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

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

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

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. This morning, President Obama and former Vice President Cheney gave back-to-back speeches on national security, dealing with the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and government transparency.

Speaking at the National Archives in Washington, the president emphasized the need to stay true to the nation's core values in the Constitution. Mr. Obama said there has to be a careful balance between security and transparency.

At the American Enterprise Institute nearby, Dick Cheney defended his administration's response to the 9/11 attacks, saying their decisions must be viewed in the context of that day.

We'll analyze the two speeches and let you hear excerpts from both, and we want to hear from you. Did the president or former vice president say anything that spoke to you? Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now in Studio 3A is Ron Elving. He's NPR's senior Washington editor. Always good to have you with us, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: So I think the two arguments we heard today with regard to the two administrations' approaches to national security and terrorism really break down into two things. And first of all, let's talk about what President Obama had to say. He said adherence to the nation's core values, the core values of the Constitution, that adherence is imperative.

President BARACK OBAMA: We uphold our most cherished values, not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. 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.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small spring of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world. It's the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government. It's the reason why America has benefitted from strong alliances that amplified our power and drawn a sharp moral contrast with our adversaries.

It's the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism and outlast the iron curtain of communism and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty.

From Europe to the Pacific, we've been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology.

NEARY: Ron Elving, there we hear President Obama laying out what he believes is so important in this debate over national security, how to defend ourselves against terrorism, and that is we can never lose sight of our values.

ELVING: That's right. And he said that by projecting our values, we are going to ultimately make ourselves safer because the better world we will create, or at least foster or encourage, will be ultimately our guarantor of greater security in the long run.

Now, of course, the question that is going to be raised when we listen to Vice President Cheney is what do we do in the short run? What do we do when we're in an exigency? What do we do in a situation like 9/11 or a situation where we have terrorists in hand and we want to learn where they might strike next? Not quite so much the long run, but what do we do in the very short run?

NEARY: And, of course, former Vice President Cheney focused on the context of the Bush administration's decision. He argued that we are still in danger and we still need to do everything possible to protect the country.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: So we're left to draw one of two conclusions, and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security: You can look at the 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 that 9/11 was a one-off event, coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort.

Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years and of the policies necessary to protect America in the years to come.

NEARY: So Ron, the argument that Mr. Cheney made today, saying everything has to really be seen through the prism of 9/11, is there anything new about that? Did he lay it out in a particularly comprehensive way that we haven't heard before?

ELVING: The word comprehensive is interesting. You should seize upon that. He just used it again, the comprehensive approach, by which he means giving us all the tools we might need, all the tools that might be of use.

Now Dick Cheney never says that he does not respect the values that Barack Obama is talking about. What he says is that while we project those values, we must also project strength. And at times, in certain sets of circumstances such as right after 9/11, it was necessary for us to project strength, and it was necessary for us to use all those tools - including enhanced interrogation techniques, which include waterboarding and which include - something that many people have agreed amounts to torture, certainly the international standard and judgment on waterboarding is that it amounts to torture - if it works, if it is what gets us the information that we need.

And now, of course, Barack Obama argues that torture make us less safe in the long run because it just is a recruiting tool for al-Qaida and its successors. Al-Qaida will not be the last terrorist organization, the last terrorist threat. And Cheney comes back and says torture stopped attacks that otherwise would have happened. I know this. You may not know this, you may not have seen the evidence, but I know, and I believe that these interrogation techniques that we used - and he almost leaves it open for you to use the word torture if you want to - worked. They got us information that stopped attacks, and he said Americans are alive today because we used these techniques.

NEARY: And he tried to build a very strong case for the fact that he wants the Obama administration to release the parts of the memo that so far - memos that so far have not been released that reveal what information was learned through these techniques.

ELVING: There are two specific CIA memos that he says he has seen and at one time had in his files as vice president that he believes justify the techniques that were used.

Now others who have seen these say it's not that conclusive, and others say the information that may have been gained from these suspects, these high-value targets as they're called, was already known, had already been learned through earlier techniques other than waterboarding or any of the other enhanced interrogation techniques. So it was already there and that all that was done was that it was confirmed, if you will, ripened, if you will, or backed up by what they said under these extreme conditions.

