Guests and members of the media awaited Dick Cheney’s speech on Thursday in Washington while President Obama’s remarks played on a screen.
President Obama and former vice president Richard B. Cheney clashed today over the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, harsh interrogation policies and other approaches to fighting terrorism, as they delivered dueling speeches in which they forcefully defended their respective policies, with each charging that the other’s administration had made the nation less secure.
In a speech at the National Archives, Obama said the Bush administration’s endorsement of harsh interrogation techniques and its use of Guantanamo to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely had helped swell the ranks of America’s enemies. Despite fierce congressional opposition, including from fellow Democrats, he said some detainees would be brought to the United States and incarcerated in high-security prisons. But he insisted that no one who poses a threat to U.S. national security would be released, much less on American soil.
In a separate address at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Cheney sharply denounced the Obama administration on several fronts while vigorously defending Bush administration policies, notably the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that included waterboarding, a practice that simulates drowning and that has been widely characterized as torture. Cheney asserted that the techniques and other Bush administration policies potentially saved “hundreds of thousands” of innocent lives.
Together, the two speeches represented a historic confrontation between the past and present, a former administration and a current one, a view of the world embraced by President George W. Bush and an opposing approach advanced by his successor.
In each venue, the speaker appeared pointedly aware of his adversary. Moments after Obama finished speaking, Cheney was introduced by an AEI official who claimed to know that Obama had purposely scheduled his speech to coincide with Cheney’s.
Rarely has a top official of a past administration taken such direct and forceful aim at a new president. And it was even rarer that a president chose to make such a direct and defensive response to criticism from a former official.
But both Cheney and Obama made clear today that they see nothing ordinary in the issues that have driven their disagreement. Both described the stakes as the highest facing the nation, and both expressed extraordinary confidence in their conclusions.
In the face of criticism from both the left and right, Obama argued that America must adhere to its fundamental values as his administration works to safeguard the nation while cleaning up what he described as a legal “mess” left by the Bush administration at Guantanamo.
While the government has taken military and diplomatic steps to prevent a new attack by the al-Qaeda terrorist network, Obama said, “I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.”
Standing in the rotunda of the National Archives, which houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other core documents of American democracy, Obama also defended his decisions to release Bush administration memos justifying the use of harsh interrogation techniques and to withhold photos showing detainee abuse, decisions he insisted were not contradictory but were aimed at striking “the right balance between transparency and national security.”
He sharply criticized “political posturing” over his efforts to close the Guantanamo prison camp and rebutted claims in Congress from lawmakers of both parties that bringing terrorist suspects to the United States to stand trial would endanger national security.
Charging that congressional debate over the issue produced “fear-mongering” and speeches “calculated to scare people rather than educate them,” he pledged: “We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security; nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people.”
Obama’s speech today was billed by the White House as a major address on national security. It was aimed less at providing details of his plans to close the Guantanamo prison and prosecute detained terrorist suspects than at explaining his policies and regaining the initiative on the detainee issue.
The speech came a day after Senate Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly rejected Obama’s request for funds to close the Guantanamo detention facility. In a 90-6 vote, the Senate yesterday declined to provide $80 million in requested funding until Obama issues a plan for dealing with the 240 detainees who remain at Guantanamo, a U.S. naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba. Lawmakers from both parties voiced strong opposition to bringing any of the detainees to the United States or ultimately releasing them into U.S. society.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney, who has emerged as the leading Republican critic of Obama’s approach to fighting terrorism, today vigorously defended the interrogation techniques that the Bush administration authorized the CIA to use on suspected terrorists and denounced the “contrived indignation and phony moralizing” that he said the methods have inspired.
He warned that it would be “unwise” and reckless to completely renounce the methods in the future.
Cheney in recent weeks has repeatedly accused Obama of endangering national security by ordering the closure of the Guantanamo prison and ending the harsh interrogation techniques. After one such attack by Cheney in March, Obama expressed his fundamental disagreement with the former vice president, who he said was “drawing the wrong lesson from history.” Obama said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program that Cheney “has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can’t reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don’t torture, with our national security interests.”
