President Obama Defends National Security Policy

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. Please be seated. Thank
you all for being here. Let me just acknowledge the presence of some of my
outstanding Cabinet members and advisors. We’ve got our Secretary of State,
Hillary Clinton. We have our CIA Director Leon Panetta. We have our Secretary
of Defense William Gates; Secretary Napolitano of Department of Homeland
Security; Attorney General Eric Holder; my National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
And I want to especially thank our Acting Archivist of the United States,
Adrienne Thomas.

I also want to acknowledge several members of the House who
have great interest in intelligence matters. I want to thank Congressman Reyes,
Congressman Hoekstra, Congressman King, as well as Congressman Thompson, for
being here today. Thank you so much.

Listen to President Obama’s speech:

These are extraordinary times for our country. We’re
confronting a historic economic crisis. We’re fighting two wars. We face a
range of challenges that will define the way that Americans will live in the
21st century. So there’s no shortage of work to be done, or responsibilities to

And we’ve begun to make progress. Just this week, we’ve
taken steps to protect American consumers and homeowners, and to reform our
system of government contracting so that we better protect our people while
spending our money more wisely. (Applause.) The — it’s a good bill. (Laughter.)
The engines of our economy are slowly beginning to turn, and we’re working
towards historic reform on health care and on energy. I want to say to the
members of Congress, I welcome all the extraordinary work that has been done
over these last four months on these and other issues.

In the midst of all these challenges, however, my single
most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe.
It’s the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It’s the
last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.

And this responsibility is only magnified in an era when an
extremist ideology threatens our people, and technology gives a handful of
terrorists the potential to do us great harm. We are less than eight years
removed from the deadliest attack on American soil in our history. We know that
al-Qaida is actively planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will
be with us for a long time, and that we must use all elements of our power to
defeat it.

Already, we’ve taken several steps to achieve that goal. For
the first time since 2002, we’re providing the necessary resources and
strategic direction to take the fight to the extremists who attacked us on 9/11
in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’re investing in the 21st century military and
intelligence capabilities that will allow us to stay one step ahead of a nimble
enemy. We have re-energized a global non-proliferation regime to deny the
world’s most dangerous people access to the world’s deadliest weapons. And
we’ve launched an effort to secure all loose nuclear materials within four
years. We’re better protecting our border, and increasing our preparedness for
any future attack or natural disaster. We’re building new partnerships around
the world to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates. And we
have renewed American diplomacy so that we once again have the strength and
standing to truly lead the world.

These steps are all critical to keeping America secure. But
I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep
this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The
documents that we hold in this very hall — the Declaration of Independence,
the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — these are not simply words written into
aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this
country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality,
and dignity around the world.

I stand here today as someone whose own life was made
possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the
promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their
truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was
paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words —
“to form a more perfect union.” I’ve studied the Constitution as a
student, I’ve taught it as a teacher, I’ve been bound by it as a lawyer and a
legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as
Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever, turn our
back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We
uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but
because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our
values have been our best national security asset — in war and peace; in times
of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States
of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to
the strongest nation in the world.

It’s the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in
battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s Armed Forces
than from their own government.

It’s the reason why America has benefitted from strong
alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp, moral contrast with our

It’s the reason why we’ve been able to overpower the iron
fist of fascism and outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free
nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of

From Europe to the Pacific, we’ve been the nation that has
shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is
who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and
destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are
more resilient than a hateful ideology.

After 9/11, we knew that we had entered a new era — that
enemies who did not abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our
application of the law; that our government would need new tools to protect the
American people, and that these tools would have to allow us to prevent attacks
instead of simply prosecuting those who try to carry them out.

Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our
government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these
decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But
I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear
rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and
evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying
our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as
luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too
many of us — Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens
— fell silent.

