WASHINGTON (CN) – Following the Senate’s refusal to fund closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, President Barack Obama argued Thursday that the prison “likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” He was met on the field of argument by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the agents who tortured prisoners should be “proud.”
The president and the former vice president, in two separate speeches delivered on the same day, covered many of the same issues and were completely at odds.
With high rhetoric, Obama stated: “We need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security.”
“Our values have been our best national security asset,” he continued. “We are closing the prison at Guantanamo.”
In his speech, Cheney argued in favor of both the continuance Guantanamo’s prison and the “enhanced interrogation” of its prisoners. “I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program,” he said, adding that the intelligence officers who used what he called harsh interrogation techniques should be “proud.”
“There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance,” Cheney said. In fundamental opposition, the president argued that the prison, along with the torture of prisoners, damage the security and safety of Americans.
Speaking in the National Archives, with the Constitution and Bill of Rights framed behind him, the president addressed the failures of the legal procedures instituted at Guantanamo under the previous administration.
“The system of Military Commissions at Guantanamo succeeded in convicting a grand total of three suspected terrorists.” Obama reiterated, “Three convictions in over seven years.”
The Supreme Court “invalidated the entire system” in 2006, Obama said. “The decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable,” Obama continued, “a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions.”
Not only was the system to process Guantanamo detainees ineffective and illegal, Obama argued, it also severely undermined U.S. standing throughout the world.
“Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world,” Obama continued.
The president then delved into the injustices and ineffectiveness of what he called “brutal methods,” what others call “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the rest call torture.
“As commander in chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe,” he declared, “and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.”
Brutal tactics, he said, “alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.”
“In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts. They undermined them,” he said. “And that is why I ended them once and for all.”
And so, said the president, “We must leave these methods where they belong, in the past. They are not who we are. They are not America.”
The president then moved on the broader topic of American values. Those values, he said, reject both the system at Guantanamo and the method of torture.
“I do know with certainty that we can defeat al-Qaida. Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are, if we forge tough and durable approaches to fighting terrorism that are anchored in our timeless ideals.”
The former vice president, in his antithesis speech at a conservative think tank, fought almost every point the president had made just minutes earlier.
“I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program,” Cheney said. The interrogations, he said, “were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.”
In a response to Obama’s call for a reassertion of American values, Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, relied on the highly contested argument that brutal interrogations are effective.
Cheney added that America’s values – our commitment to human rights, liberty, and “for the rational, peaceful resolution of differences” – are “the reasons why the terrorists hate America.”
“When they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system,” he said. “They see weakness and opportunity.”