Obama and Heckler Plead to Close Gitmo

In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, DC., President Barack Obama called on Congress to permit him to close the terror detention facility at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The president also acknowledged that the Ft. Hood shooting of 2009 was an act of "Islamic Jihad." The administration has long resisted references to Islamic extremism, and referred to the Ft. Hood shooting as "workplace violence."

In a speech that was billed as a reset of U.S. policy on terrorism, Obama emphasized the changing nature of terrorism, stating that recent attacks in Boston and Benghazi were not ordered by Al-Qaeda from its old bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that Al-Qaeda "affiliates" in other parts of the world had arisen as threats.

He connected Islamic terror to domestic attacks such as the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and an incident in February 2010 in which a small aircraft was crashed into an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Austin, TX. That attack had been widely--and falsely--blamed on the Tea Party. (Shortly thereafter, the IRS began targeting Tea Party groups for review and excessive questioning as they applied for non-profit status.)

President Obama began with an impassioned defense of the policy of targeting killing through the use of drones, including when U.S. citizens have joined terror organizations overseas. (In a nod to Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who staged a dramatic filibuster on drone policy in March, the president made clear that he would not consider it constitutional to use drones to target and kill Americans on U.S. soil.)

Much of his defense of the policy, one analyst noted, was couched in entirely defensive terms. The president acknowledged that civilian deaths in fighting terrorists were regrettable, but that such deaths would be far greater if the U.S. had to use ground troops to fight terrorists, and that waiting to react to terrorists after they had already struck the U.S. homeland would be unacceptable. Therefore drones were the least bad policy.

Next, the president described global diplomacy as the second prong of a three-pronged strategy against terror. It was important, he said, that the U.S. remain engaged throughout the world, isolating tyrannical regimes and supporting democratic movements. He noted the importance of defending U.S. diplomats abroad, and defended his record on Benghazi, insisting that he had followed all of the recommendations of the State Department's Accountability Review Board (ARB), which has been criticized in recent congressional hearings.

Finally, President Obama discussed the problem of home-grown extremism, a problem that has leapt back into public awareness after the Boston Marathon attacks. He said that government had to strike "the right balance" between national security on the one hand, and privacy and a free press on the other. He said that he was "troubled by the possibility that leak investigations" might chill the free press, and called on Congress to pass a "media shield law"--the same sort of law Obama once supported but then abandoned early in his term.

The goal, the president said, was to find a way to fight terrorism "without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing." In that vein, the president turned towards the widely-anticipated announcement that he would seek--once again--to close the terror detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. The president originally sought to close the prison in his first year in office, but opposition from the defense establishment, as well as from Congress, prevented him from doing so--a fact the president emphasized, with evident bitterness.

Sounding a plaintive tone as he pleaded his case, the president said that "there was no justification beyond politics" for refusing to close Guanánamo--a line that drew sustained applause from the audience, as well as heckling from a woman who attempted to draw attention to "102 people who are on hunger strike" there. (The heckler was reported by other observers to be Medea Benjamin, a founder of Code Pink and frequent gadfly.)

"History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who refuse to end it," the president said, criticizing the long detentions of prisoners held without formal charges. He did not acknowledge the fact that cases have slowed down since his administration chose to attempt civilian trials.

Interrupted again by the heckler, the President, said: "The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," noting that they both agreed on the fundamental importance of closing the Guantánamo prison facility.


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