In other words, we went off course. And this is not my
assessment alone. It was an assessment that was shared by the American people
who nominated candidates for President from both major parties who, despite our
many differences, called for a new approach — one that rejected torture and
one that recognized the imperative of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al-Qaida and
its affiliates. 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. For reasons that I will
explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an
ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor
sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and
time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass. And
that’s why I took several steps upon taking office to better protect the
American people.

First, I banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation
techniques by the United States of America. (Applause.)

I know some have argued that brutal methods like
waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As
Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence. I bear the responsibility for
keeping this country safe. And I categorically reject the assertion that these
are the most effective means of interrogation. (Applause.) What’s more, they
undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a
recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight
us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They 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. In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts
— they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all. (Applause.)

Now, I should add, the arguments against these techniques
did not originate from my administration. As Senator McCain once said, torture
“serves as a great propaganda tool for those who recruit people to fight
against us.” And even under President Bush, there was recognition among
members of his own administration — including a Secretary of State, other
senior officials, and many in the military and intelligence community — that
those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and
the wrong side of history. That’s why we must leave these methods where they
belong — in the past. They are not who we are, and they are not America.

The second decision that I made was to order the closing of
the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. (Applause.)

For over seven years, we have detained hundreds of people at
Guantanamo. During that time, the system of military commissions that were in
place at Guantanamo succeeded in convicting a grand total of three suspected
terrorists. Let me repeat that: three convictions in over seven years. Instead
of bringing terrorists to justice, efforts at prosecution met setback after
setback, cases lingered on, and in 2006 the Supreme Court invalidated the
entire system. Meanwhile, over 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo
under not my administration, under the previous administration. Let me repeat
that: Two-thirds of the detainees were released before I took office and
ordered the closure of Guantanamo.

There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral
authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world. Instead of
building a durable framework for the struggle against al-Qaida that drew upon
our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions
that undermined the rule of law. In fact, part of the rationale for
establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a
prison there would be beyond the law — a proposition that the Supreme Court
soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism,
Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaida recruit terrorists to its
cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists
around the world than it ever detained.

So the record is clear: Rather than keeping us safer, the
prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying
cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us
in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the
costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That’s
why I argued that it should be closed throughout my campaign, and that is why I
ordered it closed within one year.

The third decision that I made was to order a review of all
pending cases at Guantanamo. I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it
would be difficult and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent
years in legal limbo. In dealing with this situation, we don’t have the luxury
of starting from scratch. We’re cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a
mess — 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, almost
daily basis, and it consumes the time of government officials whose time should
be spent on better protecting our country.

Indeed, 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. For example, the court order to release 17
Uighurs — 17 Uighur detainees took place last fall, when George Bush was
President. The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at
Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents — not
wild-eyed liberals. In other words, 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. (Applause.)

Now let me be blunt. There are no neat or easy answers here.
I wish there were. 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. As
President, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. I refuse to pass it on to
somebody else. It is my responsibility to solve the problem. Our security
interests will not permit us to delay. Our courts won’t allow it. And neither
should our conscience.

Now, over the last several weeks, we’ve seen a return of the
politicization of these issues that have characterized the last several years. I’m
an elected official; I understand these problems arouse passions and concerns. They
should. We’re confronting some of the most complicated questions that a
democracy can face. But I have no interest in spending all of our time
relitigating the policies of the last eight years. I’ll leave that to others. I
want to solve these problems, and I want to solve them together as Americans.

And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that
emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I’ve
heard words that, frankly, are calculated to scare people rather than educate
them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country. So
I want to take this opportunity to lay out what we are doing, and how we intend
to resolve these outstanding issues. I will explain how each action that we are
taking will help build a framework that protects both the American people and
the values that we hold most dear. And I’ll focus on two broad areas: first,
issues relating to Guantanamo and our detention policy; but, second, I also
want to discuss issues relating to security and transparency.

Now, let me begin by disposing of one argument as plainly as
I can: We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national
security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger
the American people. Where demanded by justice and national security, we will
seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold
all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders — namely,
highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety.

As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following face:
Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons, which hold
hundreds of convicted terrorists. As Republican Lindsey Graham said, the idea
that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the
United States is not rational.

