Cheney, Biden trade jabs on national security policy

Vice president says predecessor factually wrong

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post / February 15, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Vice President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Dick Cheney, engaged in a virtual debate yesterday that highlighted how little progress has been made over the past year - and across consecutive administrations - in resolving the central national security questions raised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath.

Little of the recent debate between President Obama and congressional Republicans has risen beyond partisan talking points. But Cheney acknowledged yesterday on ABC’s “This Week’’ that Obama is wrestling with the same questions the Bush administration faced over how to detain and try terrorist suspects, and in what venues.

Although he criticized Obama’s decisions to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; prohibit torture in interrogation; and try high-profile terrorist suspects in civilian court, Cheney also characterized such decisions as hard and tough, in a rare nod to the shades of gray that color the fight against Islamist extremism.

“It’s the mind-set that concerns me,’’ Cheney said, recalling the Bush administration’s decision to treat terrorist strikes as acts of war. “What the [Obama] administration was slow to do was to come to that recognition that we are at war, not dealing with criminal acts,’’ he added.

White House officials say they have been unmoved by criticism from Cheney, who they note is one of least popular political figures in America. Meanwhile, polls show that Obama scores higher on his management of national security than on any other issue, with a majority of Americans supporting his approach. But a minority supports his decision to try terrorist suspects in civilian court.

Republicans have pounded the president for his handling of the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound jetliner and the decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court in lower Manhattan. Obama and his senior advisers have defended both decisions, although Attorney General Eric Holder left the door open last week for the Mohammed trial to be moved to a military commission, a change of venue that Cheney endorsed yesterday.

The White House was informed early last week that Cheney would be appearing on ABC’s “This Week’’ and decided to deploy Biden, in the words of one senior administration official, to “hold the former vice president accountable to the facts in real time.’’

Biden taped his interview for NBC’s “Meet the Press’’ on Saturday evening from Vancouver, where he is heading the US delegation to the Winter Olympics, and was largely unaware of Cheney’s remarks beforehand. His staff managed to brief him more fully on Cheney’s comments yesterday morning before Biden appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

Striking a strident tone, Biden called Cheney’s assertions “factually, substantively wrong,’’ citing Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan and to intensify drone strikes against Al Qaeda members, which he said have killed a dozen senior operatives and scores more in the lower ranks. He said Cheney was either “misinformed or misinforming’’ the public about Obama’s approach.

“Dick Cheney’s a fine fellow, but he is not entitled to rewrite history without it being challenged,’’ Biden said on “Meet the Press.’’ “I don’t know where he has been. Where was he the last four years of the last administration?’’

The current and former vice presidents made several points echoing those raised last May when Obama and Cheney delivered back-to-back speeches on the role that civil liberties should play in US national security policy. Since then, Obama has missed his self-imposed one-year deadline to close Guantanamo Bay and failed to secure political support for a new domestic site for the remaining prisoners or to achieve consensus on how those still in custody should be tried.

Cheney, the figure most associated with the Bush administration’s national security policy and now its chief defender, said he would not be surprised if Guantanamo remained open at the end of Obama’s presidency. But he also offered a more measured critique of Obama’s overall approach than he did last year, when he called it “recklessness cloaked in righteousness.’’

Cheney said he was “a complete supporter’’ of Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. And while he said that Obama should have charged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man held in the Christmas Day bombing attempt, as an enemy combatant, he acknowledged the complexity of the decision.

He was asked about the case of Richard Reid, who was arrested and charged in civilian court after he tried to bring down an American Airlines flight with a shoe bomb in December 2001. Cheney said the case followed so soon after the Sept. 11 attacks that a new legal framework had not been established, but he acknowledged that Reid could have been held in military custody. Reid eventually pleaded guilty in civilian court.

“The administration really wasn’t equipped to deal with the aftermath of an attempted attack against the United States in the sense that they didn’t know what to do with the guy,’’ Cheney said of the Abdulmutallab case. “They need a process, a set of institutions that they can fall back on. Admittedly, this is hard. We had a hard time dealing with this.’’

Congressional Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for charging Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen, as a civilian and extending him the same legal rights as a US citizen. He was read his Miranda rights less than 10 hours after his arrest, which Republicans say hindered interrogators in gathering valuable intelligence on Al Qaeda operations in Yemen, where officials say Abdulmutallab was trained.