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Obama Mounts Defense of Detainee Plan

by David Stout and Brian Knowlton

WASHINGTON - President Obama on Thursday deliverered an impassioned defense of his administration's anti-terrorism policies, reiterating his determination to close the prison at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba in the face of growing Congressional pressure and warning that it was essential to stand by the country's basic principles.

The president said that what has gone on at Guantánamo for the past seven years has demonstrated an unjust, haphazard "ad hoc approach" that has undermined rather than strengthened America's safety, and that moving its most dangerous inmates to the United States is both practical and in keeping with the country's cherished ideals.

Moroever, he said that transferring some Guantánamo detainees to highly secure prisons in the United States would in no way endanger American security.

Speaking at the National Archives, which houses the Constitution and other documents embodying America's system of government and justice, the president promised to work with Congress to develop a safe and fair system for dealing with those Guantánamo detainees who cannot be prosecuted "yet who pose a clear danger to the American people."

"I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face," the president said.

Nevertheless, despite the evil intentions of some Guantánamo detainees and the undeniable fact that Al Qaeda terrorists are determined to attack America again, United States citizens should not feel uneasy about a relatively small number of detainees being imprisoned in the American homeland, the president said.

"As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," the president said. "As Senator Lindsey Graham said: ‘The idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational.'"

Only minutes after Mr. Obama finished speaking, former Vice President Dick Cheney offered a far different perspective, defending the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush administration and criticizing some of President Obama's approaches. Taken together, the speeches of President Obama and the former vice president encapsuled a fundamental debate over the proper balance between personal liberties and national security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.

Both speeches came in a week in which Congress has been wrestling with detention issues. The Senate by a lopsided vote vote of 90-6 rebuffed the president over financing for closing down the detention center. Republicans and Democrats alike argued that the White House had yet to outline a realistic plan for what to do with the remaining detainees after the center is closed.

The supermax prisons to which Mr. Obama alluded, familiar to viewers of cable-television crime programs, are fortress-like structures of concrete and steel where the inmates - the worst of the worst of hardened criminals - live in near-isolation.

"I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges," Mr. Obama said. "Other countries have grappled with this question, and so must we. But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for Guantanamo detainees - not to avoid one. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man."

The president said Americans should resist the temptation to indulge in "finger-pointing" over mistakes. But he offered scathing criticism of the presidency of George W. Bush, referring repeatedly to the missteps, in Mr. Obama's view, of "the past eight years" and declaring that the harsh interrogation methods used at Guantanamo have fomented terrorism.

In an address punctuated several times by applause, the president asserted over and over that fidelity to American values is not a luxury to be dispensed with in times of crisis but, rather, the compass that will steer the country to safety in an age of terrorism.

"We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe," he said.

But shortly after President Obama finished his speech, television networks cut away to Mr. Cheney's speech, titled "Keeping America Safe," delivered to the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Cheney gave the president some credit for "wise decisions," notably in some of the steps he has taken in Afghanistan and in reversing his plan to release photographs of detainee abuse. But the former vice president was vigorous in his defense of the "enhanced interrogation" of detainees that the Obama administration has denounced, saying that skilled and trained C.I.A. agents had gained invaluable intelligence, using methods ruled legal by administration lawyers, that had saved lives.

Mr. Cheney was harshly critical of Mr. Obama's decision to release documents detailing the Bush administration debate on what interrogation techniques could legally be employed. Releasing the memos, Mr. Cheney said, "was flatly contrary to the national security interest of the United States," undercutting anti-terror efforts by United States allies around the world, and leaving C.I.A. agents unsure of high-level backing "when the going gets tough."

Mr. Cheney suggested that the new administration was making a deeply flawed and risky calculation that the Sept. 11 attacks were in effect one-time event and not a persistent, existential threat. Mr. Cheney also offered a withering critique of the suggestion that the Obama team was seeking middle ground in policies on terrorism.

"In the fight against terrorism," he said, "there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist ouf of the United States."

As for the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, Mr. Cheney suggested that Mr. Obama was short-sightedly playing to foreign audiences. "It's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantánamo," he said. "But it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Jeff Zeleny and Kate Phillips contributed reporting.

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