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Obama, Cheney Each Defend National Defense Philosophies

May 21, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney each defended their views on national defense policy Thursday, with Obama emphasizing the need to close Guantanamo and Cheney insisting that enhanced interrogation yielded valuable information. Kwame Holman reports.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama stood firm today on his policies for fighting terror and closing the prison at Guantanamo. And former Vice President Cheney answered with a defense of Bush administration policies and new challenges to Mr. Obama.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president offered a forcefully worded, 45-minute answer to growing criticism of his decisions from Republicans and some Democrats. He spoke at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where the Constitution and Bill of Rights are housed. And he ran the gamut from closing Guantanamo to banning waterboarding to withholding abuse photos.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: So I understand these problems arouse passions and concerns. They should. We’re confronting some of the most complicated questions that a democracy can face.

And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I’ve heard words that, frankly, are calculated to scare people rather than educate them, words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: A few blocks away, at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, an audience watched the address on TV. They were waiting for former Vice President Dick Cheney, who emerged a short time later to renew his strong criticism of the president.

DICK CHENEY, Former Vice President of the United States: The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum.

If liberals are unhappy about some decisions and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the president is on the path of sensible compromise. But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed.

KWAME HOLMAN: The two speeches came a day after a bipartisan U.S. Senate resoundingly rejected the president’s request for $80 million to close the Guantanamo facility. Republicans in particular said detainees should not be transferred to prisons inside the U.S.

At first blush, the president’s words today did little to win over GOP leaders, especially on closing Guantanamo.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: What we need here is not a speech, but a plan, and a plan was what was clearly missing from the speech here today. What is driving this issue? In my view, what is driving this issue is a quest for popularity in Europe more than continuing policies that demonstrably have made America safe since 9/11.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House Minority Leader: Despite the overwhelming opposition from the American people and a bipartisan majority here in Congress, he’s moving ahead with importing terrorists into the United States for trial in our civilian federal courts. I think this is a pre-9/11 mentality, and I think it’ll make our nation less safe.

KWAME HOLMAN: But leading Democrats voiced confidence that nothing of the kind will come to pass.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), House Majority Leader: I am confident that this administration will do what it has done since being inaugurated: pursuing a very thoughtful, considered path to address challenges confronting the country.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: For us to continue to keep voting on ways to foreclose the possibilities of bringing Guantanamo to close in a responsible fashion I don’t think is responsible conduct.

I hope that we will stop this, allow the president to show his leadership. He inherited this mess at Guantanamo. He’s doing his best to find solutions consistent with our values and keeping in mind his primary responsibility to keep us safe.

KWAME HOLMAN: Amid the back-and-forth, Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to transfer the first Guantanamo detainee to the U.S. to stand trial in a criminal court.

Ahmed Ghailani faces a federal indictment in New York for the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998. More than 200 people were killed, including 12 Americans.

And there were new concerns today about what detainees do once they’re released. The New York Times reported the Pentagon has found 1 of 7 of those already transferred abroad have rejoined the fight.

In all, 240 detainees remain at Guantanamo. The president said today other countries have agreed to take 50 of those so far.