So we don't know until they get released. The CIA has said they can't because of the subject of some lawsuits. Ultimately, Cheney makes the point that Barack Obama as president has the power to declassify something if he so chooses. What effect those lawsuits have on that we haven't really gone into yet. Maybe we can talk about that with some lawyers on the show. But at this point, President Obama has not overruled the CIA with regard to their refusal to release those memos.

My guess, we'll see those memos, and at that point, we can all decide whether we think they're conclusive or not.

NEARY: He certainly tried to pique public curiosity about them, I think, in today's speech. Joining us now also in Studio 3A is NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro. Good to have you with us, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: (unintelligible)

NEARY: So did President Obama spell out anything new on Guantanamo in his speech?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Yeah, he gave us some more detail about what's going to happen to the detainees. In the past, administration officials have talked about three groups of Guantanamo detainees, and today we got five groups.

So in the past, the three groups were people who would go on trial, people who would be released, and then this sort of difficult, thorny third group that I'll get to in a minute.

Well today, the group that would be put on trial was split in two. There are those who will be tried in civilian criminal courts, and today it was announced that the first Guantanamo detainee will be brought to the U.S. to stand trial in New York. That's Ahmed Ghailani. Then there will be other people who might be tried in military commissions. So that's groups one and two.

Groups three and four, those who will be released, are people who may be released into the U.S., people who may be released to other countries, and then we're still left with this last group of the most difficult class of detainees who, because they pose a threat can't be released, but because perhaps we only know they pose a threat because they were tortured or perhaps it compromises sensitive intelligence methods, the administration says we can't put these people on trial.

So the question is, well, what do you do with them? A lot of people have proposed some form of prolonged, indefinite detention, and President Obama came closer to supporting that in this speech today than I think he ever has before.

He said the administration is going to work with Congress to create a system that can keep people locked up with regular review, but that would keep these people from being put on trial, either.

NEARY: The president also was very adamant that much of this debate is about politics.

Pres. OBAMA: And 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 frankly are calculated to scare people rather than educate them, words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country.

NEARY: Now he said several times that no one would be released who could harm the public, that he is going to keep the public safe.


NEARY: Did he make the case well?

SHAPIRO: Well, there are members of Congress who say are you going to release the Uighurs, this group of Chinese Muslim separatists? And President Obama made the point today that it's not my choice to release the Uighurs. A court ordered them to be released during the Bush administration.

That said, members of Congress are not cutting President Obama any slack on this, and they're saying even though these people have been determined not to be a threat by a court, and even though the court has said they're going to be released, do you want to come tell my constituents that people who we've held at Guantanamo and described as terrorists are going to be released in their community and perhaps supported with taxpayer funds? That's going to be a hard case to make, these Republicans are saying.

NEARY: And what about the ones who are the most difficult, the ones in the most difficult group?

SHAPIRO: Well, there, President Obama's getting a lot of pressure from the left. The president has suggested that he may create this indefinite detention system with the support of Congress. That drives groups like Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the ACLU, it drives them crazy. They say this isn't much better than what we had under President Bush.

NEARY: He tried to address, though, that whole concern about not in my backyard, that idea that people don't want these people in prisons that are anywhere near where they live.

SHAPIRO: Right. He said there are terrorists held right now, today, in supermax prisons in the United States, and nobody has escaped. It hasn't been a problem. Today, I talked to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in his first interview since he left office. He said escape isn't the problem. The problem is they could persuade other people to become extremists, and extremists could connect with them behind bars.

NEARY: We'll hear more of what President Obama said this morning about closing Guantanamo. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. You can send us an email to talk@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. President Obama made his case this morning for closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said the country must hold fast to the principles it was founded on and be a beacon to the world.

Almost immediately after the president's speech, former Vice President Dick Cheney gave his own views on national security and Guantanamo. He stressed the success of the last eight years, saying every attempt to strike inside the United States has failed.

