'Special Report' Panel on Dueling National Security Speeches from Obama, Cheney
This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from May 21, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult.
You can almost picture the direct mail pieces that emerge from many who will vote on this issue designed to frighten the population. I get it.
But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes.
DICK CHENEY, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BRET BAIER, "SPECIAL REPORT" HOST: Closing Guantanamo Bay, the detention facility there, just one of the many topics touched on in those two dueling speeches. The president speaking at the National Archives, often referencing the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence housed there, and the former vice president speaking at American Enterprise Institute.
Let's bring in our panel, Jeff Birnbaum, managing editor digital of the "Washington Times," Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Let's start with an overview of the two speeches — Charles?
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, Obama really didn't really want to give this speech. He had to. I mean, he wasn't elected to be a national security president. He is a domestic president, and that's his agenda.
But his hand was forced because there was an open rebellion in Congress over the Guantanamo issue. The senators wanted a decision, and he gave them an essay. The senators wanted a president, and he gave them a professor.
What he did was he outlined the five categories of prisoners in Guantanamo, an interesting exercise that you would expect out of a graduate student, in which you have got those who can be tried in regular courts and those who have to be in military tribunals, and those that will not be taken by allies, as if any allies are taking them, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, a freshman in college could tell you that.
And then he says the fifth category, those whom you cannot try, either because the crimes are committed but the evidence is tainted, or because they have not yet committed a crime but they sure as hell will if released, there are those whom you cannot try and you cannot release. And then he says, "And that's the really difficult issue."
No kidding. I mean, who would have thought that was the problem about these prisoners? Of course everybody knows that.
So what was his answer? He doesn't have an answer. What he says is he is going to work with Congress and work out a framework of detaining these people.
OK, but it's no answer at all. And what you saw in the reaction in the Senate and the House is they were not extremely happy. But all that took a hit and said OK, we're encouraged, and we're waiting on details.
Look, rhetorically, it was a brilliant speech. He got around the issue. He dressed it up as a defender of the constitution and everything that's American. But in essence, it was a punting, and it was essentially obscuring the absence of a decision in a lot of excellent, interesting, but in the end futile rhetoric, I would say.
MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: You know what, Charles is right, there hasn't been a decision made. But he is going to have to make one. The task force that he has charged with figuring out some of these difficult issues has to report back by July.
I think what the president was doing was playing catch up. This debate did get out in front of him, and he had to try to get back out in front of it. He probably shouldn't have sent up a request for money to close Guantanamo before he had a plan to close Guantanamo, and that's what the Senate is waiting for. But I think what he did today that helped him was, number one, he tapped down some of the fire on the left. Not necessarily in Congress. That's a completely different thing — but among all the civil liberties groups who are saying it is now the "Bush-Obama" policy. He very carefully, as is his talent, explained the problem that he's grappling with. As Charles said, he didn't come up with a solution to it, but he explained the problem. He said this is why it is difficult. These are the things that I'm weighing against, the two goals that I have, keeping America safe and upholding our values, and this is what I'm going to work out. He did, I think, show himself to be somebody who is grappling with the responsibilities of being a commander in chief and not just a Democratic candidate.
JEFF BIRNBAUM, MANAGING EDITOR DIGITAL, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": It was an extraordinary day, this split-screen day. I'm not sure that the graduate student analogy is the right one. It was nor like extreme fighting in a political arena, in my view.
BAIER: Clash of the titans.
BIRNBAUM: Really. And it — President Obama, from the reports I have heard, actually moved his speech up so that he could speak on the same day that he knew that former Vice President Cheney was going to be giving his speech on the same topics, essentially.
And it was really a very big day, but Obama —
BAIER: How did you score it, though?
BIRNBAUM: I think Obama loses in a submission, because he did not give the details of the Guantanamo closing that was needed to move it through Congress. And that was his main job, and he didn't perfect that.
BAIER: One of the things he did say, the president did say, was that there is a tendency in Washington to point our fingers at each other, lawmakers pointing their fingers at each other. By our count, there were at least 28 references back to the Bush administration in a negative light, in which it seemed he was pointing the finger — Charles?
KRAUTHAMMER: Look, this guy is a master of disingenuousness. He not only attacked the Bush administration, as you say, over 20 times. He also said I'm not here — how did he put it — to re-litigate the past, which is everything he did. Half of his speech was an attack on the Bush administration.
The raison d'etre of his candidacy, of his presidency, is he is the anti-Bush. He is going to undo all of the evil in the Bush administration. And that's the case he tried to make.
His problem is, as commander in chief, he is implementing a lot of the same issues and policies as he did on the military commissions which he had excoriated them in '08, and now has reinstated them.
BAIER: And Mara, to follow — for the former vice president to follow the president there and hit on those themes of how hard governing really is —
LIASSON: Yes. I think there is one level you can see this as the clash of the titans, and these two guys really having a debate that we didn't have in the 2008 campaign.
