President Barack Obama and former vice president Dick Cheney played dueling banjos Thursday over Guantanamo Bay prison and torture with each charging the other that their opposing policies made America less safe from terrorists.
In some respects it was an historic confrontation not seen since former President Theodore Roosevelt took on his former protege William Howard Taft in 1912.
The speeches were delivered back to back in separate locations in Washington D.C. and covered live by the cable news channels.
It wasn't a case of oneupmanship. Neither man won or lost. But it did give the public something to chew in a digestive tract that won't be regurgitated until the next election cycle or two. Or another terrorist attack on the United States.
The most significant aspect of the speeches is that Obama and Cheney -- at least until he left office Jan. 20 -- are the only two persons privy to all the classified intelligence matters to speak publicly about the status of our national defense security mechanisms. Everything else we have heard or read has come in bits and pieces from the White House and testimony before Congressional committees.
For example, in Cheney's defense we have seen no evidence he claims vindicates what he calls "harsh interrogation" techniques. We have heard from former Central Intelligence Agency officials that torture does not work. Until all the evidence is revealed, Cheney must be given the benefit of the doubt despite the fact I believe his sole purpose in this debate is to cover his ass.
In his speech, Obama failed to outline a detailed course of action closing Guantanamo which forced his Democratic allies in the Senate to withhold $80 million funding for the base closure.
What he did was spell out a course of action with congressional and court oversight to hold and try suspected terrorists in U.S. prisons.
This is where it gets sticky. Most Americans do not want these terrorists in prisons or courts in their backyards. Yet, dozens of terrorists are being held in federal prisons with no security breaks reported. The exception to the opposition is tiny (pop. 3,500) Hardin, Mont., where an empty federal prison exists, and Democratic Rep. John Murtha's district in Pennsylvania.
Charging that congressional debate over the issue produced "fear-mongering" and speeches "calculated to scare people rather than educate them," Obama pledged: "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."
Obama stressed taking the high moral ground in the fight against al-quada terrorists.
"It's the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government; the reason why America's benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries; the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty," he said.
"Where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology," Obama said. Those values were put to the test by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which showed that the government would need new tools to prevent future assaults.
"Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions," he said. While those decisions "were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people," he said, "too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight," and it often "trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions."
He added, "Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."
Stressing that "we are indeed at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates," Obama said that "we do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat." But he said this must be done "with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability."
Cheney, meanwhile, defended the interrogation techniques that the Bush administration authorized the CIA to use on suspected terrorists and denounced the "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" that he said the methods have inspired.
"They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do," Cheney said of the interrogation techniques. "They prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."
In an apparent reference to the Obama administration, Cheney also charged that "people who consistently distort the truth" about the interrogations "are in no position to lecture anyone about 'values.' "
And that, twisted into a recruiting tool by al-quada, is the legacy left behind by the Bush administration torture techniques.
I might suggest the best course of action for Obama is to embark and refine his policy handling the prisoner detainees and let Congress and perhaps a special prosecutor investigate the mess Bush left us.