Obama and Cheney clash on future of Guantanamo

Former vice-president condemns 'recklessness cloaked in righteousness'

A grave but determined Barack Obama yesterday staunchly defended his orders to close down America's controversial prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and to ban interrogation techniques permitted by the Bush administration, such as waterboarding.

At the National Archives, which houses pages from the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the President once again contended that his predecessor had sacrificed the moral values of the country while attempting to protect it after 9/11, following an "ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable – a framework that failed to trust in our institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass".

While Mr Obama may be unwavering in his intellectual position – he broke little new ground – the debate about the best way forward seems only to grow more intense. Earlier this week, the US Senate had overwhelmingly refused to approve funding to close down the Guantanamo camp, with Democrats joining Republicans to demand answers on what exactly will be done with the 240 terror suspects who are still housed there.

And the duelling between this administration and the last was never more vividly illustrated than by the appearance of Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, at a think-tank just minutes after Mr Obama had surrendered the microphone yesterday.

"It's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo," Mr Cheney said. "But it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security." He quipped that this White House was guilty of "recklessness cloaked in righteousness".

Trying to fend off critics from both the conservative right and the liberal left of his own party, Mr Obama revived the argument that Guantanamo has become a symbol around the world that helped America's enemies attract recruits. The camp "likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained", he posited, adding that "rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security".

It is not clear that Mr Obama said enough on the future of the Guantanamo prisoners to satisfy Congress, particularly when it comes to detainees who are thought to still represent a threat to the US, but for whom there is little prosecutable evidence. "I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we face," Mr Obama conceded.

Even before he spoke, details leaked of a Pentagon report suggesting that of the 530-plus detainees already released from Guantanamo, one in seven had recommitted themselves to fighting the US and joining the so-called jihad. The detainees in question were released under George Bush. Meanwhile, the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, revealed yesterday that arrangements were in train for the first prisoner from Guantanamo to be brought to the US homeland to face justice in a civilian court. The prisoner is Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is charged in connection with the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa.

The President insisted that if others among the detainees are brought to the mainland to stand trial, Americans should not be alarmed. Such detainees would be held in "supermax" prisons from which no one has ever escaped.

On practically every issue, the philosophies of the President and Mr Cheney are diametrically opposed.

Mr Cheney called the Obama approach "contrived indignation and phony moralising".

Mr Obama dismissed the idea that "the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means".