President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the National Archives this morning in a speech that had been billed as “a comprehensive overview” of United States national security, according to Ben Rhodes, a policy adviser who is also a speechwriter for the president.
The speech, delivered in the wake of the Senate's vote not to fund the White House attempt to close the American-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, brought out the big guns—Obama’s Defense Secretary, National Security Adviser, Attorney General and Secretary of State.
The president definitively said he would close Guantanamo, though would not release any combatants “if it would endanger US national security,” and promised both transparency and “a surgical approach” to the other tough decisions relatig to American safety.
As for what to do with Guantanamo detainees, yesterday’s Congressional vote had looked like a grave political setback for the president, who plead his case today with lawyerly facts: “Two thirds of the detainees were released before I took office and ordered the closing of Guantanamo,” he said; Guantanamo “probably created more terrorists than it ever detained;" seven years and hundreds of detainees later, only three convictions have been obtained.
This logical approach is a marked departure from the Republican jingoism that led former presidential candidate Mitt Romney to declare that he would “double” Guantanamo. Obama decried such “politicization” of these national security issues—most notably dismissing words “calculated to scare people more than to educate” them on what it takes to keep America safe. This seemed a pointed jab at former vice president Dick Cheney, who, across town at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, continued his onslaught against the Obama administration in a speech saying: “finding some less judgmental or more pleasant-sounding name for terrorists doesn’t change what they are – or what they would do if we let them loose.”
When it came to torture, the president decried the “ad hoc legal approach that was neither effective nor sustainable,” referring to the system of retroactive legal justifications provided to the Bush Office of Legal Counsel that enabled harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation and physical assault. Lots of recent discussion has focused on how the “radical left” opposes torture—but Obama offered the words of rival Senator John McCain as proof of bipartisan opposition: Torture, he's said, “serves as a great propaganda tool for those who recruit people to fight against us.”
Delivered forcefully, this critique of torture seemed like a courageous move. But while Obama said the Bush administration enablers were “on the wrong side of the debate and the wrong side of history”—he stopped short of saying they were on the wrong side of the *law*.
The wide-ranging, detailed policy speech aimed to restore a sense of gravitas and seriousness of purpose to the national security debate. And Obama did not choose the National Archives by accident—there, the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights sit, under glass for any who care to look. The idea of transparency is classically American, and this adult approach may already have paid dividends—recent polling shows that Obama has helped to close the historic Democratic gap on issues of national security.
Still, despite Obama’s talk of transparency and accountability, he affirmed time and again that prosecuting former administration officials is off the table: “I have no interest in spending all of our time relitigating the policies of the last eight years,” he said. “I’ll leave that to others.” The real question today: To whom?
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.