- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

One spoke in mellifluous tones and conversational cadences as he laid out a philosophical case against forceful interrogation of terror suspects, all the while making direct eye contact with his viewers through teleprompters.

The other read from his papers with downcast eyes, in a soft, flat monotone that belied the scathing smackdown of his real-life thesis, which defended in dramatic detail the argument that forcing terrorists to divulge plans for future attacks saved thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of American lives after 9/11.

In an extraordinary juxtaposition that played out back-to-back on live television Thursday, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney went toe-to-toe on one of the most contentious issues to emerge after the 2001 terrorist attacks - how to deal with terror suspects whose goal is to kill Americans, as September 11’s nearly 3,000 deaths proved.

Mr. Obama hastily scheduled his speech at the National Archives just this week, pre-empting the long-scheduled speech of Mr. Cheney. The president began at 10:30 a.m., just 15 minutes before Mr. Cheney was to begin. But the former vice president delayed his speech, allowing a room packed full of supporters and reporters at the American Enterprise Institute to watch Mr. Obama on a large screen that the conservative think tank had tuned to CNN.

The room fell to a hush as Mr. Obama once again looked back in anger, repeatedly referring to “the last eight years” and deriding the terror policies of the Bush-Cheney administration as nothing more than a “series of hasty decisions.” Although he acknowledged that his predecessor was “motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people,” he said President Bush “trimmed facts and evidence” - in other words, lied - “to fit ideological predispositions.”

“I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As commander in chief, I see the intelligence. I bear the responsibility for keeping this country safe. And I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation,” Mr. Obama said, drawing applause.

Mr. Cheney emphasized that national security decisions were not made lightly. Instead, he said, “the methods [of interrogation] were given careful legal review before they were approved. Interrogators had authoritative guidance on the line between toughness and torture, and they knew to stay on the right side of it.”

“The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do.”

The president said he recently released memos detailing U.S. interrogation methods because “there was no overriding reason to protect them,” and he insisted that the documents in the National Archives where he was speaking - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights - all but required him to do so.

But Mr. Cheney, who took to his podium less than a minute after the president concluded his remarks, ridiculed the assertion, deriding what he called “contrived indignation and phony moralizing.”

“Releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the national security interests of the United States,” he said flatly.

Although Mr. Cheney’s speech was handed out to the AEI audience in the middle of Mr. Obama’s speech, the former vice president at several times seemed to be directly rebutting the president’s points. In answer to Mr. Obama’s contention that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” has become a recruitment tool for terror groups, Mr. Cheney said that charge “excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the left, ‘We brought it on ourselves.’ ”

At times, Mr. Obama teetered on the edge of the moral equivalency duality, casting the stripped-down cases for and against harsh interrogation methods as polar opposites and declaring that “neither side is right.”

“The American people are not absolutist,” he said.

Mr. Cheney was having none of it.

“The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum. If liberals are unhappy about some decisions and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the president is on the path of sensible compromise,” he said.

“But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed.”

While Mr. Obama complained that Washington often indulges in “pointing fingers,” he himself repeatedly returned to “the last eight years,” lamenting what he said was the lost stature in world opinion brought on by his predecessor. Still, he vowed that he would prefer to leave the debate “in the past.”

Mr. Cheney, meanwhile, seemed to relish the “good fight,” and the former defense secretary, White House chief of staff, and congressman who began his political career when Mr. Obama was 8 years old, took direct aim at the voluble president, whose speech ran 50 minutes.

“Well, good morning, or perhaps good afternoon,” he said taking the AEI stage. ” It’s pretty clear the president served in the Senate and not in the House of Representatives, because, of course, in the House, we have the five-minute rule.”

At the end of his speech in the National Archives, Mr. Obama basked in a wave of applause. Mr. Cheney, on the other hand, scowled slightly as he concluded his 40-minute speech to mild applause, uttered a nearly inaudible “Thank you,” and disappeared in seconds out a side door.

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