U.S. President Barack Obama defended his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre Thursday, calling it a "mess" that compromised U.S. national security and served as a recruiting point for the al-Qaeda network.
Obama, who spoke to an audience of military lawyers at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, said the existence of the Cuban prison "set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world."
"We are cleaning up something that is — quite simply — a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis," said Obama.
Earlier this week, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted overwhelmingly to keep the prison open for the foreseeable future and forbid the transfer of any detainees to facilities in the United States.
Obama has vowed to close the prison by January 2010, and the Senate's vote was not the final word. It will be next month at the earliest before Congress completes work on the legislation, giving the White House time to pursue a compromise that would allow Obama to fulfill his pledge.
The U.S. president used his speech — delivered in a cavernous hall in front of a display of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence — to outline how he would deal with the roughly 240 detainees still at the prison.
Obama said the detainees will fall into five categories:
- Those to be tried in U.S. federal courts.
- Those to be tried by reformed military commissions.
- Those already ordered released by U.S. courts (includes 21 detainees).
- Those who can be safely transferred to another country (includes 50 detainees so far).
- Those who pose a "clear" security threat but cannot be prosecuted.
'Toughest issue we will face '
Obama called the fifth and final category the "toughest issue we will face," saying his administration will "exhaust every avenue that we have" to prosecute them.
If that fails, Obama vowed they would not be released, but would be subject to prolonged detention under revamped policies.
"We must have clear, defensible and lawful standards for those who fall in this category," he said. "We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified."
Obama said it is his duty to deal with the detainees at Guantanamo.
"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 said.
Canadian Omar Khadr has been held at the prison since 2002, when he was captured by American soldiers in Afghanistan. Khadr, now 22, is alleged to have thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. medic during a battle.
The Conservative government, along with the prior Liberal government, have refused to ask for Khadr's repatriation. Ottawa recently said it would launch a legal challenge against a Federal Court order compelling the government to press for his return.
Khadr's military defence lawyer, Lt.-Cmdr. William Kuebler, who has long called for the closing of Guantanamo and condemned the military tribunal system as illegal, praised Obama's renewed commitment to shutter the controversial base, which he labelled a "political hot potato."
Obama has 'no plan': Cheney
But in an interview with CBC News from Washington, Kuebler said he's concerned much of the legal framework of the Bush administration will remain in place.
"We're going to continue to have a second-tier system of justice for people we can't prosecute in regular courts; that's disturbing." he said.
"They may make a few cosmetic modifications to the process, but at the end of the day, you're still going to have the basic evil … which is prosecuting and convicting people of crimes based on inherently unreliable evidence."
Former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney, who spoke later Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, defended his administration's policies.
He accused Obama of making the Guantanamo decision with "little deliberation and no plan."
Recent reversals of past policies amounted to "recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe," said Cheney, adding all authority exercised against al-Qaeda and other terror suspects was granted by the Constitution and passed by Congress following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Controversial interrogation techniques saved thousands of lives, said Cheney.
"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures leave you half-exposed," Cheney said.
Photo release could harm soldiers
Obama also addressed his decision last week to block the release of hundreds of photos showing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan being abused, reversing an earlier position.
"It was my judgment — informed by my national security team — that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion, and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, endangering them in theatres of war," he said.
He said there is "no debate" that the actions shown in the photos are wrong, adding "nothing has been concealed to absolve perpetrators of crimes."