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Obama, Cheney Face Off On Torture

In dramatic, back-to-back speeches Thursday, President Obama (left) and former Vice President Cheney sparred in a battle to control the story of America's post-Sept. 11 policies. AP/AFP/Getty Images
Charles Dharapak/ Saul Loeb
In dramatic, back-to-back speeches Thursday, President Obama (left) and former Vice President Cheney sparred in a battle to control the story of America's post-Sept. 11 policies. AP/AFP/Getty Images

The partisan divide over how to secure the nation's safety — and what was done in America's name after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — intensified Thursday with dramatic, back-to-back televised speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Obama sharply repudiated the previous administration's policies for choosing what he characterized as "expedience" over the rule of law, in defiance of basic American principles.

Cheney followed with a no-holds-barred attack on the current administration's approach to security, lambasting the president for declassifying memos that outlined harsh interrogation methods and warning that Obama's efforts to find "middle ground" would leave the country exposed to attack.

Obama argued passionately that such tactics not only undermined the country's reputation and served as a recruitment tool for terrorists — essentially making the country less safe — but were also antithetical to a "tough and durable" approach to fighting terrorism.

The speeches made for high drama at a time when Washington remains convulsed over the fallout from the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 national security policies, and just a day after the Senate rejected the president's request for money to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison where terrorism suspects have been held.

The events provided a unique opportunity to compare, in their own words, the national security position of Obama with that of Cheney, who has emerged as the chief defender the Bush administration. (Remarks that follow appear as prepared for delivery.)


Obama: "Faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that — too often — our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions."

"Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And, in this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens — fell silent."

Cheney: "In seeking to guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our administration gave intelligence officers the tools and lawful authority they needed to gain vital information. We didn't invent that authority. It is drawn from Article II of the Constitution. And it was given specificity by the Congress after 9/11 in a Joint Resolution authorizing 'all necessary and appropriate force' to protect the American people."

"For all that's been lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings."


Obama: "The prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies. In dealing with this situation, we do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. 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. …"

"We will be ill served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country."

"We are currently in the process of reviewing each of the detainee cases at Guantanamo to determine the appropriate policy for dealing with them."

[Obama says some detainees will be tried in federal courts or by military commissions; some transferred to other countries; some released by court order; and the most dangerous will continue to be held — though the president did not outline a plan to revive his proposal to relocate them to U.S. high-security prisons.]

Cheney: "The administration has found that it's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interest of justice and America's national security. Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. I think the president will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come."


Obama: "I released the memos because the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the Bush administration has acknowledged its existence, and I had already banned those methods. The argument that somehow by releasing those memos, we are providing terrorists with information about how they will be interrogated is unfounded: We will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach, because that approach is now prohibited."

Cheney: "The released memos were carefully redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question. Other memos, laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted, apparently were not even considered for release. For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers."


Obama: "I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As commander in chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They 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. In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts — they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all."

Cheney: "I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. 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 and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."


Obama: "I recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the past. When it comes to the actions of the last eight years, some Americans are angry; others want to refight debates that have been settled, most clearly at the ballot box in November. And I know that these debates lead directly to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an independent commission.

"I have opposed the creation of such a commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws."

Cheney: "Over on the left wing of the president's party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorists. The kind of answers they're after would be heard before a so-called "Truth Commission." Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense and political opponents as criminals. 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."


Obama: "In this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens — fell silent. In other words, we went off course. And this is not my assessment alone. It was an assessment that was shared by the American people, who nominated candidates for president from both major parties who, despite our many differences, called for a new approach — one that rejected torture and recognized the imperative of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay."

Cheney: "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."