Interrogation And National Security

This week, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney faced off over interrogation methods and national security. What's the upshot? E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times discuss the week in politics with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, President Obama addressed graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy. Mr. Obama talked about the oath they take to protect and defend not only the American people but also the Constitution. He struck that note yesterday, as well, in a wide-ranging speech on national security. President Obama asserted that the nation went off course during the Bush years, while explaining his approach.

P: I wish I could say that there was some simple formula out there to be had. There is not. These often involve tough calls, involve competing concerns, and they require a surgical approach. But the common thread that runs through all of my decisions is simple: We will safeguard what we must to protect the American people, but we will also ensure the accountability and oversight that is the hallmark of our constitutional system.

BLOCK: Just minutes later, former Vice President Dick Cheney went once again on offense in a speech at a Washington think tank.

F: In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States. You must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States.

BLOCK: Two men, two very different views of the world. And so we turn to our two regular political watchers for a little perspective: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hello to both you.

NORRIS: Greetings.

NORRIS: Hello.

BLOCK: David, I'm going to begin with you because in your column today, you say that Dick Cheney is not just throwing darts at Barack Obama, that he's doing battle with former President Bush that - and that administration's shift away from some of the more controversial anti-terror policies. You seem to be saying that in some ways, at least on national security, that the beginning of the Obama era looks a lot like the end of the George Bush era.

NORRIS: Yeah, absolutely. In 2001, 2002, 2003, Dick Cheney was sort of riding high on his horse, and we had a very aggressive - and I think most would say too aggressive - terror - anti-terror policy, with the harsh interrogations and everything else. But that really began to change around 2003, 2004, 2005. People like Condi Rice and Steve Hadley in the Bush administration really began shifting. And Cheney started losing argument after argument. And so by 2008, the Bush terror policy was very different than it was in the early days. And if you look at the Obama policy, it's very much like the end of the Bush terror policy.

If you look at policies like interrogations, habeas corpus, rendition, it's the same policy basically. So, what we have is a bipartisan foreign policy, which nobody can admit. Obama wants to pretend it's very different from Bush so he can say, I'm very different from Bush. Cheney wants to pretend it is very different from Bush so he can say, oh, Barack Obama is making us unsafe. But basically end of Bush, early Obama bipartisan foreign policy.

BLOCK: E.J., do you agree? Is the Obama anti-terrorism doctrine a gradual evolution of the Bush policy?

NORRIS: In a lot of ways, yes. And I think there was something that - his speech was very effective, but he may have been a little too cute because he is really trying to say to conservatives or moderate conservatives like David that really, this is a lot like Bush. But he is saying to liberals, no, no, no, no. I'm really changing a lot of what Bush did. And it's sort of, you know, some from column A, some from column B. Column A, yes he is ending torture. Yes, he is closing down Guantanamo. But column B, he is continuing with these military commissions. He is refusing to release those photos of abusive behavior.

And there were times when I thought he is trying to find common ground in no man's land. But the person he went - fell to his knees and thanked - or thank God for creating was Dick Cheney. Because when Cheney gave that speech, people on the civil libertarian side who might have gone after Obama for some of the ways in which he does resemble Bush, instead relish going after Dick Cheney. Cheney did Obama a big favor.

BLOCK: Now, I want to ask about preventive detention, one of the things that the people on left might go after him for, but just a quick question about scheduling. How is that these two speeches wound up on the same day? Was the White House trying to engage in some way with Dick Cheney?

NORRIS: The White House says no. The White House says that they had to give this speech today - his people talked about giving it today in Annapolis. He had to give this speech yesterday, I'm sorry. They talked about giving it today in Annapolis and Obama said no, that's a speech for graduates. But I think they benefited very much from doing it this way. So it may not have been planned, but it sure turned out right.

BLOCK: Now, David, we learned this week the president is mulling over the idea that there might be a need for the U.S. to incarcerate suspects who pose a threat but cannot be tried. Is this a repackaging of Guantanamo, as suggested by some of those on the left who criticize this idea?

NORRIS: Yeah, in the last four years of the Bush administration, Condi Rice and some of her legal advisers tried to get Guantanamo closed. And what they said was, we've got to find a place to put these people, and then we'll close Guantanamo. Obama has the same basic policy but has done it in reverse. We'll close Guantanamo, then we'll figure out what to do with these detainees. But the essential problem is the same, that we have to hold these people for various reasons. But - and that does suggest one important thing Obama has done that the Bush people never did: He's put it in a framework.

He's put it in an argument and a legal framework, the same policy but in now - in so doing, he's made it credible to a lot of people and therefore, I think, strengthened what was the same policy. The Obama people really care about getting the framework, getting public opinion right. The Bush people really never cared about that, or never did it effectively.

BLOCK: Now, listening to President Obama, we heard ideas but we didn't hear details. And the Senate this week blocked the funding for the closure of Guantanamo because they say that they want to see more details. We don't have a lot of time but just quickly from both of you, what exactly are the questions that they want to see answered? What details are they looking for? E.J. first.

NORRIS: They're looking for the polling numbers to see if they can survive voting for this. I think that it was a good excuse for them not to cast a vote that they didn't want to cast. The Republicans have raised the heat on this. I think when Obama comes up with a plan, the likelihood is the Senate will pass it.

NORRIS: It's a NIMBY issue. People just don't want it in the backyard. They don't want to face the political heat. I think they'll end up with Guantanamo Two, some other facility that will be like Guantanamo but won't be called Guantanamo.

BLOCK: Thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. And you can find more coverage of the thorniest political issues at our news blog. It's called The Two-Way. You can find it at our Web site; that's npr.org/thetwoway.

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