Obama Vs. Cheney: How Best To Secure The U.S.

In separate speeches Thursday, President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney went head-to-head on the issue of national security.

Obama made a case for closing the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay. Cheney defended Bush-era security policies.

Guests:

Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor

Ari Shapiro, justice correspondent for NPR

Obama, Cheney Trade Barbs On Security Policies

President Obama said Thursday that dangerous detainees would not be released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while maintaining that America's safest course is to adhere to fundamental values of fairness and dignity.

In a speech at the National Archives in Washington, where the nation's values are enshrined in the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, Obama laid out the process for closing Guantanamo Bay that would see some detainees on trial or serving time on U.S. soil.

"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 said, but he added that some detainees would serve sentences in maximum security prisons in the U.S. and others would be tried in the U.S. federal courts.

Immediately after Obama's address, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the new administration of "mischaracterizing" the decisions made by the Bush administration.

Cheney Defends Policies

"In the war on terror, there is no middle ground," Cheney said. "Half-measures keep you half exposed."

In a defense of Bush policies, of which Cheney was a chief architect, he said critics of harsh interrogation were participating in "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" and could not understand what it was like to be in the Oval Office in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

However, Obama maintained Guantanamo and the use of "enhanced interrogation techiniques" in questioning suspects in the days following the terror attacks were anathemas in the eyes of the rest of the world that made Americans less safe.

"I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more," Obama said. "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."

Five Categories Of Detainees

Obama said more than 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo, and three terrorists were convicted by the Guantanamo military commission during the Bush years. The remeaining 240 detainees are in a legal limbo that the president described as "a mess."

In order to resolve the fate of the remaining detainees, Obama said they have been divided into five categories that will dictate their futures. The categories include persons who are accused of violating U.S. law and will be tried in U.S. courts, and those who will be tried before revamped military commissions because they are accused of violating the laws of war.

A third category — which includes 21 detainees — involves those who will be released because the courts have found there was no reason to hold them. The court rulings on 20 of the detainees were issued before he took office in January, the president said.

The fourth category of detainees involves those who can be safely transferred to other countries. The task force reviewing the Guantanamo cases has approved 50 detainees for transfer, Obama said. Administration officials are still discussing the transfers, detention and rehabilitation possibilities with other countries.

Framework For Prolonged Detentions

Obama acknowledged that a fifth category of detainees cannot be prosecuted yet, nor can they be released because they pose a continuing danger. That category includes people who have received extensive explosives training at al-Qaida training camps; commanded Taliban troops in battle; expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden; or otherwise have expressed the desire to kill Americans.

The president said it is his goal to construct a legal framework for persons who require prolonged detention that would involve judicial and congressional oversight.

The president's speech came just one day after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to turn down his bid for $80 million to close the prison, with Democrats saying they would not appropriate money to close the base until Obama submitted a comprehensive plan for dealing with the 240 detainees who are still being held.

As Obama laid out the plans Thursday, he remained resolute in his belief that the prison undermines national security and weakens U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.

"Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval," the president said. "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."

In his rebuttal, Cheney focused on the days after the Sept. 11 attacks and the challenges faced by the country.

Interrogations Warranted

"Everyone expected a follow-on attack and looked to us to stop it," Cheney said, who said what he did then to defend the country he would do again "without hesitation."

He said CIA interrogators who used enhanced techniques to extract intelligence from detainees should be satisfied that they did the "right thing" and should be "proud of their work because they prevented the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people."

He fired back at those in the Democratic Party who were "recommending that those who ordered the interrogations be prosecuted ... effectively treating a political disagreement as criminal."

Cheney said it was wrong to equate the worst abuses at Abu Graib, carried out by "a few sadistic individuals," with the program of enhanced interrogations. He took issue with those who have said those harsh techniques were a recruitment tool for terrorists.

Cheney said the Obama administration handed terrorists important information by declassifying the memos on the interrogation techniques, but he also reiterated his call to release classified documents allegedly showing the valuable information obtained by using those methods.

The president said he has launched a review of agency policies on classification of documents to determine where changes are needed. He also said his administration is reviewing the use of the "state secrets" privilege that allows the government to challenge legal cases involving secret programs. Obama said he believes the privilege has been over-used and that information should not be protected because it might reveal a violation of law or embarrass the government.

In closing, Obama criticized the scare tactics that have been used by some lawmakers, who, he said, were trying to politicize the Guantanamo closure.

"We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America — it can and must be a cause that unites us as one people, as one nation," he said.

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