Standing in front of a display containing the original Constitution, Obama returned to that theme today, saying that while the United States needs to update its institutions to deal with the continuing threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Americans must also trust in those institutions and in U.S. values.
Obama said fidelity to American values was the reason that the United States grew to become the world’s strongest nation.
“It’s the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s armed forces than from their own government; the reason why America’s benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries; the reason why we’ve been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty,” he said.
“Where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology,” Obama said. Those values were put to the test by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which showed that the government would need new tools to prevent future assaults, he said.
“Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions,” he said. While those decisions “were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people,” he said, “too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight,” and it often “trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.”
He added, “Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens — fell silent. In other words, we went off course.”
Stressing that “we are indeed at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” Obama said that “we do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat.” But he said this must be done “with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.”
He charged that the Bush administration “established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable,” one that “failed to use our values as a compass.”
That, Obama said, was why he banned “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques,” ordered the closure of the Guantanamo prison camp and directed authorities to review the cases of all of its detainees.
He said the interrogation techniques and the use of Guantanamo alienated friends and allies, undermined the rule of law, helped terrorists gain recruits and increased “the will of our enemies to fight us.”
“There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world,” Obama said. Like the interrogation techniques, it contributed to terrorist recruitment, he said, adding, “Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”
“We are cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis,” Obama said.
The president did not mention Cheney by name in his speech. But he said his own policies represent “a new direction from the last eight years,” and he vigorously disputed the former vice president’s contention that the harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were necessary.
“Now, I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe,” Obama said. “I could not disagree more. As commander in chief, I see the intelligence. I bear the responsibility for keeping this country safe. And I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.”
Moreover, he said, the methods risked the lives of U.S. troops by making enemies less likely to surrender and more likely to mistreat captured Americans.
“In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts,” he said. “They undermined them.”
In his speech, Cheney repeatedly invoked the horrors of Sept. 11 and made the case that “tough interrogations” and other policies of the Bush administration helped save American lives.
“They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do,” Cheney said of the interrogation techniques. “They prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.”
In an apparent reference to the Obama administration, Cheney also charged that “people who consistently distort the truth” about the interrogations “are in no position to lecture anyone about ‘values.’ ”
He warned: “To completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.”
Cheney specifically defended waterboarding, which he said was used on three terrorists, one of them Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a top al-Qaeda operative who has admitted masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks and has boasted of beheading journalist Daniel Pearl. Upon his capture in Pakistan in 2003, Mohammed “said he would talk as soon as he got to New York City and saw his lawyer,” Cheney said.
“With many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we didn’t think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all,” he said.
Addressing what he described as critics’ “lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values,” Cheney said that “no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things.”
He also charged that the U.S. debate over interrogation techniques plays into the hands of terrorists, who he said “see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.”
Asserting that the interrogation policy led to the disruption of specific planned attacks and thus made America safer, Cheney said this “might explain why President Obama has reserved unto himself the right to order the use of enhanced interrogation should he deem it appropriate.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later disputed this, saying Obama has done no such thing.
“Absolutely not,” Gibbs said on CNN. “The president of the United States signed an executive order doing away with enhanced interrogation techniques. The policy of this government . . . is to no longer use those techniques, and they won’t be used.”
On the issue of bringing Guantanamo detainees to stand trial on U.S. soil, he said, “You don’t want to call them enemy combatants? Fine. Call them what you want — just don’t bring them into the United States.”
He asserted, “For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history — not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them.”
Cheney mocked Obama as a president searching for middle ground, or a compromise, in the war against terrorists.
“In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed,” he said. “There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”
Cheney reserved some of his harshest language for the New York Times, blasting the newspaper for publication of the government’s secret wiretapping program and insisting that the stories helped al-Qaeda.
“It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests of our country or the safety of our people,” he said.
After finishing his speech, Cheney abruptly left the auditorium at the think tank without taking questions. A question-and-answer session with Cheney was originally planned, but it was canceled because Cheney delayed his address until Obama had finished speaking, which caused the program to run long, an AEI spokeswoman said.
As is his custom following a formal speech, Obama did not take questions, either.
Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/21/AR2009052101748.html?hpid=topnews