It was the polished and thoughtful constitutional lawyer against the irreproachable and contemptuous lifetime bureaucrat. President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney engaged in a remarkable battle of words over national security, torture and the future of Guantanamo prison.
While not face to face, it may be the most important debate of our time because it was about the soul of America. Obama's central theme was that some Bush/Cheney policies were illegal, ineffective and weakened our country. Cheney's theme was that his administration's policies were legal and they kept America safe from another terrorist attack.
Vice President Cheney has been a lone but forceful voice in defending the battered Bush/Cheney legacy. Why did his newly elected administration not take seriously 2001 intelligence reports that Al Qaeda was about to strike America? He even raised it in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute; "Nine-eleven caused everyone to take a serious second look at threats that had been gathering for a while, and enemies whose plans were getting bolder and more sophisticated."
The World Trade Center terrorist attack was devastating. The Bush/Cheney administration went into overdrive to make up for their initial mistakes. "Everyone expected a follow-on attack, and our job was to stop it," Cheney recounted yesterday, "Al Qaeda was seeking nuclear technology...we had an anthrax attack from an unknown source...and dictators like Saddam Hussein with ties to Mideast terrorists."
From the earliest moment Bush and Cheney linked Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and targeted him for attack. They built a case for an American invasion of Iraq by claiming his complicity in the American attacks and his possession of weapons of mass destruction, WMD's. But no link would be found and there were no WMD's. More than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the poorly planned invasion and occupation began. As Obama said, "Faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions...all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight."
Another one of those decisions was to use enhanced interrogation techniques. Cheney defended them as legal and effective, "(their use) prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people." He quoted President Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, as saying, "High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the Al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." But Cheney did not mention that Blair also said, "The bottom line is that these techniques hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."
Obama's position on these techniques was firm, "I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation." Cheney's was righteous, "In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired such contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists." Cheney's claim that the enhanced interrogation techniques used were legal is manipulating the truth. This country has long declared that waterboarding is torture. Further, in 2002 terrorists were waterboarded well before the ginned up and misguided Justice Department approval was given for its use.
Former Vice President Cheney also criticized the "selective release" of documents relating to the interrogations by the President. "For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has the right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers." The President said he released those memos because, "We will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach. That approach is now prohibited." But the argument may not be settled until the President releases all the memos.
With regard to Guantanamo, Cheney accused Obama of acting hastily. "On his second day in office, President Obama announced that (he was) closing the detention facility," Cheney said, "The step came with little deliberation and no plan." Cheney then played the fear card, "The President says some of these terrorists should be brought to American soil for trial in our court system." He added that he agreed with many Democrats who were "Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating into their states." But Obama described Guantanamo as a symbol that helped Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. "The problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility, " Obama said, "The problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place." Today Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover Bush appointee, defended Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo facility.
The blight of Abu Ghraib came up when Cheney blamed "a few sadistic prison guards" for abusing inmates "in violation of American law, military regulations and simple decency." He said that the guards had received Army justice but failed to point out that responsibility for Abu Ghraib runs all the way up the chain of command to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Obama seems to be trying to find a pragmatic way to deal with all of these problems. "National security requires a delicate balance," he said, "On the one hand, our democracy depends on transparency. On the other hand, some information must be protected from public disclosure for the sake of our security." But will he remain pragmatic should there be another devastating terrorist attack on this country? He raised that possibility in his speech.
And how will history treat the Bush/Cheney administration? The difficult and costly Iraq war that America should have never waged, a failed Katrina response, a collapsed economy, incredible deficit spending and the use of torture are among the missteps that do not bode well for their legacy.
Yet Cheney remains defiant and outspoken because he has nothing to lose. "For all the partisan anger that still lingers," he said yesterday, "our administration will stand up well in history--not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them."