We'll hear clips from both speeches and hear from you. Did the president or former vice president say anything that spoke to you? Did anything change your mind? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@np.org. Or join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and you click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now in Studio 3A, Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, and Ari Shapiro, NPR justice correspondent. And we're going to take a call now from Karen in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Karen.

KAREN (Caller): Hi, this is Karen Stats(ph), and I'd like to say I was truly inspired by President Obama's looking to our core principles that we have learned, all of humanity has learned, since the Middle Ages as holding fast to what makes us who we are and not just in America, but the world.

It boils down to what we learned at our mother's knee, that two wrongs don't make a right. He applied the laws of physics, even, where you can only hit something as hard as - something can only hit you back as hard as you hit it, and an opposite - positive grounds a negative. And I'm so hopeful. I believe when we look back at this speech, it will become a new age of educated morality instead of just what they're phrasing morality, but in truth, has been nothing but bigotry and, like he said, fear-mongering.

NEARY: All right, Karen, thanks so much for calling in.

KAREN: Thank you.

NEARY: I'm going to ask Ron Elving to respond to that. And also Ron, it made me think of something, which is that President Obama in his speech looked to history to make his case, and former Vice President Cheney took us back to that bunker, brought us to that bunker.

ELVING: Yeah, somewhat more recent history, September 11th, when he was down in that bunker trying to decide whether or not to arm war planes to shoot down airliners that might be in the hands of hijackers - obviously a searing experience for the vice president and one that he clearly will never forget and won't let any of us forget, either, and not that we want to forget it.

The question is: How do we deal with future and present terrorist threats? And I think that the caller exemplifies the kind of high-minded response to the president's appeal to idealism that he has in mind. This is what he hopes the world will conclude about the situation that we're in. But there is an alternative set of terms, an alternative way of looking at it. And the vice president - to borrow some of the words he used this morning - would probably listen to this call and call that attitude and that high-mindedness "recklessness cloaked in righteousness," unquote.

That's exactly what he said of Obama's speech this morning after listening to it, that it is yes, high-minded, but it is reckless because that isn't tough enough to deal with the world. You can project values, and that's fine. Dick Cheney wants to project American values, but he thinks we also have to project strength, and that ultimately that has to rule in certain specific situations.

NEARY: And he was very critical, as he has been all along, of those who really opposed his administration's policy. I mean, he just was very contemptuous of the idea that, as you said, people would choose this kind of righteousness over safety, the safety of the American people.

ELVING: Toughness and prudence in their view, and I would say that there was a fair amount of heat in both speakers today. There was a little bit of collar showing in the president, who is usually, you know, pretty un-dramatic in the sense of being - trying to be very cool and projecting a great deal of cool. And, of course, Dick Cheney is famous for being a little bit hotter as a speaker. But I think both of them were showing their impatience and exasperation with some of the criticism that they have received personally.

NEARY: And I think both of them were really appealing to people's emotions. I mean, on the part of Dick Cheney, I think you heard a lot of appeal to people's fears. I think there was a legitimate appeal to - I could see people responding very much to the concerns he was raising about safety, and the president to this whole history of our great values that we must rest upon.

ELVING: Yes, and if you want to say that the appeal to fear may be either rational or irrational, I think that Dick Cheney was attempting to bring into focus some of the terrible things that can happen and that we should properly be fearful of. That's not irrational.

The president was lashing out at what he sees as the irrational fear, the exaggerations, the things that people are accusing the administration of doing that the administration has never made any attempt to do, such as releasing people into communities from Guantanamo, that kind of fear-mongering.

NEARY: Let me read this email from J.D. He's in Mustang, Oklahoma. He says Mr. Obama bases our security on guesses, hopes and conjecture. His refusal to give credit to President Bush and Vice President Cheney for keeping my family safe for seven years after 9/11 reinforces my firm belief that Obama suffers from the audacity of ego.

These Islamic, fascist terrorist in a supermax prison? What will this president say when al-Qaida blows up a school in a community that has a supermax prison in its backyard? Oops, sorry about that. Look what almost happened in New York City today. In his efforts to make us more like France, we will be rendered weak and vulnerable. God help us all.

