Obama to Cheney: You Didn't Make Us Safer

By Dan Froomkin
11:20 AM ET, 03/23/2009

Obama talks to Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. (CBS News via AP)

President Obama last night forcefully rejected former vice president Cheney's argument that rolling back Bush administration anti-terror tactics has made the nation less safe.

In an interview with CBS News's Steve Kroft broadcast on "60 Minutes" last night (here's the full text, and the video, parts one and two), Obama had this to say: "I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the wrong lesson from history.

"The facts don't bear him out. I think he is -- that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world. I mean, the fact of the matter is after all these years how many convictions actually came out of Guantanamo? How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment. Which means that there is constant effective recruitment of Arab fighters and Muslim fighters against U.S. interests all around the world...

"And, you know, I'm surprised that the vice president is eager to defend a legacy that was unsustainable. Let's assume that we didn't change these practices. How long are we gonna go? Are we gonna just keep on going until you know, the entire Muslim world and Arab world despises us? Do we think that's really gonna make us safer? I don't know a lot of thoughtful thinkers, liberal or conservative, who think that that was the right approach."

Bobby Ghosh writes in Time that "the former Vice President's vitriol-spewing turn on CNN last Sunday has left many in Washington wondering if it was about more than just protecting his legacy.

"Several observers think Cheney may be starting to feel the heat from Democrats' efforts to investigate the Bush Administration's counterterrorism policies — policies Cheney advocated, and for which his protégés allegedly provided the legal basis. But if he was trying to deflect attention from Bush-era policies, Cheney's aggression will likely have the opposite effect."

Along those lines, former U.N. ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and William S. Sessions, the former FBI director -- both of whom served during the first Bush presidency -- write in a Washington Post op-ed: "Investigations by Congress and other bodies have shown that, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, government officials have encouraged and acquiesced in prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel, and detainees have been transferred to countries that are known to torture. In many cases, the perpetrators of abuse and torture were given the support and encouragement (tacit or explicit) of their superiors, possibly as high up the chain of command as the president himself.....

"America needs President Obama to name a nonpartisan commission to investigate the post-Sept. 11 policies and actions regarding the detention, treatment and transfer of security detainees. The mandate of this commission would not be to conduct a criminal investigation; that is the job of our criminal justice system. Rather, this commission would serve the vital purpose of presenting a full picture of policies and actions that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks. We must understand how we got where we are today to ensure that we correct our past mistakes and change our policies going forward."

Francis Wilkinson writes for The Week: "In the background, behind all the noise and fury about misspent billions and AIG bonuses, there is the story that won't go away. President Obama and his aides express no interest in it. Major news reports about it are intermittent at best. Yet in twenty, even fifty years, long after the AIG bonuses are forgotten, today’s background story may be as vivid a historical marker as the Palmer raids or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Slowly, not yet surely, America is moving toward a reckoning with torture.

"Few people, in the press or elsewhere, seem to want it. The big news organizations have mustered an army of reporters to sort through the financial wreckage. But the torture beat has been largely relegated to lefty bloggers, The New Yorker and a few outraged conservatives."

Nevertheless, Wilkinson sees movement ahead: "Inertia seems to be on the side of investigation now. The engine generating this momentum, however, is not the press, mainstream or otherwise. It is the rule, and culture, of the law. The law has been around for some time now, and seems determined to have its say, with or without encouragement from The Washington Post. Torture is illegal in the United States. That fact is a stubborn thing, difficult to steer around no matter how fast the CIA or others spin their wheels."

The New York Times editorial board, meanwhile, expresses its disappointment that Obama hasn't overturned more of Bush's anti-terror policies. "[W]e did not expect that Mr. Obama, who addressed these issues with such clarity during his campaign, would be sending such confused and mixed signals from the White House. Some of what the public has heard from the Obama administration on issues like state secrets and detainees sounds a bit too close for comfort to the Bush team’s benighted ideas....

"Mr. Obama also should stop resisting an investigation of Mr. Bush’s policies on terrorism, state secrets, wiretapping, detention and interrogation. We know he is struggling with many Bush-created disasters — in the economy, in foreign policy and on and on. But understanding all that has gone wrong is the only way to ensure that abuses will truly end. That investigation should be done calmly rather than under the pressure of some new, shocking revelation."

And speaking of shocking revelations, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the 'enhanced' interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against 'high value' Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA. One senior Obama official, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the memos were 'ugly' and could embarrass the CIA. Other officials predicted they would fuel demands for a 'truth commission' on torture.

"Because of an executive order signed by President Obama on Jan. 22 banning such aggressive tactics, deputies to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. concluded there was no longer any reason to keep the interrogation memos classified. But current and former intel officials pushed back, arguing that any public release might still compromise 'sources and methods.' According to the administration official, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden was 'furious' about the prospect of disclosure and tried to intervene directly with Obama officials. But the White House has sided with Holder. Faced with a court deadline in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit regarding the memos filed by the ACLU, Justice lawyers asked for a two-week extension 'because the memoranda are being reviewed for possible release.'"

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