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Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on the Military Tribunal Bill

Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you to my dear friend and colleague from West Virginia.

Mister President:

I am proud to be sponsoring this amendment with the senior senator from West Virginia. He is absolutely right that Congress has abrogated its oversight responsibilities and one way to reverse that troubling trend is to adopt a sunset provision in this bill. We did it in the PATRIOT Act, and that allowed us to make important revisions to the bill that reflected our experience about what worked and what didn't work during the previous five years. We should do that again with this important piece of legislation.

Mister President, I think it's important to note that this is not a conventional war that we are fighting, as has been noted oftentimes by our President and on the other side of the aisle. We don't know when this war against terrorism might end. There's no emperor to sign a surrender document. And as a consequence, unless we build in to our own legislative systems, and our own processes, some mechanism to oversee what we are doing, then we are going to have an open-ended situation, not just for this particular President, but for every President for the conc– foreseeable future. And we will not have any formal power to take a look at this, and to make sure that it's being done right.

This is a significant improvement over the existing legislation, and it's one of those pieces of le– one of those amendments that would, in normal circumstances, I think, garner strong bipartisan support. Unfortunately, we're not in normal circumstances, so let me just make note of the broader legislation and the context in which we speak. You know I've only been in this Body for a short while, but I am not naïve of the political considerations that go along with many of the decisions we make here. I realize that soon – perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow – we will adjourn for the fall, the campaigning will begin in earnest.

And there are going to be 30-second attack ads, we've all seen them in the newspapers and on television. Negative mail pieces criticizing people who don't for – vote for this legislation as caring more about the rights of terrorists than protecting Americans. To some degree, that's the vote that was specifically designed; it's time to add more fuel to the fire. And yet, what I know is this: I am disappointed, because what we're doing here today – a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused – should be bigger than politics. This is serious. And this is somber, as the President noted today.

And I have the for my colleague from Virginia and it saddens me to stand and not be four-square with him. I don't know a more patriotic individual, and somebody I admire more. And when the Armed Services Bill that was originally conceived came out, I thought to myself, this is a proud moment in the Senate; I thought, here is a bipartisan piece of work that has been structured and well-thought-through, in which we can all join together to support to make sure we're taking care of business.

Because the fact is, is that, although the debate that we've been having on this floor has obviously shown that we have some ideological differences, the truth is, is that we could have settled most of these issues – on habeas corpus; on this sunset provision; on a whole host of issues, the Armed Services Committee showed us how to do it. All of us – Democrats and Republicans – want to do whatever it takes to track down terrorists and bring them as swiftly as possible to justice. All of us want to give our President every tool necessary to do this. And all of us were willing to do that in this bill. And anyone who says otherwise is lying to the American people.

But in the five years that the President's system of military tribunals has existed, the fact is not one terrorist has been tried. Not one has been convicted. And in the end, the Supreme Court of the United States found the whole thing unconstitutional because we were rushing through a process and not overseeing it with sufficient care. We could have fixed all this several years ago, in a way that allows us to detain and interrogate and try suspected terrorists while still protecting the accidentally accused from spending their lives locked away in Guantánamo Bay. We could do that still.

President: Time has expired.

Obama: Mr. President, just as – could I get unanimous consent for two more minutes?

President: Is there objection?

John Warner: Charged against the allocation under the proponent of the amendment?

President: The proponent has no time remaining.

Warner: Senator, we're under fairly rigid time control, but I'd be glad to give you a minute here.

Obama: Okay. Let me conclude then. I appreciate the Senator from Virginia. I would ask that my complete statement appear in the record as if read, and I would just conclude by saying this: Senator Byrd has spent more time in this chamber than any of us. Than many of us combined. He has seen the ebb and flow of politics in this nation. He understands that sometimes we get caught up in the heat of the moment. The design of the Senate has been to cool those passions, and to step back and take a somber look, and a careful look, at what we're doing.

Passions never flare up more than during times where we feel threatened, and I would strongly urge us, despite my great admiration for one of the sponsors of the underlying Bill, that we accept this extraordinarily modest amendment that would allow us to go back in five years' time, and make sure that what we're doing serves American ideals, American values, and ultimately will make us more successful in prosecuting the war on terrorism that all of us are concerned with.

Thank you very much, Mr. President