By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 21, 2009 - President Barack Obama today vowed to protect the American people while staying true to American values. Speaking at the National Archives, Obama said his most important responsibility is to keep the American people safe.
"This responsibility is only magnified in an era when an extremist ideology threatens our people and technology gives a handful of terrorists the potential to do us great harm," Obama said.
The president said his administration already has made great strides, having released its new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, invested in new military and intelligence technology, re-energized global nonproliferation talks and emphasized diplomacy.
These are the concrete steps that have been taken, Obama said, but America's most potent weapon is its belief system.
"I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run, we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values," the president said. "The documents that we hold in this very hall – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights – are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity around the world."
The United States always stood for freedom, liberty and the rule of law, Obama said. "That is who we are," he added. "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."
But in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, the United States took heed of its fears and instituted policies that went against American values, Obama said. Since taking office in January, Obama has banned so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" and vowed to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Some have argued that interrogation methods such as water-boarding are necessary, Obama noted. "I could not disagree more," he said. "I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America."
Obama said use of such techniques at Guantanamo set back the moral authority of the United States. "Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al-Qaida that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law," he said.
The prison was to be a tool of counterterrorism, Obama said, but it became a tool of al-Qaida recruiting. "Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained," the president said. The prison, he added, has weakened American national security and has become a rallying cry for U.S. enemies.
"It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries," he said. "By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That is why I argued that it should be closed throughout my campaign. And that is why I ordered it closed within one year."
The president said the argument that these terrorists cannot be held in U.S. "super max" prisons is specious.
"I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people," Obama said. "Al-Qaida 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."
But prisoners must have standing under law, he added, and the courts and the legislature must provide oversight. The president said his administration will work with Congress to set these standards.
Protecting national security requires a delicate balance, Obama said. U.S. democracy depends on transparent government, but some information must be protected from release. He noted that some have criticized him for releasing legal memos detailing interrogation techniques.
"I released the memos because the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the Bush administration had acknowledged its existence, and I had already banned those methods," he said. Releasing the memos did not help terrorists, he added.
The president also has opposed releasing photos of detainees taken by U.S. personnel between 2002 and 2004.
"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 theaters of war," he explained. "There are nearly 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm's way, and I have a solemn responsibility for their safety as commander in chief. Nothing would be gained by the release of these photos that matters more than the lives of our young men and women serving in harm's way."
The president said he will approach each decision individually.
"Whenever possible, we will make information available to the American people so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable," he said. "But I have never argued – and never will – that our most sensitive national security matters should be an open book. I will never abandon – and I 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."