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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks in Berlin on the Closing of Guantanamo Bay




Remarks as prepared for delivery.


It is my distinct honor to join you at the Hans Arnhold Center of the American Academy of Berlin.

The Academy is a fitting caretaker for a building that holds a special place in history as a safe harbor for freedom and a catalyst for cultural exchange.

When luminaries like Richard Holbrooke, Richard Von Weizsacker, Fritz Stern and Otto Graf Lambsdorff joined forces to create the American Academy, they knew that we must strengthen the bonds of friendship between the United States and Germany – not just for the future of our two nations – but so that we might together safeguard the flame of liberty that illuminates the darker corners of human character throughout our world.

Time and again, the strength of that flame has been tested in Berlin, and the dueling paths of freedom and oppression have often reached a crossroads here.

Yet for six decades, when those moments of consequence have come, the United States has consistently stood together with the people of this city and shown the world the strength of our common values.

In 1948, when the Soviet Union threatened two million innocent citizens with a blockade of food and basic services, President Truman ordered an unprecedented military airlift operation to protect our friends and defend our freedom.

The following year, the founding of NATO bound our nation with Europe in a common alliance to promote peace and provide for a common defense. And only six short years later, the Alliance welcomed West Germany as a full member of the Alliance. The Alliance, the partnership we formed then to unite our countries in defense of common values, has in the years since brought peace to the war-torn Balkan nations and today offers new hope to the citizens of Afghanistan.

The people of this great city understand hope. The United States worked with the citizens of a fractured Berlin for more than forty years when it was isolated from the West and divided by a wall that stood for the worst in mankind.  This academy, in fact, was a central gathering point for American officials in what was the American sector during that period.

Forty-six years ago, President Kennedy came to this city, stood at the wall, and said, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin."

President Reagan echoed that young President’s refrain in 1987, when speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, he said, "Yes ... this wall will fall, for it cannot withstand faith, it cannot withstand truth ... cannot withstand freedom."

And a candidate for President of the United States, Barack Obama, came here last July and said, "This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom. And you know that the only reason we stand here tonight is because men and women from both of our nations came together to work, and struggle, and sacrifice for that better life."

When Americans faced our darkest hour, following the terror of September 11th, the people of Germany stood with us.  President Kennedy may have said that we were all citizens of Berlin, but when the future’s grip on freedom was threatened, in those hours and days before the smoke and dust even cleared the air, our European allies proclaimed in words and deeds that "we are all Americans."  The American people will never forget that support.  We will always be grateful.

With our shock and grief still raw, we stood together as one united global community, prepared with solemn purpose to root out terrorism from every cave and crevice of the earth.  In a page of history never written, we together could have seized that tragic moment to raise liberty’s torch brighter and more broadly than ever before.  The decisions made in the years that followed have been long debated and will be studied for generations to come.  But let me be clear tonight: The course the United States will take going forward will honor both the spirit of our historic alliances and the outpouring of support and goodwill we received after that terrible day, as well as our commitment to the rule of law.

Nothing symbolizes our new course more than our decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. 

I recently visited Guantanamo.  I felt it was my duty to see the detention center, meet with military officials stationed there, and determine where things stand.  I can confidently report that the prison is now run in an efficient, professional manner.  Detainees are treated humanely. 

But President Obama believes, and I strongly agree, that Guantanamo has come to represent a time and an approach that we want to put behind us: a disregard for our centuries-long respect for the rule of law and a go-it alone approach that alienated our allies, incited our adversaries and ultimately weakened our fight against terrorism. 

Simply put, keeping the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay open makes America less safe, and makes our friends in this and other European cities less secure.

That is why one of President Obama’s first acts in office was to issue an executive order mandating that Guantanamo be closed within one year.

Many in the global community have been quick to point out that the logistics of closing the prison won’t be easy.  That is true.  In fact, I expect it to be one of the most daunting challenges I face as Attorney General.

The President has directed that I lead a team to determine the disposition of each detainee housed there.  We must devise a plan that abides by American and international law while ensuring the safety of the American people.  For some detainees, the decision will be fairly easy.  Some, we will conclude, no longer pose a threat to the United States and can be released or transferred into the custody of other countries.  The Bush administration already took this approach with many detainees.  Others, we will choose to prosecute in federal court. 

We are making progress every day.  And I can promise you that our ultimate solutions will be grounded in the Constitution of the United States, the international laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, and consistent with the rule of law and the democratic histories of our peoples.

We closely weighed and met those criteria in the case of a detainee named Ali al-Marri.  Al-Marri had been sitting in a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years facing no charges, without the prospect of either release or prosecution.  But in February, the Justice Department indicted him in federal court on two counts of providing and conspiring with others to provide material support to al-Qaeda.  He will soon answer to those crimes in court, and justice will be served – perhaps by his conviction but certainly by his opportunity to defend himself in an open court. 

We will find no one policy or sweeping approach that will appropriately apply to all detainees.  But by treating take each case individually, I am confident that we will get this right.

As we work to close Guantanamo, the President has also instructed us to develop new policies to govern the handling of future detainees captured in the fight against terrorism.  As important as it is that we find just solutions for each current detainee, it is equally important that we learn from the mistakes of the past rather than repeating them. 

To see what principles will guide our approach, look to the action we took just recently in our own legal system when we withdrew for Guantanamo detainees the use of the term "enemy combatant," which had become needlessly inflammatory to our allies around the world.  While the symbolism of this decision made headlines, you will also find here a legal rationale that demonstrates the manner in which this administration will proceed in detainee matters.

Rather than baldly asserting that the President has the inherent authority to hold detainees, we grounded our authority in a congressional enactment, specifically in the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the days after the September 11th attacks.  And we relied upon the international laws of war, which have been developed over centuries and have legitimacy in the eyes of our global allies. 

Our nation will be stronger – and safer – for that approach.

We are facing these issues head on, and making the hard decisions that this moment in history requires. But we cannot confront these challenges alone. Just as we joined hands with our international allies to bring down the Iron Curtain that divided this great city, so must we join together to close Guantanamo.

Our history has shown that Europe and America are strongest when we work together. Divided by an ocean, we are united by our belief in the rule of law and a commitment to extending freedom and prosperity to every corner of the globe. And just as we defeated communism together in the last century, so too will we defeat the international terrorist networks that threaten our civilizations in this century. But we will do it not just with the force of our armies, but also with the strength of our ideas and the example of our actions. And we must do so together.

I know that Europe did not open Guantanamo, and that in fact, a great many on this continent opposed it. But as we turn the page to a new beginning, it is incumbent on us all to embrace new solutions, free from the rancor and rhetoric that divided us in the past. To close Guantanamo, we must all make sacrifices and we must all be willing to make unpopular choices.

The United States is ready to do its part, and we hope that Europe will join us – not out of a sense of responsibility, but from a commitment to work with one of its oldest allies to confront one of the world’s most pressing challenges. The story of the last half-century is one of each side of the Atlantic turning to the other for help in times of need, and today is no different.

America’s Constitution – our founding document and living, breathing moral compass – begins by contemplating the pursuit of a "more perfect union."  Implicit in those words, of course, is that we are imperfect.  We make mistakes.  But we embrace the pursuit of perfection.  I am confident that the steps President Obama is taking to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay will help us to become a safer and more perfect world. And I hope you will join us in that pursuit.

Thank you.

Updated March 10, 2016