By Kenneth R. Bazinet, Richard Sisk and David Saltonstall
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS
Laying out what he pointedly called "a new direction from the last eight years," President Obama staunchly defended his decision to close Guantanamo prison camp - while vowing never to release terrorists who pose a danger.
"There are no neat or easy answers here. I wish there were," Obama said Thursday at the National Archives, standing before a copy of the Constitution. "But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo."
Obama conceded that some terrorists would end up in U.S. prisons, but he insisted those facilities were secure enough to house even the most dangerous terrorists - as some do already.
"As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal 'supermax' prisons," said Obama, noting that convicted terrorists like Zaccarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker on 9/11, has been safely held in the U.S. for years.
The speech was in many ways a general restatement of Obama's national security principles and plans - to ban torture, close Guantanamo, reform Military Commissions, and work to declassify more government information.
There were no real specifics on when, where or how convicted terrorists would be jailed in the U.S. - all central questions for members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike.
But in many ways the speech was also a bristling, sometimes defensive, refutation of the Bush Administration's policies. It was also a pre-emptive strike against ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, who began his own speech on national security at a nearby forum just moments after Obama finished.
"We are cleaning up something that is - quite simply - a mess," Obama said of Guantanamo, which he termed "a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis."
He noted that it was the Bush administration, not his own, that released some 500 detainees from Guantanamo, and he asserted that the prison had "set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world."
Cheney, who continued to defend the Bush team's use of waterboarding and other tough interrogation tactics, was never mentioned by name by Obama. But he was clearly a target of several of Obama's darts.
"I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe," Obama said at one point. "I could not disagree more."
"I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation," he added. "What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists."
Later, he referred to advocates of "enhanced interrogation" "as those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: 'anything goes.'"
As for Cheney, the former veep quickly dispensed with any niceties and served up a heaping portion of red meat for the GOP faithful at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Guantanamo and waterboarding kept America safe after 9/11, when "we were staring at 16 acres of ashes" at Ground Zero, Cheney said.
As the smoke cleared, "we were determined to prevent attacks in the first place," and a maximum security prison at the Guantanamo naval base was a vital part of the effort, Cheney said.
"I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the U.S. would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come," Cheney said.
"You don't want to call them enemy combatants? Fine," Cheney said. "Just don't bring them into the U.S."
Republicans on the Hill echoed those comments, accusing Obama of trying to appease his left-leaning base with a speech that was long on Bush-bashing but short on specifics for how terrorists will be transferred to U.S. soil.
"Importing terrorists into our communities creates a situation where people in surrounding areas are put at greater risk," asserted House GOP Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Rep Pete King (R-L.I.), who attended Obama's speech, had a mixed review of the speech, slamming Obama for bashing Bush, but hailing Obama plan to seek tougher "preventive detention" legislation.