ELVING: Did this particular emailer give us an indication of which speech he preferred?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: No, but I think it's probable that maybe nobody's mind was changed today. Ari?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think, you know, even as former Vice President Cheney attacked President Obama on the issue of safety and security, President Obama attacked former Vice President Cheney on the issue of bringing terrorists to justice.

I mean, he was pretty pointed in his own speech this morning, when President Obama said for over seven years, we've detained hundreds of people at Guantanamo. During that time, the system of military commissions succeeding in convicting a grand total of three suspected terrorists.

And then he went on: Instead of bringing terrorists to justice, efforts at prosecution met setbacks, cases lingered, and in 2006, the Supreme Court invalidated the entire system.

So there were some pretty harsh attacks from both directions, I would say.

NEARY: Yeah. And President Obama talked a lot about the balance between national security and transparency. What is he trying to tell the public about - or people who have criticized him on issues like state secrets and his decision not to show the photos of detainee abuse?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, he's been criticized on both sides for releasing memos, authorizing harsh interrogations, for deciding not to release photographs depicting detainee abuse, and his message today seems to be I can't tell you that I will always be transparent or that I will always be secret. We'll be transparent when we can be, and we'll be secretive when we have to be. But, he said, whichever decision I make, I will explain to you, the American people, why I'm making that decision in that case.

NEARY: Now I wanted to also talk about one other thing from former Vice President Cheney's speech. He was very strong on the idea that there can't be a middle ground here. You know, we've been going back and forth on this, and I think we hear that from our listeners. People feel very strongly one way or the other, and certainly former Vice President Cheney made the case that there is no middle ground here.

Vice President CHENEY: The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum. If liberals are unhappy about some decisions and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the president is on the path of sensible compromise. But 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. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy. When just a single clue that goes unlearned or one lead that goes un-pursued can bring on catastrophe, it's no time for splitting differences. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people hang in the balance.

NEARY: Do you think he made his case, Ron?

ELVING: I think that he's talking about two different things. When he says that the president is seeking middle ground on certain issues, I think they're the issues that Ari just outlined in the sense in which on one hand he has displeased the left and the right with respect to transparency and with respect to secrecy.

Then the vice president moves over to talking about whether or not we're splitting hairs in the way that we get information about future plots. That's a slightly different subject. And there I think the real question is: Do you use, do you trust in, do you absolutely believe we must use any and every technique that's available to the science of interrogation? Or are some of those techniques counterproductive in the short run, in the instant case, in the case of a person who may tell you something false just to make the torture stop, and are they effective in the long run, in the sense of the message that they send to the world?

That's where the real disagreement is with respect to middle ground and not middle ground.

NEARY: All right, let's go to a call from - and let me remind our listeners that we are talking about the two speeches today from President Obama and former Vice President Cheney on national security issues, responses to terrorism, what should happen in Guantanamo. If you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call at 800-989-8255.

And we're going to Lisa, who is in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Hi, Lisa.

LISA (Caller): Hi. Yes, I'm a former Air Force officer who's actually gone through some of the interrogation training. And actually, President Obama's speech convinced me of the opposite. It made me feel even more so that Guantanamo Bay should be kept open and that the Bush administration actually has been doing the right thing for the past, you know, seven, eight years. And it actually made me more fearful because I feel like he's on the completely wrong track.

NEARY: Did you feel that before the speech? Does it change anything about the way you thought or does it just reconfirm what you already thought?

LISA: I believe it's just reconfirmed it. I just - I feel that we need to be as strong and as tough and…

NEARY: What is it about what the president said today specifically that reconfirmed those feelings?

LISA: It makes me extremely nervous to think about terrorists being -possible terrorists being brought into our country. And I agree with I'm not sure who it was who had said that my fear is to bring them into our prison system unless they're in complete solitary confinement, is the influence that they're going to have on other inmates. And I feel like that's probably already happened. Even if there are innocent people that are being held at Guantanamo Bay right now, I feel like there's probably been some influence in creating future terrorists.

