Cheney Defends Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

One vocal participant in the debate over enhanced interrogation techniques is former Vice President Dick Cheney. Recently he has stepped into the breach to defend the policies of the Bush administration.

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One very vocal participant in the debate over enhanced interrogation techniques is the former vice president. Dick Cheney is defending the previous administration.

Here is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: It's not unusual for former vice presidents to weigh in on their successors. Al Gore, for instance, came out strongly against George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. But it is unusual for a vice president to speak out so soon and so often, and to become the focal point of opposition to the new administration. He was once reclusive, hidden away in that famous undisclosed location. But now Dick Cheney is everywhere, arguing that President Obama, by overturning Bush-era policies on interrogation, surveillance and detention, has made America less safe.

Tomorrow, Cheney will be giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He's been featured on Sunday Morning talk shows, and yesterday appeared on Fox News. His message is always clear and consistent.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I think that we are stripping ourselves of some of the capabilities that we used in order to block, if you will, or disrupt activities by al-Qaida that would have led to additional attacks. I think that's an important debate to have.

I don't think we should just roll over when the new administration says -accuses us of committing torture, which we did not, or somehow violating the law, which we did not. I think you need to stand up and respond to that, and that's what I've done.

LIASSON: The Obama team seems thrilled that their old adversary is so visible. When Dick Cheney goes on television, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responds.

Secretary ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.

LIASSON: Cheney left office with an approval rating under 20 percent in some polls. But Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, says that means nothing to Cheney, who will never run for office again.

Mr. BILL KRISTOL (Editor, Conservative Weekly Standard): Some people say, oh, he's unpopular, it hurts to have him out there. That's not the point. He's not trying to help his own popularity. He's driven the debate in a way where now, we have lots of questions about what did Nancy Pelosi learn? Or was it right for Obama to release the memos? And I think Cheney can win some of these debates subsequently, even though his own personal popularity numbers may remain low.

LIASSON: Cheney has pressed for release of two classified documents he says would show the enhanced interrogation techniques were successful. It's the kind of request he probably would have resisted as vice president, but now it serves his purposes.

Mr. BARTON GELLMAN (Author, "Angler"): He is long-term minded. He's planting little acorns and hoping they'll grow into trees.

LIASSON: That's Barton Gellman, author of the Cheney biography "Angler."

Mr. GELLMAN: He has changed part of the conversation in public from, is waterboarding torture, to, what has waterboarding produced? And there's frankly a very hard debate that's never squarely been faced in the American body politic, which is, what if torture does work? What if waterboarding does work? Are we prepared to be that kind of country?

LIASSON: Some Republicans who, unlike Cheney, will be running for office again are uncomfortable with his vocal support for the Bush administration's national security policies. But others say the former vice president is taking a burden off their shoulders and carrying it himself.

There's also something else motivating Cheney: loyalty to the people who worked for him. Bill Kristol recalls an interview Cheney did with the Weekly Standard.

Mr. KRISTOL: The moment he got most passionate was when he said he had watched previous administrations leave some of their junior guys out to dry. You know, the people hadn't risen to their defense, they had been prosecuted, their reputations had been tarnished. And he said something like, I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen to people who have worked in good faith in the Bush-Cheney administration.

LIASSON: And that's why he defending the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the so-called torture memos. Here he is again, yesterday on Fox News.

Vice President CHENEY: It's one thing to come in and change the policy. It's an entirely different proposition to come in and say that you're somehow going to go after the lawyers and the Justice Department or the agents who carried out that policy. I just - I think that's outrageous, and that's why I've spoken out as I have to defend the policy.

LIASSON: And he'll continue to do so, without regard for his critics in either party, as long as the torture debate lasts.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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Cheney Chooses Spotlight Over Keeping Quiet

Cheney Unleashed

Here are some recent critiques of the Obama administration by former Vice President Dick Cheney:

On Bush-era torture memos released by the Obama administration:

"One of the things I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is that they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort."

On Obama's foreign trips:

"What I find disturbing is the extent to which he's gone to Europe and seemed to apologize profusely, been to Mexico and seemed to apologize there. I don't think we have much to apologize for."

On Obama's national security directives closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and banning torture:

"He is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack."

Obama's Vocal Adviser

When former president George W. Bush retreated to his new home in Dallas, he left behind a bitter debate over his administration's anti-terrorism policies, and a very public pledge to stay out of it.

President Obama, Bush said, "deserves my silence."

His historically powerful No. 2 made no such promise.

But as former Vice President Dick Cheney, 68, has emerged as the most prominent public defender of harsh Bush-era detention and interrogation practices for suspected terrorists — and critic of Obama's national security choices — he has faced his own fierce detractors.

Some find his outspokenness, including his assertion that Obama's decision to ban torture undermines national security, inappropriate for a former vice president.

Others want to see him, instead of holding forth like an elder statesman on cable news, held accountable for his role in endorsing the CIA's harsh interrogation tactics and secret prisons.

And there are those, including many Republicans desperate to rebuild their party, who — like the current president — simply want him and his Bush-era legacy to go away.

"There is an element in the Republican Party that is going to lap this up, but another group that wishes Cheney would follow the example of the Founding Fathers and be long dead," says vice presidential historian Steve Tally.

