When former Vice President Dan Quayle scheduled a big speech, President Bill Clinton didn't hop in and schedule one for the hour before. When former Vice President Al Gore scheduled a big speech, President George W. Bush didn't hop in and schedule one for the hour before. But when former Vice President Dick Cheney scheduled a big speech for 10:30 a.m. last week at the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a research fellow, President Barack Obama hopped in and scheduled a speech for 10 a.m. that day at the National Archives.
A little defensive, no?
Cheney spoke in defense of the Bush administration's terrorist interrogation policies and of the Guantanamo detention camp. But he was really on offense. The Bush administration managed to keep America safe for 2,689 days after the September 11 attacks, he said. The enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding of three captured terrorists, saved hundreds of lives. Barack Obama's release of the legal memoranda approving those techniques has made our defenders less safe -- now let him release the reports showing the information we got from the detainees.
There were even a couple of well-deserved swipes at the press. The New York Times, Cheney noted, was "publishing secrets in a way that could only help al-Qaida. It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn't serve the interests of our country, or the safety of our people." The Times reporter sitting behind me at AEI said afterwards he agreed -- whether he was joking or serious I couldn't tell.
From Obama we heard a lawyerly defense of his acquiescence in Bush policies that he lambasted on the campaign trail, including his declaration that we will hold some detainees indefinitely without trial by civilian courts or military commissions. After urging that we not look backward, he did so himself, saying he inherited a "mess" and assuring us, without supporting data, that Guantanamo "likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained."
I have tried to understand the fury of the political left, a fury Obama stoked in the Senate and on the campaign trail, over the interrogation techniques and Guantanamo. Yes, the interrogations were a miserable business, and I wouldn't like to be in the room for them, on either side of the questioning. But were they really terrible? You don't have to consult Mr. Webster to know that this is a distinction with a difference.