By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009
Unrepentant and newly unbridled, former vice president Richard B. Cheney has embraced two missions in his political retirement: to forcefully defend the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies and to publicly condemn those who would unravel them.
He did both yesterday, using the drama of a televised feud with President Obama to deliver the blistering accusation that more Americans are likely to die because the president has turned away from George W. Bush's post-Sept. 11, 2001, national security agenda. Cheney seemed eager to fan the flames of the debates raging through Washington.
Spoken in his droll monotone, Cheney's words were razor-sharp. He accused the president of "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" over the issue of detainee interrogations and called the decision to ban harsh methods "recklessness cloaked in righteousness" that threatens Americans.
Cheney's speech was on the calendar long before Obama's, but the former vice president did not back down when the two schedules collided. He called the zeal for prosecutions of those who conducted interrogations "utterly misplaced." He accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of treating the CIA with "suspicion, outright hostility and second-guessing." He said Obama would "regret" bringing detainees into the country.
To those who question what he and Bush did to combat terrorism, Cheney held nothing back, offering a comprehensive -- if familiar -- justification for the government's past use of wiretapping, detention and harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects.
"For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history -- not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them," he told the American Enterprise Institute shortly after Obama's own national security address at the National Archives.
It has been evident for weeks that the relative seclusion Cheney kept as vice president was ending. In his speech yesterday, Cheney made it clear that he views himself as the principal keeper of the Bush legacy and a key player in making sure Obama does not mischaracterize the past eight years.
Bush confidants said Cheney is not explicitly channeling his former boss. Bush is neither asking him to make the appearances nor discouraging him from doing so, said former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, who remains close to the 43rd president. But Perino applauded Cheney's decision to offer what she said is a "full accounting" of the Bush presidency.
"Why shouldn't the vice president defend the Bush administration policies?" Perino said yesterday by e-mail. "I am pretty sure we still have free speech in our country -- and he should exercise his right as he sees fit, just as every American should."
White House officials expressed little concern about Cheney's speech, saying Obama's address was not designed to compete with it. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama was in his daily economic and national security briefings during Cheney's talk and did not watch it on television.
But, the officials said, the point-counterpoint argument that unfolded yesterday could help the president make his case, given that poll numbers show Cheney is not popular among the general public.
Cheney's forceful defense of the past eight years raises questions about how long he intends to fill the role of Obama inquisitor.
Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said it is critical to the future of the Republican Party that other defense experts take the mantle from Cheney as soon as possible.
"My guess is he sees this as a substantive duty and intends to be a temporary fixture," Fleischer said. "The vice president knows he's not a popular spokesperson. The future of the party rests with [others]. They need time and space to emerge."
In the meantime, however, Cheney's 15-page speech will serve as a playbook for anyone seeking to defend the Bush administration. In the second half of what amounted to a debate, Cheney vigorously defended the methods that Obama had just belittled as unwise and ineffective.
In great detail, Cheney recounted the hours and days after the 2001 strikes and said the Bush administration's actions are the reason the country has not suffered another serious attack.
"They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do," Cheney said of the policies. ". . . They prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people."
Cheney said he wishes Obama success in protecting the country, telling his conservative audience that "though I am not here to speak for George W. Bush, I am certain that no one wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we do."
Obama did not mention Cheney in his speech, instead making thinly veiled references to the former vice president's comments. In his rebuttal, Cheney spoke directly about Obama, urging the president to alter his course on national security.
"You don't want to call them enemy combatants? Fine," he said. "Call them what you want -- just don't bring them into the United States."
He accused Obama of propagating half-truths about the effectiveness of interrogation methods by refusing to declassify memos that Cheney claims would show how much information the government obtained through such tactics.
He said Obama's release of memos that describe the methods was "flatly contrary" to national security interests. But he said the move should be accompanied by a full release of the other memos.
"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," he said.