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Frosty GOP Reception for Obama's Terrorism Policy Shifts

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Obama spoke Thursday on counterterrorism, though his words did not get a warm reception from GOP members of Congress.

President Barack Obama tried to use a wide-ranging speech Thursday to reset the narrative on a counterterrorism record that has been a political thorn in the White House’s side in recent months. But the immediate reaction from adversaries in Congress about new policies relating to the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison and drone strikes suggested he had changed few minds.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters afterward that “there are parts of this speech that I could’ve given.” But Obama’s overall view of the war is wrong, Graham said, adding that the president’s policies would make the country less safe. “The enemy is morphing. It is spreading,” he said. “There are more theaters of conflict today than there have ever been. Our allies are more afraid than I’ve ever seen; our enemies more emboldened.”

Obama laid out a new road map to combat the evolving terrorism threat, one that he’ll need Congress’ help to build with an array of legislation that he pledged to work with lawmakers on: the repeal of restrictions on transferring detainees from the Guantánamo Bay prison, new oversight measures for drone strikes, a revision of the 2001 authorization for the military to pursue al-Qaida, a media shield law and funding for diplomatic security.

“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth,” Obama said. “We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience to draw from, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions — about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them.”

But while members of both parties offered encouraging words about aspects of his speech, the same rhetorical dynamics and policy differences popped up almost immediately.

For instance, Obama said he would lift the administration’s internal moratorium on sending detainees back to Yemen. The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence panel, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, dismissed the speech as rewarding detainees at Guantánamo who are carrying out hunger strikes.

“The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” Chambliss said in a written statement. “Today’s speech sends the message to Guantanamo detainees that if they harass the dedicated military personnel there enough, we will give in and send them home, even to Yemen.”

And Obama was himself heckled by a shouting protester who interrupted him repeatedly in an echo of criticisms from the left about his extensive use of drones and his failure to fulfill his campaign promise to close Guantánamo.

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