WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) – President Barack Obama spoke to the nation Thursday, making a speech that focused entirely on his administration’s counterterrorism efforts and policies, finishing his address with several comments regarding the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Obama attempted to refocus an increasingly apathetic and controversy-weary U.S. public on several security issues, vowing that the U.S. will make a renewed effort to transfer detainees out of the Navy-run detention center for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to other countries.
While calling the facility “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” Obama said that he has, during his presidency, attempted to close Gitmo. He cited government restrictions on inmate transfers as one of the main reasons for its continued existence, adding that he had transferred 67 detainees to other nations before Congress put in place its present restrictions.
“Given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al-Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” he said. “Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo.”
The effort has also been stymied because many countries don’t want the detainees or are unwilling or unable to guarantee that once transferred detainees who may continue to be a threat will not be released.
The president announced that he plans to request a new designated site for military commissions from the Department of Defense and noted his appointment of an envoy from the State and Defense Departments that will be solely responsible for transferring detainees.
Obama added, “I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”
While speaking about the actions he intended to take on the matter, a heckler – identified by one reporter as Medea Benjamin from Code Pink – interrupted the speech, imploring Obama to release the prisoners “today.”
“Ma’am, let me finish. This is part of free speech … you being able to speak, but also, you listening and me being able to speek,” he replied, while those in attendance applauded.
She spoke up again several moments later, stated, “It’s not Congress, it’s you, sir! You are Commander in Chief, you can close Guantanamo today!”
Obama attempted to press forward as the heckler continued to voice her opinions, stopping to allow her at one point to complete her thought.
“The voice of that woman is worth playing attention to,” he said, once she finished. “Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”
The president then pressed forward, and condemned treatment of detainees in the controversial detention center.
“[H]istory will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,” he stated. “Imagine a future – 10 years from now, or 20 years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country.”
Adding rhetorically, “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
While speaking from National Defense University at Fort McNair, Obama additionally said that the decisions made by government in regards to “the detention of terrorist suspects … will define the type of nation that we leave to our children.”
Obama had recently restated his desire to close Guantanamo, a pledge he made shortly after his inauguration in January 2009.
There are currently about 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, and 86 have been approved for transfer as long as security restrictions are met.
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