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Obama, Cheney: Different Views On Protecting U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to ask this morning what's new and what's not when it comes to national security. President Obama delivered the defense of his new policies yesterday. And as soon as he was done, former Vice President Dick Cheney began a speech of his own. Cheney warned that the new administration was tearing down the policies that kept America safe. Yet the new president also faces criticism for keeping the essence of many Bush administration policies in place.

In a moment, we'll ask NPR's Ari Shapiro what's really changing here. We begin with the words of the antagonists. Here's our White House Correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: President Obama's speech did two things. It looked at the national security challenges the country faces, and it looked back at the Bush administration as a cause of some of those challenges. Mr. Obama said evidence had been altered to suit the Bush White House's agenda, and he said that post 9/11 state of crisis was used to supersede the Constitution. The president, his words echoing in the marble chamber of the National Archives, pointed to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.

Terrorist suspects held there had been in legal limbo, some having been subjected to the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that the Bush White House approved. That included waterboarding.

President BARACK OBAMA: Meanwhile instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaida recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

GONYEA: That's why the president says Guantanamo must be closed. He says that will happen by next January, but he's met stiff resistance from Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, worried that terrorists, extremists will be transferred to federal prisons in the U.S., or that some who could be dangerous will be released outright.

Pres. OBAMA: Now let me begin by disposing of one argument as plainly as I can. We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security.

GONYEA: Yes, the president said, some from Guantanamo will be moved to maximum-security prisons within the U.S., but he added that to try to make this a political issue, as some have in Congress, amounts to fear mongering.

Pres. OBAMA: As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney was across town at the gathering of the conservative America Enterprise Institute, waiting for Mr. Obama to finish before taking the stage himself. After opening with a joke about how long the president had talked, Cheney was combative, seeming to take Mr. Obama's criticisms of the Bush administration personally.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do.

GONYEA: As for President Obama's past description of waterboarding as torture, the former VP said such words libeled the professionals who have carried out interrogations and cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims.

Vice Pres. CHENEY: What's more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.

GONYEA: Cheney barely mentioned Iraq in his speech, but he cited 9/11 some two dozen times. He accused the White House of trying to find some politically acceptable middle ground.

Vice Pres. CHENEY: But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States. You must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States.

GONYEA: But President Obama said it's a false choice between keeping the country safe and respecting U.S. laws and traditions.

Pres. OBAMA: We uphold our most cherished values, not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset, in war and peace, in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

GONYEA: The administration seemed to relish the mano-a-mano competition pitting the popular Mr. Obama against an unpopular former vice president, but the real battle for President Obama is not in outshining Dick Cheney but in persuading a reluctant Congress and public that he can shutter the Guantanamo without compromising homeland security.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.