By Scott Wilson and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 22, 2009
President Obama and former vice president Richard B. Cheney yesterday gave the country the national security debate it never had during last year's campaign, with the two outlining starkly divergent views of American power and the presidency in the fight against terrorism.
In an extraordinary set of speeches, the still-new president, who refers often to the problems he inherited from his predecessor, and the previous administration's most forceful spokesman laid out their positions just minutes apart in locations separated by barely a mile. The virtual debate touched on Congress and the courts, interrogation tactics and truth commissions, and competing assessments of the nation's post-Sept. 11 history that are currently informing the debate in Washington over how best to balance public safety and civil liberties.
Presidential scholars could not recall another moment when consecutive administrations intersected so early and in such a public way.
The long 2008 campaign lacked a head-to-head discussion of the Bush administration's national security policies. The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), largely agreed with Obama on the need to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end interrogation methods that international humanitarian groups have called torture.
Obama's appearance at the National Archives had the feel of a campaign event, one aimed at convincing the American public and a recalcitrant Democratic Congress that strict adherence to the rule of law combined with an embrace of civil liberties is the most effective way to defeat America's enemies. Although Obama has recently adopted some elements of his predecessor's policies on terrorism trials and secrecy, he said that during the Bush administration, "too often we set those principles aside as luxuries we could no longer afford."
"And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists and citizens -- fell silent," Obama said at the Archives, where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are kept. "In other words, we went off course."
Speaking moments after Obama finished, Cheney delivered the most pointed rejoinder of his weeks-long media campaign in defense of the Bush administration's national security record, including its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its adoption of harsh interrogation tactics and detention policies that have been widely criticized.
The "great dividing line in our current debate over national security" is whether that "comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever," he said during his appearance at the American Enterprise Institute. "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."
The Obama administration booked the Archives for the speech on Monday, aides said, after the president concluded that a series of decisions that disappointed his liberal allies, including preserving elements of the Bush-era military commissions system to try terrorism suspects, were being misconstrued by the news media.
The address was designed as a way for Obama to regain the initiative in a national security debate that he appeared to be winning early in his administration, after ordering the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year and requiring CIA interrogators to adhere to standards in the Army Field Manual. Those fortunes changed this week when the Democratic-controlled Senate denied the funds Obama had requested for closing the Guantanamo facility.
The path to the speech began last month when the administration agreed to the release of once-classified Justice Department memos that outlined the legal rationale for the severe interrogation methods, including the simulated-drowning technique known as waterboarding. Aides said the president huddled with advisers over the address for more than a week and did not complete a final draft until 2:30 yesterday morning.
"I think it is unprecedented in the modern era," said Peniel Joseph, a historian at Brandeis University. "We've seen outgoing administrations that did not get along with the new administration, but we have never seen the vice president of an outgoing administration lambasting the new administration like this."
Joseph said Cheney's aggressive posture and challenge of Obama are likely to animate the Republican base but probably few people beyond that. "This notion that 'we did everything right' has a certain revisionist appeal, but it does not have a crossover appeal to transform the Republican Party," he said.
In explaining his recent decision to oppose the release of photos of prisoner abuse, Obama effectively declared an end to the all-powerful executive branch that Cheney and other Bush administration officials have long favored. He said the difference between his position on transparency and the Bush administration's is that "whenever we cannot release certain information to the public for valid national security reasons, I will insist that there is oversight of my actions -- by Congress or by the courts."
Standing in the Archives' rotunda, Obama called the Bush administration's national security decisions "ad hoc" and "hasty." He said opening the Guantanamo prison was a "misguided experiment" that has created a legal "mess" that his administration is now struggling to clean up.
"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," Obama said. ". . . Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset."
Obama has been attempting to change the subject of the debate in Washington from the legacy of the Bush administration's national security policies to a domestic agenda including health care and energy reform that is now working its way slowly through Congress. He attempted to do so again yesterday but notably passed up an opportunity to highlight his successful campaign last year, which was built in part on his opposition to torture and Guantanamo.
"When it comes to actions of the last eight years, passions are high," Obama said. "Some Americans are angry. Others want to refight debates that have been settled, in some cases debates that they have lost."
According to his prepared remarks, Obama had something different in mind. He had planned to say that those debates had been settled "most clearly at the ballot box in November."