WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama sought on Thursday to quell a domestic backlash against his efforts to close the internationally condemned U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and roll back some of the most divisive Bush-era anti-terrorism policies.
Obama made his case in a much-anticipated speech a day after the U.S. Senate, controlled by fellow Democrats, handed him a stinging setback by blocking funds to shutter the prison until he presents a detailed plan on what to do with the 240 terrorism suspects held there.
Countering Obama's criticism of the mess he said he had inherited from the previous administration, former Vice President Dick Cheney said recent reversals of past policies amounted to recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe.
Obama, who succeeded Republican George W. Bush on January 20, had vowed in his first days in office to close the detention centre, located at a U.S. Naval base in Cuba, within a year as part of his effort to repair America's tarnished image abroad.
But implementing a revamped approach on detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects has proved more difficult than his administration expected.
We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe, Obama said at the National Archives as he outlined his Guantanamo strategy and tried to wrest back control of the debate.
Seeking to calm the public's fears that some Guantanamo detainees could eventually be released on U.S. soil, Obama insisted he would not authorise the freeing of anyone who would endanger the American people.
But he said some terrorism suspects could be tried in U.S. courts and be held in super-maximum-security U.S. prisons.
Obama's speech, however, appeared to fall short of the kind of specifics demanded by friends and critics alike.
Obama has a high public approval rating, but he faces a major test of his leadership as he tries to quell a controversy that threatens to divert his attention from his declared top priority of rescuing the ailing U.S. economy.
In a sharp counterpoint, Cheney, an architect of Bush's detainee policy, spoke at a thinktank just after the president finished his address in Washington. He said Obama had made his Guantanamo decision with little deliberation and no plan.
Obama accused the Bush administration of having failed to use our values as a compass when it crafted detention and interrogation policies after the September 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks on the United States, and that his administration now had to clean up the problems left behind.
He renewed his commitment to a January 2010 deadline for closing the Guantanamo prison, which opened in 2002 as part of Bush's war on terrorism that followed the September 11 attacks.
The prison has long been the target of criticism by international human rights groups and many foreign governments, which accused the Bush administration of condoning torture of inmates held there.
In the later years of his administration, Bush had said that he wanted to close the Guantanamo prison, but had not taken concrete steps to shut it.
In a reminder of the security jitters that have periodically shaken the country since the September 11 attacks, authorities said late on Wednesday they had foiled a plot to blow up two New York synagogues and simultaneously shoot down military planes.
Four men arrested in the suspected plot were due to appear in court in White Plains, New York on Thursday. New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said all four had criminal records and did not appear to be part of al Qaeda.