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Trust in our Values and Our Institutions

While cable news outlets are billing Wednesday as a day of "dueling speeches," in reality there was no contest between the vision of a strong, safe, and principled America delivered by President Obama and the brooding retrospective defense of torture put forth by Vice President Cheney in his remarks that followed.

President Obama was clear that trust in our values and our institutions will enhance, not undermine, our national security. In addition to rejecting torture, he strongly stated that his first choice is to prosecute those who seek to harm the United States is in federal courts — the institution with the ability and experience to handle them.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and some of the details articulated by the president today would undermine the vision he outlined. For example, the President’s defense of military commissions would be unremarkable were it not for the manner in which the whole concept of military justice has been perverted over the last 8 years. The military commissions of the Bush era gave military justice a bad name, and procedural improvements at this stage — however meaningful — cannot rehabilitate them. Likewise, the detention without charge of combatants in wartime is unremarkable and in situations of armed conflict between states is provided for in the Geneva Conventions. But many of the Guantanamo detainees were picked up far from any battlefield, and even those who were captured in armed conflict were denied the traditional U.S. military safeguards for armed conflict detention when they were taken into custody. Continuing to detain these individuals further without trial risks perpetuating the Guantanamo legacy that has damaged the reputation of the United States as a country committed to the rule of law. It is therefore significant that the President limited the universe of individuals potentially subject to ongoing detention to Guantanamo detainees.

President Obama’s task is not an easy one, and it has been made immeasurably more difficult by the misguided and unlawful policies of the prior administration. However, the differences we saw today could not be starker. While Vice President Cheney is actively choosing to defend the Bush Administration’s policies, President Obama has no choice but to deal with their legacy. He should, at the very least, endeavor to quarantine the mistakes of the past to keep them from infecting our future.

Elisa Massimino is the Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights First.

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