From NBC's Athena Jones
America's founding documents are a compass that must guide government decisions on national security, President Obama told the audience at the National Archives, defending steps he says will make the country safer and improve its image in the world.
In a wide-ranging, 50-minute speech, the president addressed critics on the right and left -- without mentioning any by name. He spoke about his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and how his administration would seek handle detainees; about his move to release legal memos on enhanced interrogation techniques; about his plans to overhaul the military commissions system; and about his decision not to release photos depicting torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama said the Guantanamo Bay prison was a result of "a series of hasty decisions" that were "based on fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions." But he also acknowledged that cleaning up the "misguided experiment" would be complicated.
When it comes to dealing with Gitmo detainees, Obama said for the first time that some could be transferred to highly secure, "supermax" federal prisons (like the one in Colorado), from which no one has ever escaped. He also said that prisoners who cannot be tried in federal courts or military commissions -- like those who declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden or who commanded Taliban troops in battle -- "remain at war with the United States" and would have to remain in prolonged detention under judicial and congressional oversight.
"I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people," he told an audience of some 160 people. "Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture -- like other prisoners of war -- must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded."
Obama has long spoken of the importance of closing the Gitmo facility and ending torture as ways to restore America's moral authority in the world, and he returned to that theme throughout his remarks.
"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. "From Europe to the Pacific, we've been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology."
Senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod accompanied the president to the event, which the administration billed as a major speech. Also on hand were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder, CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and White House Counsel Greg Craig.
In an at times defensive tone, the president stressed that his anti-torture position was not just a Democratic one, but one shared by people like his former rival Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). He quoted another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), in defending the idea of sending detainees to federal prisons that already hold hundreds of convicted terrorists. Graham said "the idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational."
Later, during the afternoon press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeated Obama's reference to Graham and suggested new facilities could be built to house those deemed prisoners of war.
"There are a number of options," Gibbs said. "I assume that building a facility, upgrading one that isn't being used. There could be -- there could be many different options that are being used."
With a speech by Former Vice President Dick Cheney immediately following his own this morning, the president directly addressed the politics surrounding this debate, accusing some of his critics of fear-mongering. "As our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult," he said, adding that these issues could easily be used as fodder for commercials designed to scare voters. " But if we continue to make decisions from within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future."
He spoke about the need to keep some information classified under the "state secrets" privilege in the name of national security, but said his administration was reviewing that process to ensure that the privilege was not overused. And in defending his decision not to release images depicting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama had an answer for his critics on the left.
"I ran for president promising transparency, and I meant what I said," he said. "But I have never argued -- and I never will -- that our most sensitive national security matters should simply be an open book. I will never abandon -- and will vigorously defend -- the necessity of classification to defend our troops at war; to protect sources and methods; and to safeguard confidential actions that keep the American people safe."