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Obama, Cheney Defend National Security Priorities

May 21, 2009 at 6:10 PM EST
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President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney's outlined their views on national defense policy Thursday in competing speeches. Here are some excerpts from both.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Now, those extended excerpts from today’s speeches by the president and the former vice president.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: After 9/11, we knew that we had entered a new era, that enemies who did not abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our application of the law, that our government would need new tools to protect the American people, and that these tools would have to allow us to prevent attacks instead of simply prosecuting those who tried to carry them out.

Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people.

But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight, that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.

Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford.

I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence, I bear the responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.

What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America.

They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.

Obama denounces Guantanamo

There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world.

In dealing with this situation, we don't have the luxury of starting from scratch. We're cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess: a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis, and it consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.

There are no neat or easy answers here. I wish there were. But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo. As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester.

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, namely, highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety.

As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.

Some have derided our federal courts as incapable of handling the trials of terrorists. They are wrong. Our courts and our juries, our citizens are tough enough to convict terrorists. The record makes that clear.

Ramzi Yousef tried to blow up the World Trade Center. He was convicted in our courts and is serving a life sentence in U.S. prisons. Zacarias Moussaoui has been identified as the 20th 9/11 hijacker. He was convicted in our courts, and he, too, is serving a life sentence in prison. If we can try those terrorists in our courts and hold them in our prisons, then we can do the same with detainees from Guantanamo.

I can stand here today, as president of the United States, and say without exception or equivocation that we do not torture and that we will vigorously protect our people while forging a strong and durable framework that allows us to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law.

Make no mistake: If we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years, then I will not be able to say that as president. And if we cannot stand for our core values, then we are not keeping faith with the documents that are enshrined in this hall.

Cheney defends Bush administration

FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Our administration always faced its share of criticism. From some quarters, it was always intense. That was especially so in the later years of our term, when the dangers were as serious as ever, but the sense of general alarm after September 11th was a fading memory.

Part of our responsibility, as we saw it, was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America and not to let 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse.

In top-secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.

It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation. You've heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists. One of them was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, who's also boasted about his beheading of Daniel Pearl.

We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our country, things we didn't know about al-Qaida. We didn't know about al-Qaida's plans, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a few others did know. And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we did not think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all.

Yet for all these exacting efforts to do a hard and necessary job and to do it right, we hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.

I might add that people who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about values. Intelligence officers of the United States were not trying to rough up some terrorists simply to avenge the dead of 9/11. We know the difference in this country between justice and vengeance.

Cheney criticizes Obama's plans

Intelligence officers were not trying to get terrorists to confess to past killings; they were trying to prevent future killings.

On his second day in office, President Obama announced he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little deliberation and no plan.

Now the president says some of these terrorists should be brought to American soil for trial in our court system. Others, he says, will be shipped to third countries, but so far the United States has had little luck getting other countries to take hardened terrorists.

The administration has found that it's easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo, but it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interest of justice and America's national security.

Another term out there that slipped into the discussion is the notion that American interrogation practices were a, quote, "recruitment tool" for the enemy. On this theory, by the tough questioning of killers, we have supposedly fallen short of our own values.

This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately, including from the president himself. And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It's another version of that same old refrain from the left, "We brought it on ourselves."

It is much closer to the truth that terrorists hate this country precisely because of the values we profess and seek to live by, not by some alleged failure to do so.

If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move them, the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field. And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don't stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.

Instead, the terrorists see just what they were hoping for: our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.