We get reaction to President Obama and Vice President Dick Cheney’s dueling speeches on torture from Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Warren took part in a secret meeting Wednesday between Obama and several human rights groups. Warren says although he welcomes Obama’s willingness to hear critical views, he’s disappointed in Obama’s new support for preventive detention. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren joins us now. He’s in San Francisco, though he’s usually based in New York, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He met with President Obama earlier this week, the day before President Obama gave his speech at the National Archive yesterday.
Vince, welcome to Democracy Now! And start off — well, explain why this meeting that you, representing CCR, and other human rights groups had was supposedly originally a secret meeting. And then, what happened? And where did you meet? Tell us all the details.
VINCENT WARREN: Well, I’m not — still not allowed to talk about the substance of the meeting, but it was a meeting in which we met at the — in the Cabinet Room of the West Wing. And there were a number of high-level officials that were there at the meeting.
And what was sort of shocking about it is we were told that we should not at all talk about the meeting, but right promptly afterwards, the press started calling us, because the White House Press Office told everybody about the meeting.
But it was — in my sense, it was something that President Obama wanted to do to be able to talk and to hear our views, the views of some of the human rights organizations like CCR, and to really embrace his critics, which I think is a wonderful hallmark of this administration.
The problem is that he goes out the next day, and he has a speech in which he not only embraces the opposition, meaning George Bush’s policies, but then he comes out with things that even George Bush didn’t come out with, like preventive detention.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Vince, while you’re saying you can’t talk about the substance of the meeting, were you surprised at all, after the meeting you had, about the positions that he took, or did you have at least some indication that this was going to happen beforehand?
VINCENT WARREN: Well, with respect to how I felt about it, the military commissions piece was something that he had come out with earlier than the meeting. And so, the Center had opposed that very vigorously. You know, putting a few due process protections on an old George Bush policy is like rehabbing a house on a toxic waste site. You know, it really didn’t make a whole lot of difference. And you can’t make the military commissions better.
What was very surprising was to hear President Obama talk about what he called prolonged detention, but what I think we can all safely say is preventive detention, moving forward, the idea of detaining people not because they’ve committed a crime, but because of their general dangerousness or that they may commit a crime in the future. That’s something that the documents that President Obama was standing in front of, particularly the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, simply doesn’t permit. And when I heard that in his speech, I was deeply, deeply shocked that he would go in that direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Had he told you that the day before?
VINCENT WARREN: No, he hadn’t — he didn’t talk about his speech at all. We really didn’t have a sense of what was going to come the next day. And we didn’t discuss preventive detention. And I think what’s interesting about it is, for most people in the room, I suspect that that wasn’t even something that anybody was contemplating or really could conceive of. We haven’t heard that discussion for, you know, eight or nine months. And so, this was really the first time that we were confronted with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Vince, why can’t you talk about that meeting? Why is it off the record? Why is it supposed to be secret? And, well, that’s the question.
VINCENT WARREN: Yeah, well, you know, there are probably a couple of reasons. And one thing you can say is that the President wants to be able to have frank discussions with folks without the concern that those discussions will leak out to the press, and I think there’s some benefit to that.
You know, there’s another way to think about it, which is that President Obama wants to silence his critics. I don’t think that’s the sense, because all of the positions that I took in that meeting were positions that CCR had taken publicly before that meeting and certainly are positions that we’re still going to be taking after that meeting. So I’m not really sure what that is.
My view is that, in entering the meeting, I gave my word that I would keep the meeting confidential. And I take those things seriously.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Vince, your reaction to seeing former Vice President Cheney immediately afterwards with a speech that’s televised, the enormous pressure that has been coming on the Obama administration from some sectors of the Republican Party? The Vice President is actually being seen publicly a lot more now, the former Vice President, than he was when he was in office. And, of course, he said in his speech that those who criticize enhanced interrogation are practicing “recklessness cloaked in righteousness.”
VINCENT WARREN: Yeah. I really yearn for the day when I don’t have to turn on my television and see Dick Cheney talking. It’s been eight years of that, and I can’t believe that it’s still moving forward.
And, of course, you know, he’s done — he’s doing the same thing that the Republican machine has done ever since September 11th, is every time that there are policy discussions on the table, every time that they begin to lose the fight about what is legal and what is proper, they roll out the fear carpet, which, of course, he’s doing again.
And not only has he, you know, I fear, spooked this administration a little bit, but he’s also spooked the Congress. It’s outrageous that the Congress is playing this entire piece on the Republican battlefield.
The President said — you know, let’s focus on some of the good things. President Obama said that he was going to close Guantanamo in a year, and he should be applauded for that. But, of course, Congress is messing with that timeline fairly severely by not providing the funding for him to do that and by saying no one will be able to release to American soil, whether they’re in — they come as prisoners or detainees or they come as free people, which, of course, holds up the timeline for any types of trials that the administration wants to do. It doesn’t allow groups like the Uyghurs, the Chinese Muslims who everybody says pose no threat to anyone, to possibly be resettled in the United States, which they absolutely should. And when that doesn’t happen, it keeps the doors to Europe locked. So, the question is, with the Congress taking this stance, how is the administration going to close Guantanamo and send people who can be released back to where they came from or to third countries, or to try the people that can’t be released?
AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren, I want to go to that issue of the Uyghurs, for people to understand what you’re talking about. A judge says they should be released immediately. The Chinese government doesn’t allow them back into China. So, where are they? And explain why this is such a good example of the argument of people being allowed into the United States?
VINCENT WARREN: The Uyghurs are a very, very interesting group. And we should start out by saying that there used to be more Uyghurs in Guantanamo than there are now. There were a group of Uyghurs that were released several years ago and are now living in Albania in a camp there, posing no threat to anyone. The remainder of the group are still in Guantanamo. But, of course, the factual circumstances of the people in Guantanamo are the same factual circumstances of the people that were released to Albania. And, of course, it’s just a hallmark of the Bush era that they would release some people but not release others.
So now we have court cases in which we’ve gotten orders that the Uyghurs should be released or can be released. And first the Bush administration and now, it appears, the Obama administration, in terms of their legal position, has been opposing that. So we’re in a situation where the Uyghurs fall into, I believe it was, the third category of detainees that President Obama talked about, when these are people that have been released — ordered released by courts, but right now what makes it difficult is that China doesn’t want them back, and then no other country wants to take them, because they fear getting into a tangle with China.
So this has completely politicized a situation that has fallen on the backs of innocent men who have been in Guantanamo for years. And no one, especially not Congress, is stepping up to do anything about it.
What we need to do is to release the Uyghurs into a Uyghur community into the United States. That will then unlock the door to Europe to take a whole range of other people that should be released, some that have ordered been released and some that have been cleared for release by the Bush administration that are sitting in Guantanamo right now.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s opposition to an independent commission?
VINCENT WARREN: That was an interesting discussion, because our view at the Center for Constitutional Rights is that the purest form of accountability is criminal prosecution. We don’t oppose a commission at the Center for Constitutional Rights, one in which there’s subpoena power, in which criminal charges can come, and there’s no amnesty.
But what I found interesting is that President Obama opposed blue ribbon commissions like the 9/11 Commissions, but at least in his discussion seemed to leave open the possibility of criminal prosecution, by saying that the existing part of the democracy, the Justice Department, has the full ability to investigate folks. So, I found it a little bit interesting. I think that there’s room there for a criminal investigation, and I certainly think that accountability and transparency go hand in hand.
And to the extent that this administration is agreeing to release documents and release information as a subject of our lawsuit and the ACLU lawsuit and to the extent that those documents show criminal activity, it’s beholden — it behooves this government to start criminal investigations of the very information that they’re releasing to the public. You can’t just put it out there and pretend it doesn’t exist.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Vince Warren, I want to play one more part of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech yesterday and then get your response.
DICK CHENEY: Over on the left wing of the President’s party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorist. The kind of answers they’re after would be heard before a so-called truth commission. Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense and political opponents as criminals. It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessor.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Vince Warren, your reaction to former Vice President Dick Cheney calling this an issue of political disagreements?
VINCENT WARREN: That is a tremendous amount of nonsense. This is not a political disagreement. What has happened here, this is arguably some of the worst and notorious criminal activity committed by government officials in the history of the United States.
So, what we really need to be focusing on is, once the criminal activity is exposed, what is this administration going to do about it? This is not about partisan wrangling in the Beltway. This is not about respectful policy disagreements. This is about torture. This is about illegal activity that was engaged in by members of the administration and military operatives and CIA operatives under the Bush administration. And it is absolutely beholden on this administration, and in fact required under Article IV of the Geneva Conventions, once this information is out there, specifically around torture, to begin an investigation. It’s not a question of “if”; it really is a question of when he’s going to do it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And on a related note, what’s your reaction to the report that came to light this week, the Pentagon report that one in seven former detainees at Gitmo who were released have gone back to terrorist activities?
VINCENT WARREN: Yeah. Juan, every couple of months, the Department of Defense rolls out these statistics of who’s gone back to the battlefield. I have a couple of comments on that. Number one, they’ve never been specific, for the most part, about who these detainees are. Number two, when you look at the going-back-to-the-battlefield rhetoric, they talk about a range of things. They talk about people who may have taken arms up against the US, but they also talk about people that support people that take arms up against the US. So, theoretically, you can be one of those people on the Department of Defense list if you are consorting with people who have expressed that they want to take up arms against the United States. And so, the devil is in the details in these numbers.
And I think the important piece is this: they are way over-inflated. We’ve never gotten any details of this. Interestingly enough, this document has been the subject of a Freedom of Information Act suit for a very long time, and we still haven’t gotten it. But they like to roll out those numbers.
And I think, finally, the thing that’s important is I am convinced that the specter, the fact of Guantanamo, generates more dangerous people than the number of people that have ever been released. For every one person that may go back to the battlefield or may harbor ill will towards the United States, those number — the people that are beginning to do that for every day that people are held in Guantanamo far out-cede that — outweigh that. And so, the issue really isn’t about who’s going back to the battlefield; the issue is, who are we going to prevent from going to the battlefield in the first place by doing the right thing in the United States?
AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.