Obama and Cheney, Side by Side

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Photo: Getty Images

Though they've been sniping back and forth at each other for months now, earlier today President Obama and Dick Cheney came as close as they ever will to directly debating each other on national security (unless Cheney ever runs for president — oh, to dream). Obama delivered his speech first at the National Archives building, and Cheney followed only minutes later at the American Enterprise Institute. Since Cheney's address wasn't a direct response to Obama's, they didn't hit all the same themes — Obama focused much more on the legal complexities of prosecuting prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, and Cheney spent much more time on 9/11 and its aftermath, for example — but the two offered contrasting takes on many of the same issues, like closing Guantánamo Bay, the torture memos, and torture itself. Here's how their arguments stacked up against each other.

On the effectiveness of "enhanced interrogation techniques":
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.

Cheney:
The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people .... The enhanced interrogations of high-value detainees and the terrorist surveillance program have without question made our country safer. Every senior official who has been briefed on these classified matters knows of specific attacks that were in the planning stages and were stopped by the programs we put in place.

On "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a recruitment tool:
Obama:
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. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts — they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.

Cheney:
Another term out there that slipped into the discussion is the notion that American interrogation practices were a “recruitment tool” for the enemy. On this theory, by the tough questioning of killers, we have supposedly fallen short of our own values .... As a practical matter, too, terrorists may lack much, but they have never lacked for grievances against the United States. Our belief in freedom of speech and religion, our belief in equal rights for women, our support for Israel, our cultural and political influence in the world — these are the true sources of resentment, all mixed in with the lies and conspiracy theories of the radical clerics.

On staying true to American values:
Obama:
I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values .... The American people are not absolutist, and they don't elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty, and care, and a dose of common sense.

Cheney:
Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.

On releasing the "torture memos":
Obama:
I released the memos because the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the Bush administration had acknowledged its existence, and I had already banned those methods. The argument that somehow by releasing those memos, we are providing terrorists with information about how they will be interrogated is unfounded — we will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach, because that approach is now prohibited. In short, I released these memos because there was no overriding reason to protect them. And the ensuing debate has helped the American people better understand how these interrogation methods came to be authorized and used.

Cheney:
[W]hen the soul-searching was done and the veil was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given less than half the truth. For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers .... Releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the national security interest of the United States. The harm done only begins with top secret information now in the hands of the terrorists, who have just received a lengthy insert for their training manual.

On fighting the release of photographs showing abuse:
Obama:
In short, there is a clear and compelling reason to not release these particular photos. There are nearly 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm's way, and I have a solemn responsibility for their safety as commander-in-chief. Nothing would be gained by the release of these photos that matters more than the lives of our young men and women serving in harm's way.

Cheney:
Obama "deserves our support" for his "wise decision."

On a Truth Commission to investigate torture:
Obama:
I have opposed the creation of such a commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws. I understand that it is no secret that there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And our media culture feeds the impulses that lead to a good fight. Nothing will contribute more to that than an extended re-litigation of the last eight years.

Cheney:
The kind of answers [the left wing of the president's party is] after would be heard before a so-called “Truth Commission.” Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as criminals. It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.

On moving Guantánamo prisoners into American prisons:
Obama:
Let me begin by disposing of one argument as plainly as I can: 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. Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders — highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety. As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal "supermax" prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.

Cheney:
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. I think the president will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.