds of the detainees were released before he'd taken office. Guantanamo, the president said, set back America's moral authority and undermined the rule of law. The idea behind Guantanamo, he said, was to be beyond the law, which the Supreme Court rejected. Yes, but if you won't enforce laws, in what sense have you returned to them?
Third, Obama said, he had ordered review of all Guantanamo prisoners' cases, which he said had to be done whether or not Guantanamo was closed. He then denounced the "fear mongering" by unnamed people during the recent public debate over this issue.
Obama then announced two major sections for the rest of his speech. The first would be about Guantanamo and detentions policies and the second about security and transparency. The second part, however, never really arrived. Or, at least, I didn't recognize it as addressing transparency when it did.
On Guantanamo, Obama began by saying that he would not release anyone if it would endanger our national security or anyone in the United States if it would endanger the American people. But we will put people into high security US prisons, he said, from which, he pointed out, no one has ever escaped and which already hold hundreds of convicted terrorists. The idea that we cannot do this, Obama said, is not rational. However, he would soon admit that he intended to hold some people indefinitely without charge, and there is still the possibility that doing that within the United States will create new problems with that document he was standing in front of.
Obama claimed that detainees released in the past have "returned to the battlefield". But what "battlefield" is that? And if they'd been on it before, then why were they released to "return" to it. The rules of war are meant to apply to actual battlefields, not the "Overseas Contingency Operation."
Obama divided Guantanamo prisoners into five categories:
1. Those he will try in federal courts.
2. Those he will try in military commissions as "violators of the laws of war". This he said will allows evidence from battlefields that cannot always be effectively used in federal court. Does that mean evidence from torture? What else can it mean? That was my thought until Obama's next statement was that "we" will no longer use evidence from "enhanced interrogation techniques" or from hearsay. So what evidence does he have in mind?
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) said, "The president wrapped himself in the Constitution and then proceeded to violate it by announcing he would send people before irredeemably flawed military commissions and seek to create a preventive detention scheme that only serves to move Guantanamo to a new location and give it a new name." For that see #5 below.