We are currently in the process of reviewing each of the
detainee cases at Guantanamo to determine the appropriate policy for dealing
with them. And as we do so, we are acutely aware that under the last
administration, detainees were released and, in some cases, returned to the
battlefield. That’s why we are doing away with the poorly planned, haphazard
approach that let those detainees go in the past. Instead we are treating these
cases with the care and attention that the law requires and that our security

Now, going forward, these cases will fall into five distinct

First, whenever feasible, we will try those who have
violated American criminal laws in federal courts — courts provided for by the
United States Constitution. Some have derided our federal courts as incapable
of handling the trials of terrorists. They are wrong. Our courts and our
juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists. The record makes
that clear. Ramzi Yousef tried to blow up the World Trade Center. He was
convicted in our courts and is serving a life sentence in U.S. prisons. Zacarias
Moussaoui has been identified as the 20th 9/11 hijacker. He was convicted in
our courts, and he too is serving a life sentence in prison. If we can try
those terrorists in our courts and hold them in our prisons, then we can do the
same with detainees from Guantanamo.

Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a
detainee, al-Marri, in federal court after years of legal confusion. We’re
preparing to transfer another detainee to the Southern District Court of New
York, where he will face trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania — bombings that killed over 200 people. Preventing
this detainee from coming to our shores would prevent his trial and conviction.
And after over a decade, it is time to finally see that justice is served, and
that is what we intend to do. (Applause.)

The second category of cases involves detainees who violate
the laws of war and are therefore best tried through military commissions. Military
commissions have a history in the United States dating back to George
Washington and the Revolutionary War. They are an appropriate venue for trying
detainees for violations of the laws of war. They allow for the protection of
sensitive sources and methods of intelligence-gathering; they allow for the
safety and security of participants; and for the presentation of evidence
gathered from the battlefield that cannot always be effectively presented in
federal courts.

Now, some have suggested that this represents a reversal on
my part. They should look at the record. In 2006, I did strongly oppose
legislation proposed by the Bush administration and passed by the Congress
because it failed to establish a legitimate legal framework, with the kind of
meaningful due process rights for the accused that could stand up on appeal.

I said at that time, however, that I supported the use of
military commissions to try detainees, provided there were several reforms, and
in fact there were some bipartisan efforts to achieve those reforms. Those are
the reforms that we are now making. Instead of using the flawed commissions of
the last seven years, my administration is bringing our commissions in line
with the rule of law. We will no longer permit the use of evidence — as
evidence statements that have been obtained using cruel, inhuman, or degrading
interrogation methods. We will no longer place the burden to prove that hearsay
is unreliable on the opponent of the hearsay. And we will give detainees
greater latitude in selecting their own counsel, and more protections if they
refuse to testify. These reforms, among others, will make our military
commissions a more credible and effective means of administering justice, and I
will work with Congress and members of both parties, as well as legal
authorities across the political spectrum, on legislation to ensure that these
commissions are fair, legitimate, and effective.

The third category of detainees includes those who have been
ordered released by the courts. Now, let me repeat what I said earlier: This
has nothing to do with my decision to close Guantanamo. 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.

The fourth category of cases involves detainees who we have
determined can be transferred safely to another country. So far, our review
team has approved 50 detainees for transfer. And my administration is in
ongoing discussions with a number of other countries about the transfer of
detainees to their soil for detention and rehabilitation.

Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at
Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American
people. And I have to be honest here — this is the toughest single issue that
we will face. We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute
those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this
process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted
for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who
nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of
that threat include people who’ve received extensive explosives training at al-Qaida
training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their
allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to
kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who
endanger the American people. Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at
war with the United States, and those that we capture — like other prisoners
of war — must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must
recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can’t be
based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. That’s why my
administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that
they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and
lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair
procedures so that we don’t make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of
periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and

I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges.
And other countries have grappled with this question; now, so must we. But I
want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal
framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our
goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional
system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and
when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from
carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves
judicial and congressional oversight. And so, going forward, my administration
will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime so that our
efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.

