Obama v. Cheney: Just the Facts

President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney laid out a variety of arguments Thursday in staking out two widely divergent views of national security in the age of terror.

But do their claims hold up?

Here is a look at some of the central assertions by each man, and the evidence that does – or doesn’t – back them up.

OBAMA: “The courts have spoken. They have found there is no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the people confined at Guantanamo….I cannot ignore these rulings.”

The reality: The legal situation is not as dire or urgent as Obama suggested.

For example, only one judge has ordered the release of Guantanamo detainees into the United States. That ruling, involving 17 Uighur men, was stayed and later overturned by a federal appeals court.

It’s true about two dozen detainees have been ordered released by federal judges. But at the moment those orders are largely unenforceable due to a D.C. Circuit Court ruling denying judges the authority to bring detainees to the United States.

While Obama “cannot ignore” the rulings, he certainly doesn’t have to do much right now to comply with them. But making it sound like he’s under pressure from the courts makes it sound like he has no choice but to close Gitmo.

CHENEY: The prisoners left at Guantanamo are “hardened terrorists” and “the ones that were considered low risk were released a long time ago.”

The reality: Not so, say both the Obama administration and the former Bush administration.

Officials have said that as many as three quarters of the 240 men at Guantanamo can probably be safely released or sent abroad. Indeed, about two dozen have already been ordered released by federal courts, which found evidence they are a threat to society to be lacking.

Many prisoners ended up at Guantanamo as the result of questionable informants and of bounties being paid for Arabs or foreigners found in Afghanistan. There are certainly some “hardened terrorists” at Gitmo, but it’s dubious that a majority of the men there meet that definition.

OBAMA: In “seven years….the system of military commissions at Guantanamo convicted a grand total of three suspected terrorists…. Instead of bringing terrorists to justice, efforts at prosecution met setbacks.”

The reality: That’s true but ignores a few important facts.

First, it was never expected that a majority of the prisoners at Guantanamo would be tried through those commissions, so the small numbers don’t mean much. Officials always said a few dozen men would be charged at most. It’s also not clear anything Obama’s proposing or will propose will yield many more cases than that.

Second, the Bush administration’s policy allowed for indefinite detention of Guantanamo prisoners, so the value of convicting prisoners was largely symbolic

Third, a total of 21 Gitmo prisoners had pending charges when Obama ordered a halt to the commissions process in January. So while Obama complains that the process has been too slow, for the moment he is the one slowing it down.

CHENEY: “The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.”

The reality: This assertion can’t be verified based on the current record. And it may ultimately be unknowable.

Cheney didn’t cite any specific plots that were disrupted by aggressive interrogations. Bush did describe some in a speech in 2005. However, critics immediately seized on that address for portraying some fantastical plots as realistic. Also at least one major plot Bush claimed was “disrupted,” a plan to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles, only came to the U.S.’s attention after plotters had been picked up abroad.

Cheney is seeking the release of CIA reports that purport to show information gained from the so-called enhanced interrogations. But the fact that suspects gave up information after harsh questioning doesn’t definitively preclude the possibility that they might have given up information through less physical forms of interrogation – which is one of Obama’s central points.

OBAMA: “We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people.”

The reality: Obama really can’t make this promise, if detainees are brought to U.S. soil, as expected.

It’s at least possible that courts could order the release of prisoners brought to the U.S. to face military commissions or civilian trials. Congress could pass legislation to block such a release, but even that is not a rock-solid guarantee the courts won’t release a prisoner who is acquitted.

CHENEY: “You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event-coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort.”

The reality: By the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, even his administration was moving in some of the directions Obama is going now – making Cheney’s all-or-nothing formulation seem too stark.

Over time, the Bush administration gave up some of the harshest interrogation tactics, emptied out the secret prisons and sent hundreds of people out of Guantanamo Bay [prison.] Bush even made overtures to allies abroad, who soured on Bush over the Iraq war and the war on terror.

In addition, some of the legal realities have changed. Bush asserted an almost unquestionable right to hold detainees indefinitely. Courts since then have said even the president doesn’t have that right. Also, Obama would argue he’s no less vigilant than Bush but merely believes there is another way to take on terrorism.

OBAMA: “I released these [legal opinion] memos because there was no overriding reason to protect them.”

The reality: While Obama now frames the decision to release the “torture memos” as his choice, he said at the time he really didn’t have a choice. “Their release is required by the rule of law,” he said.

The president seems to be leaving that aspect of the issue out because in the same legal case the courts ruled that the photos he now wants to withhold were also required by law to be disclosed. In fact, there was never any order requiring disclosure of the memos. Obama could have opposed the memo release as well, mounting the same kind of court challenge and many experts believe he could have prevailed.

CHENEY: “Releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the national security interest of the United States. The harm done only begins with top secret information now in the hands of terrorists…..The public was given less than half the truth.”

The reality: This charge from Cheney has a healthy dollop of hypocrisy in it.

Cheney is faulting Obama for releasing four Justice Department memos justifying and detailing so called enhanced interrogation techniques. The memos do contain some details of information obtained after use of such techniques, though, as Cheney noted, some portions were blacked out in the public versions.

Cheney objects to the release as incomplete and at odds with national security, but his formal request to declassify two reports on the results and effectiveness of the techniques was made on March 31, more than two weeks before Obama released the Justice Department memos.

So Cheney evidently thought at that time both that light could be shed on this debate without endangering national security and that a partial release of two memos would be legitimate.

It’s also worth noting that in his first media outings on this subject, Cheney did not heartily join the chorus of those objecting to release of the legal memos.

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