In Dueling Speeches, a National Security Debate

Obama Says Bush Set Aside Principles in Terrorism Fight

In dueling speeches Thursday, Obama and Cheney spar over Guantanamo, harsh interrogations and other approaches to fighting terrorism. Video by Jonathan Forsythe/The Washington Post
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."

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