Now, as our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know
that the politics in Congress will be difficult. These are issues that are
fodder for 30-second commercials. You can almost picture the direct mail pieces
that emerge from any vote on this issue — designed to frighten the population.
I get it. But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we
will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then
I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat
terrorism in the future.

I have confidence that the American people are more
interested in doing what is right to protect this country than in political
posturing. I am not the only person in this city who swore an oath to uphold
the Constitution — so did each and every member of Congress. And together we
have a responsibility to enlist our values in the effort to secure our people,
and to leave behind the legacy that makes it easier for future Presidents to
keep this country safe.

Now, let me touch on a second set of issues that relate to
security and transparency.

National security requires a delicate balance. One the one
hand, our democracy depends on transparency. On the other hand, some
information must be protected from public disclosure for the sake of our
security — for instance, the movement of our troops, our
intelligence-gathering, or the information we have about a terrorist
organization and its affiliates. In these and other cases, lives are at stake.

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. And
this balance brings with it a precious responsibility. There’s no doubt that
the American people have seen this balance tested over the last several years. In
the images from Abu Ghraib and the brutal interrogation techniques made public
long before I was President, the American people learned of actions taken in
their name that bear no resemblance to the ideals that generations of Americans
have fought for. And whether it was the run-up to the Iraq war or the
revelation of secret programs, Americans often felt like part of the story had
been unnecessarily withheld from them. And that caused suspicion to build up. And
that leads to a thirst for accountability.

I understand that. I ran for President promising
transparency, and I meant what I said. And that’s why, whenever possible, my
administration will make all information available to the American people so
that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable. But I have never
argued — and I never will — that our most sensitive national security matters
should simply be an open book. I will never abandon — and will vigorously
defend — the necessity of classification to defend our troops at war, to
protect sources and methods, and to safeguard confidential actions that keep
the American people safe. Here’s the difference though: Whenever we cannot
release certain information to the public for valid national security reasons,
I will insist that there is oversight of my actions — by Congress or by the

We’re currently launching a review of current policies by
all those agencies responsible for the classification of documents to determine
where reforms are possible, and to assure that the other branches of government
will be in a position to review executive branch decisions on these matters. Because
in our system of checks and balances, someone must always watch over the
watchers — especially when it comes to sensitive administration —

Now, along these same lines, my administration is also
confronting challenges to what is known as the “state secrets”
privilege. This is a doctrine that allows the government to challenge legal
cases involving secret programs. It’s been used by many past Presidents —
Republican and Democrat — for many decades. And while this principle is
absolutely necessary in some circumstances to protect national security, I am
concerned that it has been over-used. It is also currently the subject of a
wide range of lawsuits. So let me lay out some principles here. We must not
protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or
embarrassment to the government. And that’s why my administration is nearing
completion of a thorough review of this practice.

And we plan to embrace several principles for reform. We
will apply a stricter legal test to material that can be protected under the
state secrets privilege. We will not assert the privilege in court without
first following our own formal process, including review by a Justice
Department committee and the personal approval of the Attorney General. And
each year we will voluntarily report to Congress when we have invoked the
privilege and why because, as I said before, there must be proper oversight over
our actions.

On all these matters related to the disclosure of sensitive
information, I wish I could say that there was some simple formula out there to
be had. There is not. These often involve tough calls, involve competing
concerns, and they require a surgical approach. But the common thread that runs
through all of my decisions is simple: We will safeguard what we must to
protect the American people, but we will also ensure the accountability and
oversight that is the hallmark of our constitutional system. I will never hide
the truth because it’s uncomfortable. I will deal with Congress and the courts
as co-equal branches of government. I will tell the American people what I know
and don’t know, and when I release something publicly or keep something secret,
I will tell you why. (Applause.)

