By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; A01
Vice President Biden and his predecessor, Richard B. Cheney, engaged in a virtual debate Sunday that highlighted how little progress has been made over the past year -- and across consecutive administrations -- in resolving the central national security questions raised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath.
Little of the recent debate between President Obama and congressional Republicans has risen beyond partisan talking points. But Cheney acknowledged Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that Obama is wrestling with the same questions the Bush administration faced over how to detain and try terrorist suspects, and in what venues.
Although he criticized Obama's decisions to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; prohibit torture in interrogation; and try high-profile terrorist suspects in civilian court, Cheney also characterized such decisions as "hard" and "tough," in a rare nod to the shades of gray that color the fight against Islamist extremism.
"It's the mind-set that concerns me," Cheney said, recalling the Bush administration's decision to treat terrorist strikes as acts of war. "What the [Obama] administration was slow to do was to come to that recognition that we are at war, not dealing with criminal acts," he added.
White House officials say they have been unmoved by criticism from Cheney, whom they note is one of least popular political figures in America. Meanwhile, polls show that Obama scores higher on his management of national security than on any other issue, with a majority of Americans supporting his approach. But a minority supports his decision to try terrorist suspects in civilian court, suggesting that Obama is politically vulnerable on specific policy questions.
Republicans have pounded the president for his handling of the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound jetliner and the decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in federal court in Lower Manhattan. Obama and his senior advisers have defended both decisions, although Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. left the door open last week for the Mohammed trial to be moved to a military commission, a change of venue that Cheney endorsed Sunday.
The White House was informed early last week that Cheney would be appearing on ABC's "This Week" and decided to deploy Biden, in the words of one senior administration official, to "hold the former vice president accountable to the facts in real time."
Biden taped his interview for NBC's "Meet the Press" on Saturday evening from Vancouver, where he is heading the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics, and was largely unaware of Cheney's remarks beforehand. His staff managed to brief him more fully on Cheney's comments Sunday morning before Biden appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Striking a strident tone, Biden called Cheney's assertions "factually, substantively wrong," citing Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and to intensify drone strikes against al-Qaeda members, which he said have killed a dozen senior operatives and scores more in the lower ranks. He said Cheney was either "misinformed or misinforming" the public about Obama's approach.
"Dick Cheney's a fine fellow, but he is not entitled to rewrite history without it being challenged," Biden said on "Meet the Press." "I don't know where he has been. Where was he the last four years of the last administration?"
The current and former vice presidents made several points echoing those raised last May when Obama and Cheney delivered back-to-back speeches on the role that civil liberties should play in U.S. national security policy. Since then, Obama has missed his self-imposed one-year deadline to close Guantanamo Bay and failed to secure political support for a new domestic site for the remaining prisoners or to achieve consensus on how those still in custody should be tried.
Cheney, the figure most associated with the Bush administration's national security policy and now its chief defender, said he would not be surprised if Guantanamo remained open at the end of Obama's presidency. But he also offered a more measured critique of Obama's overall approach than he did last year, when he called it "recklessness cloaked in righteousness."
Cheney said he was "a complete supporter" of Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. And while he said that Obama should have charged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man held in the Christmas Day bombing attempt, as an enemy combatant, he acknowledged the complexity of the decision.
He was asked about the case of Richard Reid, who was arrested and charged in civilian court after he tried to bring down an American Airlines flight with a shoe bomb in December 2001. Cheney said the case followed so soon after the Sept. 11 attacks that a new legal framework had not been established, but he acknowledged that Reid could have been held in military custody. Reid eventually pleaded guilty in civilian court.
"The administration really wasn't equipped to deal with the aftermath of an attempted attack against the United States in the sense that they didn't know what to do with the guy," Cheney said of the Abdulmutallab case. "They need a process, a set of institutions that they can fall back on. Admittedly, this is hard. We had a hard time dealing with this."
Congressional Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for charging Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen, as a civilian and extending him the same legal rights as a U.S. citizen. He was read his Miranda rights less than 10 hours after his arrest, which Republicans say hindered interrogators in gathering valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda operations in Yemen, where officials say Abdulmutallab was trained.
But administration officials say he has been cooperating with interrogators since his family was brought in to encourage him to do so.
Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," national security adviser James L. Jones said the administration should have "moved much more quickly" to determine Abdulmutallab's legal status. Jones added: "Having studied this pretty carefully, and being aware of what happened both before he was read his rights and after he was read his rights in this particular case, we are getting the information we need."
In his interview, Cheney presented himself as out of step with less hawkish members of the Bush administration on whether to release prisoners from Guantanamo or to preserve interrogation methods that the International Committee of the Red Cross called torture.
He recalled a meeting in the Roosevelt Room "where we had a major shootout" over whether to try captured terrorist suspects before military commissions or, as the Justice Department advocated at the time, in civilian courts.
"We never clearly or totally resolved those issues," Cheney said. "These are tough questions, no doubt about it. You want my opinion, my view of what ought to happen, I think we have to treat it as a war."