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The Duel Over U.S. National Security

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Archives on May 21.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Archives on May 21.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made closing Guantanamo a priority, saying that will restore America’s image as a champion of the rule of law, but shutting the facility is complex and now the task is being complicated further by a counterattack from former Vice President Dick Cheney.

On May 21, Cheney made a speech defending Guantanamo just as Obama sought to build congressional support for closing it by year's end.

The result was an unexpected showdown between the old and current administrations over how the United States should fight terrorism while maintaining its own values.

There has never been any question that the former Bush administration and the current Obama administration hold very different views over how to best protect America from another 9/11.

As a presidential candidate, Obama was highly critical of the Bush strategy of holding terrorist suspects offshore in Guantanamo where they could be interrogated as harshly as Washington deemed necessary.

But during the presidential race, Obama's criticism met with silence from the Bush White House. The reason was that by then Bush's Republican Party had a new champion in the form of its own presidential candidate, John McCain, a former prisoner of war who was also critical of Guantanamo and harsh interrogation techniques.

That might have given the impression that the Bush administration was in retreat. But on May 21, in speeches at different venues but scheduled to coincide, the current and former administrations clashed in the most public way.

It was an extraordinary moment because successive U.S. administrations rarely interact so early in a new president's term. And the speeches showed -- with no holds barred -- how wide a policy gulf the two White Houses see between them.

Speaking at a federal building, the National Archives, in Washington, Obama defended his decision to close Guantanamo by year's end by saying that brutal interrogation methods "undermine the rule of law,... alienate us in the world...[and] serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America."

"They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured," Obama added.

Obama was speaking a day after his drive to get Congressional funding to close the prison fizzled amid legislators' concerns over administration plans to transfer some of the detainees to the United States.

At the same time, former vice president Dick Cheney was addressing a private think tank, the American Enterprise Institute just a few kilometers away.

Praising Congress for refusing the funds, Cheney faulted Obama for trying to dismantle some of the key elements of the Bush administration's counterterrorism strategy.

"I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed," Cheney said. "They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work, proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people."

Obama and Cheney were clearly on a collision course and, recognizing that, major U.S. television networks gave equal attention to their speeches. Heightening the sense of confrontation, some news programs presented Obama and Cheney on a split television screen, like duelists.

Obama termed the Bush administration's national security decisions "ad hoc" and "hasty." He termed the opening of Guantanamo a "misguided experiment" that had created a "legal mess."

He also repeated his conviction that progress in the fight against terror means a return to what he called America's "most fundamental values."

"We have been a nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law," Obama said. "That is who we are. And 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."

Almost as if in response, Cheney said that "critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values." But, he added, "when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them."

Then Cheney went on the offensive, saying that "when Obama faults or mischaracterizes the security decisions we made in Bush years" he deserves an answer.

"It's hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors," Cheney said.

Cheney charged the Obama administration with selectively releasing government memos to attack the Bush-era policies. He said the memos showed how interrogations were conducted but not what was learned. And he credited the interrogations with preventing future terrorist attacks.

At times, it appeared that the former vice president was not only seeking to defend the legacy of the Bush administration but also striving to shape current policy.

Cheney opened his speech by noting "there is debate over the measures our administration took to defend American people" and said he wanted to "set forward the strategic thinking behind our policies." But he then went on to urge a return to the Bush-era policies by suggesting that not preserving them was to put the country at grave risk.

"We're left to draw one of two conclusions -- and here is great dividing line in our current debate over national security," Cheney said. "You can look at facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude 9/11 was a one-off event...and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort."

With Obama making it equally clear he is pushing ahead with his alternatives to the Bush-era strategy, the question now is the extent to which the former vice-president speaks for a larger block of his fellow Republicans.

Obama, while not addressing Cheney directly, seemed to cast doubt on that. He noted in his speech the "American people nominated candidates from both major parties who called for a new approach who rejected torture and recognized the imperative of closing Guantanamo Bay."

But the former vice president, a master politician, made no acknowledgement of that point in his speech. That leaves open both the possibility that he is mounting a new counter-offensive to Obama's vision and the possibility that he is simply firing a parting broadside five months after leaving office.

As Cheney told his audience, he appeared before them as a "private citizen." But he is a private citizen who will be much watched for his next move in the months ahead.