WASHINGTON-Fully embracing his new role as political outsider and soothsayer, former Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday defended the Bush administration's national security tactics while warning that President Obama, by abandoning these policies, has put America at risk.
"After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized," Cheney said. "It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed."
Taking the stage at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) just moments after Obama concluded his own speech on national security across town (see "Obama takes on Gitmo," by Emily Belz), Cheney called it a "serious step to begin unraveling some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11."
He did not mince words in repeatedly asserting that the Bush White House prevented additional terrorist attacks on American soil while Pennsylvania Avenue's newest occupants are jeopardizing that safety while engaging in distracting moral debates: "To completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe."
Since leaving office, Cheney has consistently ramped up his defense of the last eight years-talking publicly more than he did during his final years as vice president. Whether fellow conservatives like it or not-and that is a topic of considerable internal debate-Cheney is refusing to relinquish his place in the epicenter of GOP politics.
And the media has been more than happy to oblige. More than 15 television cameras lined the walls in front of the former vice president-a sharp contrast to the handful that showed up for the Republican National Committee state chairmen's meeting just a day earlier. There a few reporters spread out among rows of empty chairs could only muster two questions at a subdued and brief press conference. But on Thursday, at AEI, the media phalanx burst with energy.
But Cheney did not stay for questions. Rather, in a 16-page address that he mostly read (the full transcript can be found here), he placed in the public record his pride over the safe past and his fears of a less safe future if his replacements continue on their current policy path.
The dueling speeches between Obama and Cheney made for good political theater-except the stakes are too high to reduce the matter to a mere debate drama, something the news networks are sure to do ad nauseam over the long Memorial Day weekend.
In his address, Cheney whisked listeners through a history of modern terrorism, recounting how he spent 9/11 in a fortified White House command post, where he viewed televised images of the disaster that steeled his resolve to protect the nation. He said prior to that day the nation had an "ad hoc" attitude toward terrorism. But he concluded that former President George W. Bush's "comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever."
"Our government prevented attacks and saved lives," Cheney continued in a theme repeated throughout the address. "On our watch they never hit this country again."
Cheney went on to stress that the interrogation techniques used were "legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do." He rebuked Democrats for publishing the interrogation specifics without also releasing the classified reports, which he said chronicle the terrorist attacks such interrogations prevented. Releasing just the tactics, Cheney added, did nothing more than provide terrorists with a "lengthy insert for their training manual."
The former vice president did not shy away from the linchpin of recent criticisms-waterboarding, stressing that interrogators only used this method on three detainees: "And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance we didn't think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time."
Cheney did not end at defending his old tactics, but went on the offensive against the "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" of his numerous critics: "No moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things."
Mocking the current administration's downplaying of the term "war" when it comes to terrorism, he said Obama's search for a sensible compromise is not the way to decide national security strategy.
"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance," Cheney said in the only line that received applause from the standing room only audience.