President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney dueled Thursday over the way America should detain and interrogate suspected terrorists, with Obama renewing his vow to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Cheney forcefully denying that the Bush administration used torture to extract information.
In speeches only minutes apart at different venues in Washington, the two set out starkly different views of how to guarantee the nation’s security while preserving American values.
Obama said he is examining a range of options for detainees, including release, imprisonment at high-security American prisons, trials in federal courts and military commissions -- and, for some, prolonged and even indefinite detention. He said his administration is in the process of devising “clear, defensible and lawful standards” for inmates who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes but who still pose a security threat to the country.
Speaking at the National Archives, which houses the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, Obama argued that the nation should “enlist the power of our most fundamental values” in the effort to keep itself safe.
Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank where he has previously delivered addresses defending the Bush administration. He said the waterboarding employed in the questioning of a few captured terrorists was essential in getting as much information as possible about Al Qaeda’s intentions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “Torture was never permitted,” he said.
“Interrogators had authoritative guidance on the line between interrogation and torture, and they knew to stay on the right side of it,” Cheney said. “For all that we’ve lost in this conflict, the United States of America has never lost its moral bearings.”
Here are excerpts from both speeches:
On the Constitution
Obama: I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as commander in chief, and as a citizen I know that we must never -- ever -- turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience’s sake.
I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe.
Cheney: Even before the interrogation program began, and throughout its operation, it was closely reviewed to ensure that every method used was in full compliance with the Constitution, with our statutes and treaty obligations. On numerous occasions, leading members of Congress, including the current speaker of the House, were briefed on the program and on the methods.
Obama: Unfortunately, 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: For all that we’ve lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings. And when the moral reckoning turns to the men known as high-value terrorists, I can assure you they were neither innocent nor victims. As for those who asked them questions and got answers, they did the right thing, they made our country safer, and a lot of Americans are alive today because of them.
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.
Cheney: It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation. You’ve heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists. One of them was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, who had also boasted about his beheading of Daniel Pearl.
We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our country. . . . We didn’t know about Al Qaeda’s plans, but Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and a few others did know.
Obama: So the record is clear: Rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That is why I argued that it should be closed, throughout my campaign. And that is why I ordered it closed within one year.
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 interests of justice and America’s national security. . . .
Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago.
And among these, it turns out that many were treated too leniently, because they cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East.
An estimated 14% of those released previously are believed to be back in the business of jihad.
Transcripts from the White House and American Enterprise Institute contributed to this report.