WASHINGTON - Despite stiff resistance from Congress, President Obama said yesterday that he would transfer some detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to highly secure facilities inside the United States.
He proposed "prolonged detention" for terrorism suspects who cannot be tried, a problem he called "the toughest issue we face."
In a speech at the National Archives, Mr. Obama strongly defended his anti-terrorism policies and his commitment to closing the Guantanamo prison.
With Republicans criticizing him as weak on terror, and Democrats nervous about transferring terrorism suspects to the United States, the White House sought to reclaim a debate over which even the President's closest allies say he has lost control.
"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security," Mr. Obama said. "As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists."
In describing his plans for the roughly 240 terrorism suspects still held at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. Obama accused his predecessor George W. Bush of having embarked on "a misguided experiment" that resulted in "a mess."
He said there would be no danger in transferring detainees to "highly secure prisons" in this country and pledged to seek trials for many in civilian or military courts. But he also said he would move to "construct a legitimate legal framework" to justify the detention of dangerous terrorism suspects who could not be tried or released, a proposal that is creating unease among human rights advocates.
Moments after Mr. Obama's speech, cable news programs turned their focus to a competing address being delivered by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
It amounted to philosophical combat between competing national security visions.
Mr. Cheney delivered the most pointed rejoinder of his weeks-long media campaign in defense of the Bush administration's national security record, including its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its adoption of harsh interrogation tactics and detention policies that have been criticized.
He said the "great dividing line in our current debate over national security" is whether that "comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever," during his appearance at the American Enterprise Institute. "Or whether you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event, coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort."
Presidential scholars could not recall another moment when consecutive administrations intersected so early and in such a public way. The long presidential campaign lacked a head-to-head discussion of the Bush administration's national security policies. The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, largely agreed with Mr. Obama on the need to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and to end interrogation methods that humanitarian groups have called torture.
"I think it is unprecedented in the modern era," said Peneil Joseph, a historian at Brandeis University. "We've seen outgoing administrations that did not get along with the new administration, but we have never seen the vice president of an outgoing administration lambasting the new administration like this."