Long dead, Tally says, as in "shut up already."

Not that Cheney cares, or ever has.

A 'True Believer'

In his mind, longtime Cheney watchers say, the man is speaking out and hitting back not to burnish, or restore, his legacy, but because he is convinced that the tough Bush policies he shaped were the right ones and remain so.

"In many ways, unpopularity ratifies for him that he's the guy operating from steady principle and a hard-headed idea of what the national interest is," says Barton Gellman, whose Cheney biography The Angler was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series he and Jo Becker co-wrote for The Washington Post.

"He is a true believer," Gellman says. "The public and politicians in his mind are feckless, changeable, emotional and just not well-informed."

Says John Nichols, author of The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History: "As a biographer, I have known him in good and bad terms, and nothing has changed."

"He's exactly now what he has always been: a permanent political figure," says Nichols, Washington correspondent for the liberal magazine The Nation.

"He's a party loyalist who just keeps going," Nichols says. "And people need to understand that."

The irony, Nichols says, is that Cheney's party loyalty and his public campaign could be doing Republicans damage.

Silence Is Not An Option

In a recent interview with Stephen F. Hayes of conservative publication The Weekly Standard, Cheney said silence was simply not an option in the wake of criticism of controversial policies he shaped.

"I have strong feelings about what happened and what we did or didn't do and what's happening now, and I don't have any reason not to forthrightly express those views" he told Hayes, author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.

"I feel it's important to do so, especially when President Obama is wrong on important issues facing the nation," Cheney said.

Jake Bernstein, co-author of a Cheney biography, is among those who have expressed some surprise at the former vice president's outspokenness — including his recent demand that Obama declassify two CIA documents that Cheney says will prove his assertion that harsh interrogation tactics work.

"Cheney's watch words were always secrecy and discretion," Bernstein says, practiced from the very start of his Washington career at age 34 as President Ford's White House chief of staff — the youngest in history to hold that position.

"He was always the last person in the room when decisions were made, and you never saw his fingerprints," says Bernstein, a journalist who, with Lou Dubose, wrote Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency.

Bernstein theorized that the former vice president wants not only to defend decisions he made, but also to lay the groundwork for a defense of Bush administration officials involved in devising the previous administration's anti-terrorism policies.

"He was very upset at what happened to Scooter Libby," Bernstein says, "and doesn't want that to happen again."

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted in 2007 of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice during the investigation into the leak of the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame.

Libby's 30-month prison sentence was commuted by Bush, who, however, rebuffed Cheney's request that Libby be pardoned.

Cheney said recently that Bush's decision left Libby "hanging in the wind."

And for Cheney, Bernstein says, loyalty is paramount.

An Influential Vice President

But what of the argument that as a former vice president, Cheney has some obligation to go quietly into the night, as have many of his predecessors?

Was that ever really an option for a man who was once considered — as vice president — arguably the world's most powerful leader?

"Cheney changed history," Gellman says. "Obviously, he was not only the most influential vice president, but more influential than many presidents."

It was a vice presidency completely out of the norm, a stark departure from most who often simply provide comic relief, Tally says. No one should be surprised that Cheney is taking a leading role in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, he says.

In his book about vice presidents, Bland Ambition: From Adams to Quayle — The Cranks, Tax Cheats and Golfers Who Made It to Vice President, Tally argues that the office should be abolished.

The vice presidency provides "too many opportunities for mischief and problems — and I don't think Cheney disproved that rule," he says.

Unlike a number of his predecessors, "Cheney was not funny either intentionally or unintentionally," Tally says. "Here we had a vice president who was a villain — controlling major parts of the administration."

"It was nothing that had ever been seen in American politics," he says, expressing personal relief that current Vice President Joe Biden appears to be fulfilling a more traditional sidekick role.

Impact On The Republican Party

So where does this leave Republicans, many ruefully watching a man who left office with a 30 percent approval rating, continuing to serve as the face of the party?

"The more attention that's paid to the old leadership, the less oxygen there is for a new leadership to emerge," Gellman says.

"Republicans are saying openly — and some less openly — that they're not thrilled that one of their main standard bearers is a guy who was our least popular vice president, and a man who is not running for office again," he said.

It's unlikely that Cheney will exit stage left anytime soon — particularly amid a debate over whether or how Bush-era officials should be punished for advocating actions that violated international law. This week, the Justice Department's internal ethics unit advised against criminal prosecutions, though it will likely ask that some of the lawyers involved be referred for disciplinary action.

"He'll keep talking until the Republican Party evolves beyond him — and that may take time," Nichols says. He cited as a parallel former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's continued influence on conservatives long after she left office.

So, as the Obama administration struggles to figure out how to deal with controversial Bush-era policies and their architects, Cheney has pledged to keep speaking out.

"I went through the Iran-Contra hearings and watched the way administration officials ran for cover and left the little guys out to dry," Cheney told the Weekly Standard. "And this time around, I'll do my damndest to defend anybody out there."

History will decide whether the most powerful vice president in the nation's history has a case.

"Is Cheney being Churchill before World War II, dismissed as a right-wing crank but who turns out to be right about the threat?" Tally asks. "Or will he just go down as a cranky old guy who needs to let others move on?"

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