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What Obama could learn from JFK

“No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme,” said JFK in a speech delivered 50 years

Two years have passed since Barack Obama ordered the closure of the US prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, yet 172 inmates continue to be held in Kafka-esque limbo, denied the rights supposedly guaranteed them by law. Just how redolent of Kafka the situation has become was stressed by the publication over Easter weekend of the Guantanamo Files by the New York Times and the Guardian.

These military dossiers, amounting to more than 750 separate documents, cast new and shaming light on that purgatory of careless injustice and cruelty, inflicted on confirmed innocents and suspected terrorists alike with little concern for right or wrong.

Such subjective terms as "right" and "wrong" may have little place in most political discourse. The latest revelations, however, are so far removed from the democratic principles publicly advocated by the west that this language feels not only appropriate but necessary.

Take the detention of a senile, 89-year-old man or that of a child of 14, who had been conscripted into insurgent forces against his will. Then there are the unjustifiable incarcerations of those cleared of wrongdoing, their release in some cases delayed for futile intelligence-gathering purposes. And what about the holding of a British resident on the basis of confessions obtained through torture, or the security briefing that instructed Guantanamo Bay analysts to consider a popular Casio wristwatch to be a marker of al-Qaeda membership?

Now is a time for contrition. Instead, the White House has criticised the disclosures, insisting that the documents, originally handed to WikiLeaks, paint an incomplete and outdated picture of life at the camp. This may well be true – but an adequate apology is what is needed, not more deflections or excuses.

Fifty years ago today, President John F Kennedy delivered a speech entitled "The President and the Press", in which he set out his hopes for stronger ties between government and the media. Though largely advocating a statist line when it came to leaked information, Kennedy acknowledged: "There is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it."

His concern was to "prevent unauthorised disclosures to the enemy" in the interests of national security; but Kennedy was careful to balance the journalist's responsibility to make sure that no strategically dangerous information is handed over to the "enemy" (then the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" that was communism) with a "second obligation" to "inform and alert": "From that scrutiny comes understanding and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary." He continued: "No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme."

Words that Obama should certainly consider. Should he be condemning leaks, or the wrong that leaks expose?

Video footage from a recent NS debate on the subject of leaks and whistleblowers can be found here, here and here, featuring Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Mehdi Hasan, NS senior editor (politics), and Douglas Murray, author and political commentator, respectively.