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Obama's Speech: Restoring American Values To Keep U.S. Safe

From my perch at the National Archives, President Obama's national security speech actually felt like two speeches.

For the first 20 minutes, Obama outlined the situation he inherited, the immediate steps he took to reverse what he considered the failed approach of his predecessor. This section was at times defensive, but delivered with a bit more passion than Americans have seen from the president recently. The second section was at times a wonky, legalistic outline of the next steps he plans to take. He conceded the difficulty his administration has had living up to the goals he stated on the campaign trail, but made it clear he still intended to fulfill them.

The dominant theme of the first portion was values.

He used the word a half dozen times, calling the values enshrined in the nation's founding documents our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval." And he used this notion to criticize the administration of his predecessor for its "hasty decisions," arguing that the country cannot be safe "unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values."

"Too often, our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight. All too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions," he said. "Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford."

He said there was a consensus in the nation that the Bush administration did go too far in its prosecution of suspected terrorists, citing as evidence the fact that both major parties nominated candidates for president who "rejected torture and recognized the imperative" of closing Guantanamo Bay.

"We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates," he said - the closest yet to an utterance of "war on terror." "We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process, in checks and balances and accountability."

What was striking about this portion of the speech was how he seemed to at times shift the heat of scrutiny off of him and back on the Bush administration. Notably, he argued that the whole debate being had now was not a result of his decision to close Guantanamo Bay, but in fact to open it in the first place. "The legal challenges that have sparked so much debate in recent weeks here in Washington would be taking place whether or not I decided to close Guantanamo," he said as well.

The pivot of the speech included a criticism of how the current debate has become politicized, and said we are "ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue."

He then explained the way forward, prefacing his remarks by saying his administration would not release any individual "if it would endanger our national security." He explained that there is a review of each detainee's situation, and that going forward, they would be handled in five different ways:

• Where a clear case can be made in court, they will be transferred to U.S. soil for prosecution.
• Those who violate "the laws of war" will be tried through military commissions, which he took pains to explain are "appropriate venues" that have been used throughout the nation's history. Rather than a reversal, he said that stronger protections for suspects will fulfill his promises.
• Those who have already been ordered to be released will be released. "The United States is a nation of laws, and we must abide by these rulings."
• Where it's determined that a detainee can be transferred to another country, that will happen.
• And finally, the "toughest" class involves those whose cases may not be easily prosecuted, but who "pose a danger." And in his language, he made an important distinction in saying they "remain at war with the United States." He spoke of reshaping standards "to ensure they are in line with the rule of law," but could not say where they would be detained.

Obama also defended some of the recent controversial decisions by his administration, releasing legal memos used by the Bush administration to justify enhanced interrogation methods, and not releasing photos that showed alleged acts of torture. He rejected the notion that releasing the memos offered information to terrorists, while saying the releasing the photos would potentially endanger the troops.

He closed by promising greater transparency and accountability in all the critical national security decisions ahead. But to an audience that included civil liberties advocates, he was careful to state that such a promise did not mean he would always satisfy their concerns.

"Even as we clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly reevaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from other branches of government as well as the public," he said.

Notably, the president said he could not promise to prevent all threats to the homeland.

"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. "The terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies. They will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are, if we forge tough and durable approaches to fighting terrorism that are anchored in our timeless ideals."

It isn't immediately clear how the speech was received, particularly since it was immediately followed by a rebuttal from former Vice President Cheney. But consider this statement from Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) as a clue, from the pool reporter following the president today: "He said he doesn't want to look backwards then spends all that time trashing the Bush administration."