I was lucky enough to be at Obama’s speech earlier today, with my little cub reporter notepad and crappy Sony Cybershot (which I was soon forbidden from taking pictures with as I was not in the photographer area). I was a little intimidated by the seasoned reporters I was sharing the press enclosure with, and wrote down things from the speech that I happened to notice or find interesting in my shaky, practically illegible handwriting. (It helps so people can’t steal what you’ve written if they can’t actually read it over your shoulder. Or at all.)
For example, I noticed that Obama mentioned the concept of fear quite often; that the “season of fear” led to “decisions based upon fear rather than foresight”, and “if we continue to make decisions from a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes”. He also called out “some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue,” and that he’s heard “words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country”. The speech was not just an explanation of his plan regarding Guantanamo and his reasoning for keeping the detainee pictures blocked (which I’ll get to in a minute), at points, it was a rebuke of those who use “30-second commercials and direct mail pieces that are designed to frighten”. He’s promoting understanding and rational thinking rather than sometimes-rational fear. Yes, it takes longer to think something out than make a snap decision. But if it’s a thought and a deed that will increase our safety in the long run, well…the answer seems obvious enough. Remember when everyone was running out to Lowe’s and Home Depot and buying duct tape and plastic sheeting? Remember how useful that was? (Well, duct tape is always useful. You can make a wallet out of it. But I digress.)
Obama also asserted that “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”. Yeah…deterrence usually doesn’t work quite so well when people are as determined as al Qaeda and confinement/death is simply a means to an end. It’s not only a question of “That’s it? They’re just going to throw us in prison? No beheadings? No floggings?”, but when word of the conditions and enhanced interrogation gets out, it’s “See what the Americans do to our people? Doesn’t that make you hate them? Don’t you want to sacrifice yourself nobly to destroy their culture?” And the answer, far too often, is a resounding “yes”. In addition, “the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place”. A simpler way to put this is “a detainee isn’t just for Gitmo: it’s for as long as it takes to engage in legal and judicial processes to determine the validity of their detainment and the severity of the punishment, if prosecutable, and where to send them within the law.” (Okay…that wasn’t simpler.) You know, kind of like your older sibling getting a new puppy for Christmas and foisting it off on you when they to college, and you’re allergic to it, but what else are you expected to do, you can’t just give it away, and you can’t abandon it to roam the streets because it might have rabies…or not, the vet’s still testing and, due to a convoluted system of bloodwork and vaccines, has only been able to get through three tests in seven years. Except they’re human. And a threat to national security. And there’s 240 of them. It’s a snowballing chain of events, like that book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. “If you give a detainee a jumpsuit, he’s sure to want a trial to go with it.” So, no cookie, no Guantanamo, no initial problem.
Another point that Obama brought up was the importance of the law:
The third category of detainees includes those who have been ordered released by the courts. […] It has to do with the rule of law. The courts have spoken. They have found that there’s no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the people currently held at Guantanamo. Nineteen of these findings took place before I was sworn into office. I cannot ignore these rulings because as President, I too am bound by the law. The United States is a nation of laws and so we must abide by these rulings.
Basically, he’s undermining Nixon’s landmark “If the President does it, it’s not illegal” argument. As a lawyer and professor of Constitutional law, Obama made many references to U.S. law, legality of our actions both here and abroad, and the spirit of the documents housed in the National Archives that we think of most often, known as the Charters of Freedom – the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, which Nicolas Cage didn’t actually steal. The speech’s location was a symbolic one – the presence of those documents upon which our country was founded, and the presence of those ideals, served to reinforce a part of the message that the President was putting out; namely, that we cannot simply toss aside our morals and principles simply because it is convenient to do so, or because that would make things simpler and easier to fit into preconceived little ideological boxes.
Okay, now let me copy-paste this excerpt from the speech re: the detainee photos into a nice blockquote, because it’s long:
Now, 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, and I didn’t release the documents because I rejected their legal rationales — 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 makes no sense. We will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach. That approach is now prohibited.
In short, I released these memos because there was no overriding reason to protect them. And the ensuing debate has helped the American people better understand how these interrogation methods came to be authorized and used.
On the other hand, I recently opposed the release of certain photographs that were taken of detainees by U.S. personnel between 2002 and 2004. Individuals who violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and they have been held accountable. There was and is no debate as to whether what is reflected in those photos is wrong. Nothing has been concealed to absolve perpetrators of crimes. However, it was my judgment — informed by my national security team — that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning, and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.
In short, there is a clear and compelling reason to not release these particular photos. There are nearly 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm’s way, and I have a solemn responsibility for their safety as Commander-in-Chief. Nothing would be gained by the release of these photos that matters more than the lives of our young men and women serving in harm’s way.
Now, in the press’s mind and in some of the public’s mind, these two cases are contradictory. They are not to me. In each of these cases, I had to strike the right balance between transparency and national security.
Is this the exact same point I brought up earlier? Why yes, I believe it is. Only much more eloquently put. Transparency is all well and good, but 100% transparency would destroy the classification of material such as troop movements, nuclear launch codes, and important intelligence that we don’t want our enemies to know that we have, and aside from that, on a completely trivial note which is nonetheless of great importance to me, it would negatively affect the spy thriller market. The public should know more…but it’s good that there are some secrets from the general public, things that are on a need-to-know basis. Like things that could get us all killed if the wrong people knew about them.
Right now I’m at a desk that doesn’t belong to me, so I’ll continue this tl;dr analysis with seemingly unrelated pictures when I get home.
In other National Archives-related news, because why not: National Archives loses hard drive with Clinton-era records. Um…oops.