Obama's lengthy and detailed national security address was designed, in part, to tamp down criticism that his administration was abandoning core promises and constitutional principles. But while early reviews of the president's speech among members of the press were adulatory, the people Obama most needed to placate were decidedly unimpressed.
"Obviously, he is a very effective speaker, but of course we have major problems with what he is doing," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "He wraps himself in the Constitution, talks about American values and then proceeds to violate them."
In an interview with the Huffington Post shortly after Obama concluded his remarks at the National Archives, Ratner expressed disappointment and even a tinge of anger at the approach the president had outlined on detainee policy, military tribunals, and even accountability.
He praised Obama for wanting to close Guantanamo Bay, but called his overall position on detaining and trying suspected terrorists "a road to perdition," primarily because of the use of military commissions. "Military commissions are used when you want an easy way to convict people," he said. "You write up new rules after the fact. That's what military commissions represent. His history was just flawed. They were not used very often. They are used on the battlefield or shortly thereafter in a real war. "
Even more troubling for Ratner, however, was the notion of preventive detention -- which he called "the real road to hell," and compared to something from the movie Minority Report. "[Obama] said some people are just too dangerous to let go and that we have to keep them," said Ratner. "Though we'd do it differently then Bush. We will set up rules. Well no matter how you repackage Guantanamo, with all kinds of rules on top of it -- that is what he is doing, he is re-wrapping a preventive detention scheme and giving it some more due process. In the end, it still comes down to holding people -- much like Minority Report or pre-crime stuff -- for being dangerous, and that is not something that I think is constitutional or this country should be engaged in."
On Obama's oft-repeated preference to not set up an investigative commission to look at the authorization of torture, Ratner was equally biting. "We think a future without torture is one in which those who engage in torture are held accountable," he said. "And what [Obama] has said so far on this issue and what he said today was, 'Well, the Justice Department will do what it needs to.' We need a special prosecutor, there is no issue about it. When Cheney can get on the air and say, 'I waterboarded and would do it again,' you know you have a problem because the next administration can go back to what Cheney did."
Similarly, on the Obama administration's decision to oppose the release of photos showing detainee abuse, Ratner called the president to task for undermining his own claim to transparency: "I always believe that democracy dies behind closed doors, and the fact that these photos are being hidden right now -- if anything, it makes people think that there is a lot being hidden right now and that there is much more to this."
Overall, it was not the type of review that Obama wanted following his nearly hour-long speech. The president addressed all of the aforementioned topics, framing them in a way that positioned his administration as dually committed to security and the rule of law. Unlike his predecessor, Obama proclaimed, he wanted to set up a framework that satisfied both principles and concerns. For Ratner, however, the speech was mostly bells and whistles, designed to cover up policies that only moderately improve upon those of the Bush years.
"What is unfortunately effective about Obama is that he is able to use a setting like the National Archives, talk about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and all that, get people to sincerely believe he is [committed to these principles] and then go ahead and in my view undercut the core aspects of those documents," he said.
Below are a few key portions of Obama's speech.
On Bush Policies
Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that - too often - our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us - Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens - fell silent.
I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I 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. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts - they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.
On Detainee Photos Already Released
Several weeks ago, as part of an ongoing court case, I released memos issued by the previous Administration's Office of Legal Counsel. I did not do this because I disagreed with the enhanced interrogation techniques that those memos authorized, or because I reject their legal rationale - although I do on both counts. 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. The argument that somehow by releasing those memos, we are providing terrorists with information about how they will be interrogated is unfounded - we will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach, because that approach is now prohibited.
On Investigating Bush
I have opposed the creation of such a Commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.
On Media and Washington Feeding the Fire
I understand that it is no secret that there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And our media culture feeds the impulses that lead to a good fight. Nothing will contribute more to that than an extended re-litigation of the last eight years. Already, we have seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different sides laying blame, and can distract us from focusing our time, our effort, and our politics on the challenges of the future.
There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law. Indeed, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law - a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.
On Military Commissions
Instead of using the flawed Commissions of the last seven years, my Administration is bringing our Commissions in line with the rule of law. The rule will no longer permit us to use as evidence statements that have been obtained using cruel, inhuman, or degrading interrogation methods. We will no longer place the burden to prove that hearsay is unreliable on the opponent of the hearsay. And we will give detainees greater latitude in selecting their own counsel, and more protections if they refuse to testify. These reforms - among others - will make our Military Commissions a more credible and effective means of administering justice, and I will work with Congress and legal authorities across the political spectrum on legislation to ensure that these Commissions are fair, legitimate, and effective.