Cheney didn't feel as unbound and unfettered to actually make this case. John McCain was actually on the same side as Barack Obama on some of these issues.
But I think underneath that, you do have two men saying we — one of them saying we grappled with the same issues as you are grappling with now, and here is the conclusion we came to to keep the country safe.
Obama in some ways is coming to some of the same conclusions as the Bush administration came to.
Now, granted he will do it with more rights for detainees and he is going to present it in another way. Maybe they will not be called "indefinite detention." Maybe they will be called "military detention," or something like that.
But there is going to be something that looks a lot like indefinite detention when we get to the end of this.
BIRNBAUM: The only advantage, I think, that Obama had was his opponent was Dick Cheney who really is damaged goods —
LIASSON: That's a big advantage.
BIRNBAUM: — damaged goods in the public relations sense.
But there has been a poll —
BAIER: On the left.
BIRNBAUM: Right — there has been a poll that Cheney among all people polled, actually has increased 8 percentage points recently.
So he's catching up, but he still has a long way to go to get to Obama.
BAIER: The two men also took opposing positions, not surprisingly, on enhanced interrogation. We'll interrogate the panel, nicely, after the break.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHENEY: Redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question.
Other memos laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted apparently were not even considered for release.
For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers.
OBAMA: I will never hide the truth because it's uncomfortable. I will tell the American people what I know and don't know. And when I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: There is the back and forth about these memos, the first memos about the enhanced interrogation techniques that the administration released, and then there are the memos that former Vice President Cheney has asked to be released but have not been released.
Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was pressed by our own Major Garrett, does the president agree that he has declassification powers? Gibbs said yes, but at this point the president has no intention of exercising those for these memos, at least that's the implication that Robert Gibbs gave today.
So what about this back and forth and about the techniques? We're back with the panel — Charles?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, this is a really important challenge to the president. And that, I think, was the heart of the Cheney speech. He spoke almost entirely about interrogations because he has been excoriated about that, and the people who supported him in the administration are having their reputation, their livelihoods, even their freedom threatened as a result of those actions. So he feels he is obligated to rise in defense.
And I thought his speech was strong, decisive, unapologetic, and convincing.
On the issue here, he is saying, look, the administration is making a big deal of its transparency. "If I don't release information, I'll tell you why." So tell us why you're going to release the memos that you know are going to embarrass the Bush administration, and describe unpleasant interrogations.
Why do you not release memos which might show how these interrogations helped save American lives?
And we know from Obama's own director of national intelligence, he has said in writing that these interrogations yielded information of high importance about Al Qaeda. So let's see them.
And I think Republicans ought to focus on this and not on Pelosi resigning. I want to keep her in office twisting slowly in the wind. But this is an issue that Republicans ought to rally on. Release the memos.
LIASSON: Yes. What I think Vice President Cheney has been able to do, which is pretty interesting. This is an era, by the way, where the Republicans have no real leader. Well on national security issues they just got one, for better or for worse, sometimes, politically.
What he has done is spark a debate about whether or not these enhanced interrogation techniques work, not whether you think they are good or bad. Somebody could say even if they work, I don't want to use them because I don't think America is the kind of country that should.
But he has sparked this debate, and he is pushing it forward by saying there is actually proof. I want those two memos released.
Now the CIA, the ostensibly reason for them not releasing it is because it is the subject of another one of those Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by the ACLU.
BAIER: But one would think that the first batch of memos would be under the same Freedom of Information Act litigation.
LIASSON: Yes, right. And I don't know why they have to wait for the first litigation to go through. But I think eventually these memos will be released. And then, either, as the president has said, they will be ambiguous, it's not going to be so clear, or, as Cheney says, they will show that sometimes these techniques worked.
I can't think of another former vice president who has ever become not only just the focal point of the opposition, but has framed a debate the way he has from the outside.
BIRNBAUM: Cheney's speech was very pointed and filled with facts and some accusations that are very important here.
In particular, he undercut President Obama's speech in two important ways. First, he said, and there's some evidence that President Obama has reserved for himself the ability to authorize what Obama would call torture in extreme circumstances.
Now, Gibbs denied that today in his news conference. But nonetheless, that, I think, is the case, that the president can give exceptions. Of course he can.
BAIER: Of course he can.
BIRNBAUM: Of course he can, and he would.
And the other was that the number of people waterboarded, according to Cheney — three. And the whole idea that the constitution may collapse because of three examples that were — that Cheney and President Bush decided were needed because of a lack of time is, I think, a very difficult argument to carry along.
BAIER: Charles, last word here. This was not a debate that we had in the campaign.
KRAUTHAMMER: It's a better one, because a year ago, Democrats could demagogue unrestrained. Now Democrats are in power. They have to make tough decisions, and they know how difficult these choices are.
It's a better debate, and the outcome is going to be extremely interesting to see who wins on the politics and on the substance.
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