Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama 'to clear Guantanamo mess'

The US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is a "misguided experiment" and a "mess" that must be cleaned up, US President Barack Obama has said.

Mr Obama said it had weakened national security and rallied enemies of the US, but he was determined to close it by January 2010 whilst respecting US law.

He was speaking at the US National Archives, where the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights are kept.

The US Congress has rejected Mr Obama's move to fund the closure.

Speaking in a riposte to Mr Obama after his speech, former Vice-President Dick Cheney defended the security strategies of the Bush White House.

He recalled the experience of being in a White House bunker during the 9/11 attacks and said this shaped the way he viewed his responsibilities.

And he defended the "enhanced interrogation" authorised by the Bush administration to extract information from terror suspects as "legal, essential, justified and successful".

Transfer concern

Mr Obama's speech on Guantanamo was made against a backdrop of rising concern in the US Congress at the president's plan to close the camp by January 2010.

As well as funding plans being blocked, proposals to transfer other inmates from the camp to facilities on the US mainland were also voted down by the Senate on Wednesday.

And in a separate development, Ahmed Ghailani, an al-Qaeda suspect, is to become the first inmate at the Guantanamo Bay camp to stand trial in a US civilian court.

The issue of transferring Guantanamo Bay inmates to the US has caused alarm among many members in Congress.

Mr Obama said the administration was reviewing every one of the 240 detainees still held at Guantanamo and considering what to do with them.

"We are treating these cases with the care and attention that the law requires and our security demands," he said, describing the Bush-era approach as "poorly-planned, [and] haphazard".

'No dangerous releases'

Explaining the basis of his administration's approach to terrorist suspects and Guantanamo Bay, Mr Obama said the existence of the prison camp probably "created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained".

He conceded that following through on his pledge to close Guantanamo would be "difficult and complex", but insisted it was possible.

"As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won't permit it. Our courts won't allow it."

But he offered a direct answer to critics who have said his plans would release potentially dangerous people onto the streets of the US.

"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people."

Cheney riposte

Mr Obama's keynote speech was followed by remarks of a very different tone by former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Mr Cheney, who has emerged as a strong critic of the Obama White House, addressed a Washington think-tank to lay out the "strategic thinking" behind the Bush administration's actions.

He began by saying that Mr Obama deserved cross-party support for wise decisions, but added that: "When he mischaracterises the decisions we made, he deserves an answer."

Mr Cheney recalled the dangerous hours on 11 September 2001 as he was shepherded to a White House bunker as hijacked airliners hit New York and the Pentagon.

He said the experience deeply affected him, and said the Bush administration's policies were dedicated to making sure no attacks of that kind could ever happen again.