May23 Speech Transcript

The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The original premise for opening Gitmo — that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention — was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. 

Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people, almost $1 million per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep Gitmo open at a time when we’re cutting investments in education and research here at home and when the Pentagon is struggling with sequester and budget cuts.

Now, as president, I have tried to close Gitmo. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States. 

These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from Gitmo with Congress’s support. When I ran for president the first time, John McCain supported closing Gitmo. This was a bipartisan issue. 

No person has ever escaped one of our Supermax or military prisons here in the United States, ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most Gitmo detainees. They’re in our prisons.

And given my administration’s relentless pursuit of Al Qaida’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.


OBAMA: Today…


OBAMA: So — let me finish, ma’am. So today…


OBAMA: So today, once again — so today…


OBAMA: I’m about to address it, ma’am, but you’ve — you’ve got to let me speak. I’m about to address it.


OBAMA: Let me address it.

PROTESTOR: (OFF-MIKE) close Guantanamo Bay…

OBAMA: Why don’t you let me address it, ma’am? Why don’t you sit down, and I will tell you exactly what I’m going to do?


OBAMA: Thank you, ma’am. Thank you. Thank you. Ma’am, thank you. You should let me finish my sentence.

Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. 


I have asked — I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen so we can review them on a case-by-case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. 


OBAMA: Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee. 


Now, ma’am, let me — let me finish. Let me finish, ma’am. Now, this is part of free speech, is you being able to speak, but also you listening and me being able to speak, right?


Thank you. 

Now, even after we take these steps, one issue will remain, which is how to deal with those Gitmo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted, for example, because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law. 

And I know the politics are hard, but history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are — being held on a hunger strike. 

I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about. Is that who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that. We have prosecuted scores of terrorists in our courts. That includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit, and Faisal Shahzad, who put a car bomb in Times Square. It’s in a court of law that we will try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. 

Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, is as we speak serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison here in the United States. In sentencing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “The way we treat you is the measure of our own liberty.” 

PROTESTOR: How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old (OFF- MIKE)

OBAMA: When we — we went…

PROTESTOR: Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: He went on to — we went on…

PROTESTOR: (OFF-MIKE) can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop (OFF-MIKE) on the basis of (OFF-MIKE) 

OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.

PROTESTOR: (OFF-MIKE) that you have killed. Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love the rule of law. Drones are making us less safe and keeping people (OFF-MIKE) rule of law (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: You know, I think that the — and I’m going off-script, as you might expect here…


The — the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. 


Obviously — obviously — obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously, she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.


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