Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday the only alternative to holding some suspected terrorists indefinitely would be to execute them, expanding his argument against President Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo prison.
"If you're going to be engaged in a world conflict such as we are, such as the global war on terrorism, if you don't have a place where you can hold these people, your only other option is to kill them," Mr. Cheney said.
"And we don't operate that way."
The former vice president's statements only raised the stakes in a fierce debate with his critics, who believe Mr. Cheney presided over the formulation of interrogation techniques that they regard as torture. Mr. Cheney, his critics say, remains unapologetic for approving waterboarding and other harsh methods used by the Bush administration.
Mr. Cheney based his argument on the view that suspected terrorists should be considered prisoners of war and argued such persons "ought to be held until the end of the conflict."
He also criticized Mr. Obama for failing to think through his promise to shutter Guantanamo.
"The administration made a mistake of the president issuing an order that he wants it closed within a year, but didn't have a clue as to how to proceed," Mr. Cheney said. "And now they're having trouble because they're having to come up with a plan of some kind."
The president responded to Mr. Cheney in an interview with National Public Radio at the White House, dismissing questions about whether the former vice president's arguments present a challenge.
"Well, he also happens to be wrong. Right?" Mr. Obama said, chuckling. "Does it make it more complicated? No, because I think these are complicated issues and there is a legitimate debate to be had about national security."
Mr. Obama, on the eve of a highly anticipated trip to Egypt where he will give a speech addressing the Muslim world, said he does not "begrudge ... anybody in debating sometimes ferociously these issues that are of preeminent importance to the United States."
Mr. Cheney, who has become the most prominent figure to defend the Bush administration's record on terror and national security, spoke and took questions at a lunch honoring journalism award winners at the National Press Club.
The former vice president said the Guantanamo Bay prison is "a fine facility" and that the White House will have a "very difficult" time closing it, because of the legal, political and diplomatic challenges associated with indefinite detention.
Mr. Obama has indicated that even after Guantanamo's closure, the government will still hold some detainees in "prolonged detention." He also has restarted a modified version of Mr. Bush's military commissions to try some detainees, instead of relying on civilian courts.
In arguing for the continued use of Guantanamo, Mr. Cheney cited press accounts of a Pentagon study that found that about 14 percent of the more than 500 prisoners released from Guantanamo have returned to what he called "that jihad business." However, more recent reporting has indicated that the recidivism rate among freed detainees is likely much lower.
Mr. Obama's decision to close Guantanamo did receive praise from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a visit to Washington.
"For the psychological atmosphere, the symbolic issues are important," Mr. Davutoglu said in an interview with a small group of journalists at his Washington hotel. "Many things in our region are psychological."
But one of the leading Republicans likely to run against Mr. Obama in 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, took aim at the president's foreign policy and defense-budget cuts.
In an address to the conservative Heritage Foundation, Mr. Romney characterized Mr. Obama's last two trips abroad as a "tour of apology" and criticized signs that the White House might back off a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
"Arrogant, delusional tyrants can't be stopped by earnest words and furrowed brows," Mr. Romney said. "Action, strong, bold action coming from a position of strength and determination is the only effective deterrent."
North Korea and Iran were two foreign-policy crises on which Mr. Cheney admitted the Bush administration fell short.
"We didn't bat 1,000. No question about it. And Iran and North Korea are still out there," Mr. Cheney said in response to a question about the growth of nuclear programs in both regimes during the eight years Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were in office. "I wish we could have done more, but those are problems that are passed on to the next administration."
But Mr. Cheney did assign responsibility to the CIA for both the faulty intelligence prior to the invasion of Iraq and for proposing the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have been the cause of so much controversy.
The former vice president also said that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the threat he once was.
"I don't think he can have much impact in terms of managing the organization, because that link between Obama and the people under him is pretty fragile," Mr. Cheney said, inserting the president's last name for bin Laden's first, a gaffe committed in the past by numerous politicians.
"I don't think he has the capacity to do as much harm as he did at one point, but we ought to still continue to chase him," Mr. Cheney said of bin Laden.