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President Barack Obama vigorously defended his plans to close the terrorist prison at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying Thursday that the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 construct for housing battlefield detainees hurt America's moral standing in the world, undermined the rule of law, helped al-Qaida recruit terrorists and weakened American security.
"By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it," Obama told an audience gathered at the National Archives in Washington.
Obama, who on Jan. 22 ordered the prison to be closed within a year, also defended his decision to end the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding.
"I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation," Obama said. Such techniques also undermine the rule of law, alienate other nations, serve as a terrorist recruitment tool and "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, he said.
"In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts," said Obama, who did not refer to former President George Bush or his administration by name. "They undermined them."
The speech came in response to a conservative political firestorm, led in recent weeks by former Vice President Dick Cheney, which has erupted over Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and to house some detainees in U.S. prisons while the adjudication process moves forward.
In nearly concurrent remarks at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Cheney lauded Obama's "wise decisions" made "in some respects on Afghanistan and in reversing his plan to release" newly discovered photos depicting detainee abuse at the hands of U.S. guards.
But citing what he called the Bush administration's responsibility to protect the nation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — one of a series that included the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center and the 2000 attack on the Navy destroyer Cole — Cheney said 9/11 "made necessary a shift of policy.
"Everyone expected a follow-on attack, and it was our job to stop it," Cheney said. "We developed a comprehensive strategy … and, with bipartisan support, put all of these policies in place. … Well over seven years into the effort, one thing we know is that the enemy has spent most of his time on the defensive, and every attempt to strike inside the United States has failed."
Obama's speech also followed congressional rejection of his prison closure plan by Congress. Both the House and Senate have stripped a requested $80 million to close the prison from a bill to continue funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republican opposition has been led by House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who has argued strenuously against closing the Guantanamo Bay prison "without a clear alternative."
"Like a solid majority of Americans, Republicans strongly oppose releasing terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay facility or transferring them to the United States," Boehner said in a statement. "And we believe that governors and state legislatures should pre-approve the transfer or release of any terrorist detainee into their respective states if this Administration chooses to act on its own."
Obama addressed that concern Thursday, saying the highest-security U.S. prisons are plenty secure.
"Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal ‘super-max' prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," Obama said.
He quoted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as saying, "The idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational."
"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security," Obama said. "Nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people."
But "where demanded by justice and national security," he said, some detainees will be transferred to U.S. facilities.
Obama did not propose a solution to detainees who cannot be prosecuted due to evidence possibly tainted by the use of enhanced interrogation techniques but are still considered, due to their actions, training or statements, to be too dangerous to set free — "the toughest single issue that we will face," he said.
"Our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred," Obama said, and pledged to do so with judicial and congressional oversight.
Obama said the U.S. will face the terrorist threat for years, and that no one can guarantee that a future terrorist attack won't take more American lives.
"But I can say, with certainty, that my administration, along with our extraordinary troops and the patriotic men and women who defend our national security, will do everything in our power to keep the American people safe," he said.