NEARY: All right. Ari Shapiro, you want to respond to that?

SHAPIRO: You know, although that may be a legitimate concern, it's a concern that I think people might have had for the last decade or more. I've been looking today at the list of terrorists who have been tried and convicted and sentenced to prison in the United States: every one, from Zacharias Moussoaui, to Jose Padilla, to shoe bomber Richard Reid. There's actually a very long list.

And so, this idea that terrorists can't be held in American prisons may be legitimate, but it certainly not new. And the fact that these terrorists are coming from Guantanamo, I think, doesn't necessarily make them any more dangerous than, say, Zacharias Moussoaui, who was believed to be a key part of the 9/11 plot.

I will say that in terms of the role that Guantanamo plays, over the last eight years, decisions by the Supreme Court have effectively made Guantanamo no different from the United States, legally speaking. So in 2002, Guantanamo may have been a law-free zone.

Now, in 2009, if we were to keep people at Guantanamo, I don't think they would necessarily have any more, any fewer rights than if they were in New York or Washington, D.C. It could be just a security issue of physically where do we want to keep them. But I think one of the Obama administration's big reasons for wanting to close Guantanamo is not just the legal rules that govern the base, but the symbol that they say Guantanamo has come to be a black eye and a symbol that helps terrorists recruit.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Lisa, for your call.

And, of course, the president spoke to that today when he said that both the interrogation methods that have been used and Guantanamo have created more terrorists than prevented terrorism.

ELVING: You know, it's possible. And I think the last caller was just referring to the possibility that people who were swept up in the capture of some of the combatants in Afghanistan, perhaps elsewhere, and brought to Guantanamo were, in fact, in some sense or another, innocent - little hard to imagine that they were just passersby.

But let's say that they were not actually terrorists or shouldn't have been there and that they then were influenced to become part of some kind of jihad because they were at Guantanamo, either in contact with others who were already so convicted or because they were outraged by the treatment that they had received since they were unjustly picked up in one of these sweeps, that's going take a long time to know what happened in each one of these cases.

And one of the things that's making this very difficult for the president this week is that you have a report that has not yet officially released from the Department of Defense, but which apparently says that of those who have gotten out of Guantanamo, about one in seven, have gotten back into the fray, have gotten back into some kind of terrorist activity.

NEARY: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call now from Steve(ph) in St. Louis.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. I was pretty compellingly convinced by President Obama's contention that our actions have consequences because, to a large degree, the question now is even if, you know, President Bush's policies were correct, what is the impact of Guantanamo in the future? And it seems to me that Vice President Cheney's belief is that if anyone questions what they did or questions the possibility that having that prison open, you know, could harm us, they're just blaming America, which I find, frankly, ridiculous.

There's lots of people out there who don't like us. And it's very possible that the actions over the past eight years did keep us safe. But those same people in prisons right now are, you know, people who don't like us. Frankly, without bringing those, you know, those prisoners over to America could be compelled to attack us simply out of a belief that we are inconsistent in our values.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Steve.

And we're going to go now to Johnny(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hey, Johnny.

JOHNNY (Caller): Hi. I was - I'm an independent. And I'm 25 years old. I was convinced by Cheney, for the first time sounded like he was using facts, pointing out the three terrorists who were waterboarded and talking - challenging look at our record. And I'm interested in what Obama and his administration would say about using facts and trying to take a nuanced approach to finding data.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call.

I guess we can conclude this by saying that opinion is still divided, as divided as, I think, we heard today in those two speeches.

ELVING: This is a classic argument.

NEARY: Yeah.

ELVING: The argument between projecting values and projecting strength, and how you balance the two - assuming that both these speakers today want to project both - how you balance the two. This is classic. It goes back to ancient times.

NEARY: Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor. We're also joined by NPR justice correspondent, Ari Shapiro.

Thanks to both of you for being with us.

ELVING: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: And coming up, W. Hodding Carter on doing the unthinkable: living within his means.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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