Now, in all the areas that I’ve discussed today, the
policies that I’ve proposed represent a new direction from the last eight
years. To protect the American people and our values, we’ve banned enhanced
interrogation techniques. We are closing the prison at Guantanamo. We are
reforming military commissions, and we will pursue a new legal regime to detain
terrorists. We are declassifying more information and embracing more oversight
of our actions, and we’re narrowing our use of the state secrets privilege. These
are dramatic changes that will put our approach to national security on a
surer, safer, and more sustainable footing. Their implementation will take
time, but they will get done.

There’s a core principle that we will apply to all of our
actions. 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. We seek the strongest and most sustainable
legal framework for addressing these issues in the long term — not to serve
immediate politics, but to do what’s right over the long term. By doing that we
can leave behind a legacy that outlasts my administration, my presidency, that
endures for the next President and the President after that — a legacy that
protects the American people and enjoys a broad legitimacy at home and abroad.

Now, this is what I mean when I say that we need to focus on
the future. I recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the
past. When it comes to actions of the last eight years, passions are high. Some
Americans are angry; others want to re-fight debates that have been settled, in
some cases debates that they have lost. I know that these debates lead
directly, in some cases, to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an
independent commission.

I’ve opposed the creation of such a commission because I
believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver
accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are
ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation
techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and
punish any violations of our laws or miscarriages of justice.

It’s no secret there is a tendency in Washington to spend
our time pointing fingers at one another. And it’s no secret that our media
culture feeds the impulse that lead to a good fight and good copy. But nothing
will contribute more than that than a extended relitigation of the last eight
years. Already, we’ve seen how that kind of effort only leads those in
Washington to different sides to laying blame. It can distract us from focusing
our time, our efforts, and our politics on the challenges of the future.

We see that, above all, in the recent debate — how the
recent debate has obscured the truth and sends people into opposite and
absolutist ends. On the one side of the spectrum, there are those who make
little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and would almost
never put national security over transparency. And on the other end of the
spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two
words: “Anything goes.” Their arguments suggest that the ends of
fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President
should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants — provided it is a
President with whom they agree.

Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side
is right. The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to
impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice
our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long
as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common
sense. That, after all, is the unique genius of America. That’s the challenge
laid down by our Constitution. That has been the source of our strength through
the ages. That’s what makes the United States of America different as a nation.

I can stand here today, as President of the United States,
and say without exception or equivocation that we do not torture, and that we
will vigorously protect our people while forging a strong and durable framework
that allows us to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. Make no
mistake: If we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the
past several years, then I will not be able to say that as President. And if we
cannot stand for our core values, then we are not keeping faith with the
documents that are enshrined in this hall. (Applause.)

The Framers who drafted the Constitution could not have
foreseen the challenges that have unfolded over the last 222 years. But our
Constitution has endured through secession and civil rights, through World War
and Cold War, because it provides a foundation of principles that can be
applied pragmatically; it provides a compass that can help us find our way. It
hasn’t always been easy. We are an imperfect people. Every now and then, there
are those who think that America’s safety and success requires us to walk away
from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. And we hear such voices
today. But over the long haul the American people have resisted that
temptation. And though we’ve made our share of mistakes, required some course
corrections, ultimately we have held fast to the principles that have been the
source of our strength and a beacon to the world.

Now this generation faces a great test in the specter of
terrorism. And unlike the Civil War or World War II, we can’t count on a
surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end. Right now, in distant
training camps and in crowded cities, there are people plotting to take
American lives. That will be the case a year from now, five years from now, and
— in all probability — 10 years from now. Neither I nor anyone can stand here
today and say that there will not be another terrorist attack that takes
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. And I do know with certainty that we can defeat al-Qaida. Because
the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America
from our allies, and 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. This must be our common purpose.

I ran for President because I believe that we cannot solve
the challenges of our time unless we solve them together. We will not be safe
if we see national security as a wedge that divides America — it can and must
be a cause that unites us as one people and as one nation. We’ve done so before
in times that were more perilous than ours. We will do so once again.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of
America. (Applause.)