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This morning the President spoke at length
on the values that guide his foreign policy decisions, including the closing of Guantanamo. He began by speaking of the importance of robust national security efforts and upholding American’s core identity and Constitutional principles, explaining how each can enforce the other:
For the first time since 2002, we're providing the necessary resources and strategic direction to take the fight to the extremists who attacked us on 9/11 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We're investing in the 21st century military and intelligence capabilities that will allow us to stay one step ahead of a nimble enemy. We have re-energized a global non-proliferation regime to deny the world's most dangerous people access to the world's deadliest weapons. And we've launched an effort to secure all loose nuclear materials within four years. We're better protecting our border, and increasing our preparedness for any future attack or natural disaster. We're building new partnerships around the world to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates. And we have renewed American diplomacy so that we once again have the strength and standing to truly lead the world.
These steps are all critical to keeping America secure. But 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 documents that we hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- these 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.
I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words -- "to form a more perfect union." I've studied the Constitution as a student, I've taught it as a teacher, I've been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.
I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset -- in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.
Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.
It's the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's Armed Forces than from their own government.
It's the reason why America has benefitted from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp, moral contrast with our adversaries.
It's the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism and outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty.
(President Barack Obama, standing before the U.S. Constitution, delivers an address on national security, Thursday, May 21, 2009 at the National Archives. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.)
The President summarized what he believes happened in recent years:
And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent.
In other words, we went off course. And this is not my assessment alone. It was an assessment that was shared by the American people who nominated candidates for President from both major parties who, despite our many differences, called for a new approach -- one that rejected torture and one that recognized the imperative of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
He recounted and explained the decisions he has made as President to date in that context, discussing his banning of torture, his closing of Guantanamo, and the ordering of a comprehensive review of all cases there. He detailed the rationale of closing the detention facility, noting how deeply it has tarnished America in the war for hearts and minds, and noting that as a result "the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained." He went into detail about the five categories these cases were likely to fall into, closing on what he described as by far the most difficult: "detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people," including those for whom evidence may have been tainted. He explained that every avenue to prosecute them would be exhausted, and only then would questions of further detainment would have to be addressed with the most thorough Congressional and Judicial oversight. The President went on to directly address the politics that are so often played on these matters:
Now, as our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult. These are issues that are fodder for 30-second commercials. You can almost picture the direct mail pieces that emerge from any vote on this issue -- designed to frighten the population. I get it. But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.
I have confidence that the American people are more interested in doing what is right to protect this country than in political posturing. I am not the only person in this city who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution -- so did each and every member of Congress. And together we have a responsibility to enlist our values in the effort to secure our people, and to leave behind the legacy that makes it easier for future Presidents to keep this country safe.
The President spent the latter half of his speech discussing matters of government secrecy, recalling that "whether it was the run-up to the Iraq War or the revelation of secret programs, Americans often felt like part of the story had been unnecessarily withheld from them. That caused suspicion to build up. That leads to a thirst for accountability." Acknowledging that often in such decisions there is not a singular clear cut principle to guide decisions, and almost always there are competing concerns, he made clear that this need not prevent an honest relationship between the American people and their government:
I will never hide the truth because it's uncomfortable. I will deal with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of government. I will tell the American people what I know and don't know, and when I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why. (Applause.)