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How Is Cheney Wrong? Let Me Count the Ways

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009; 5:52 PM

Some people think we're paying too much attention to former Vice President Dick Cheney. I think we may be paying too little. As bracing as last week's Obama-Cheney face-off was, the inevitable focus was on the current president, not the former vice. And for those of us who are relieved he's out of office, there's a tendency to treat Cheney with "there he goes again" ennui. Yet Cheney's speech at the American Enterprise Institute was so chockfull of faulty arguments and rank misrepresentations that it's worth taking the time to review them, in their multiple incarnations.

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The baseless straw man: "[H]ere's the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. 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."

Now Obama has erected his squadron of straw men, but this one of Cheney's is particularly hollow. There has not been another terrorist attack; therefore, everything the previous administration did must be kept in place. Anyone who disagrees is by definition feckless about confronting terrorism.

But Obama's speech made clear he understands that "this threat will be with us for a long time, and that we must use all elements of our power to defeat it." The "great dividing line" between Obama and Cheney involves whether to fight terrorism in a way consistent with the Constitution and American values or to subordinate those niceties to the imperative of self-defense.

The dangerous overstatement, topped off with partisan jab: "The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism... But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground. And half measures keep you half exposed... Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy."

If there is no middle ground, why place any limits on how enhanced interrogations can get? Why not wiretap all conversations? Why give detainees any legal process at all? Calibrating the proper balance between liberty and security is difficult, and reasonable people can differ about where lines should be drawn. But Cheney's whatever-it-takes worldview seems to contemplate no tradeoffs whatsoever. Obama isn't seizing on terrorism for political advantage, like Bill Clinton with welfare reform. He's addressing a real threat -- and cleaning up Cheney's mess.

The outright misstatement: "The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do."

But former FBI agent Ali Soufan offered a completely conflicting account of his interrogation of Abu Zubaida, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that the injured terrorist was cooperating and yielding important information -- the previously unknown role of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the Sept. 11 attacks -- until other interrogators insisted on stepping up the pressure, at which point Zubaydah clammed up.

A twist on the above, misstatement wrapped in demagoguery: "Attorney General Holder and others have admitted that the United States will be compelled to accept terrorists here in the homeland, and it has even been suggested U.S. taxpayer dollars will be used to support them.... 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."

Hard to know where to start parsing the misinformation here. "Compelled to accept terrorists here in the homeland" makes it sound like they'll be roaming the local malls. I don't recall Cheney deploying the "terrorists in the homeland" bogeyman when Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker, was being tried, sentenced and imprisoned here. As Obama said: "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."

U.S. taxpayer dollars supporting terrorists sounds like the 2009 version of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, with about as much truth. As if tax dollars aren't being spent on Guantanamo? As to the notion that only the "worst of the worst" remain, in fact, courts have ruled -- and in some cases Cheney's administration acknowledged -- that there was no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the 241 prisoners currently at Guantanamo; another 50 have been approved for transfer to another country. So the notion that the "low risk" ones are long gone is simply wrong. Ask the Chinese Uighurs who never intended harm to America but have been held without basis for seven years.

The best defense is a good offense: "[T]here has been a strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened to Abu Ghraib with a top-secret program of enhanced interrogations. At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulation and simple decency.... And it takes a deeply unfair cast of mind to equate the disgraces of Abu Ghraib with the lawful, skillful and entirely honorable work of CIA personnel trained to deal with a few malevolent men."

What radicals have engaged in this slur? Well, a panel appointed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, for one. Enhanced interrogation techniques "migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded," Schlesinger's report found.

Finally, ultimate chutzpah: Cheney assailing the Obama administration for failing to disclose documents. "[A]ll that remains an official secret is the information that we gained as a result [of interrogations]. Some of his defenders say the unseen memos are inconclusive, which only raises the question why they won't let the American people decide that for themselves."

Cheney, ardent tribune of open government. Now, that's rich.



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