The headline on CNN was "Cheney Attacks!" Correspondent Tom Foreman commented that, "even in the bare- knuckle world of Washington these days, this was a remarkably sharp attack by the former vice president just weeks into President Obama’s term."
And how had the former vice president expressed his fabled bellicosity this time? In an interview with Politico.com, he warned that there is a "high probability" that, in the years ahead, terrorists will attempt to use a nuclear or biological weapon to mass-murder Americans.
Cheney said he was concerned that the Obama administration may discard some of the policies that have defeated such attempts since 9/11/01. As he put it: "When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry."
The guests on one CNN program thought that an outrageous comment (with a single exception: me). Who would really insist on reading terrorists their rights? But a recent front-page headline in the Washington Post announced: "Bush’s ‘War’ On Terror Comes to a Sudden End." If there’s no war, terrorist suspects cannot be "unlawful enemy combatants"; they must be treated instead as suspects in criminal justice proceedings. Such suspects are legally entitled to "Miranda warnings" — they must be informed, for example, that they have a "right to remain silent." On what basis could there be an exception?
This was not the only flank on which Cheney "attacked." He also said he worried about Obama’s decision to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo. He cited intelligence reports revealing that at least 61 of the detainees released from Guantanamo during the Bush administration have "gone back into the business of being terrorists."
The man Poltico.com calls "arguably the most controversial" vice president in history, concluded with this: "The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama administration believes."
Can it get any more shockingly bare-knuckled than that? Is it any wonder that, as Politico.com put it: "Many of the top Democratic legal and national security players have long viewed Cheney as a man who became unhinged by his fears?"
In light of all this, it is worth noting that President Obama has given himself at least a year to figure out how to close Gitmo. That suggests he’s aware that neither releasing detainees abroad nor bringing them to the U.S. is an ideal solution. He’s also taking several months to study the use of military commissions as an alternative to trying terrorists in civilian courts.
Regarding interrogations, the Obama administration has ruled out torture. But so did the Bush administration. The question is: How do you define torture? Obama has yet to decide whether all methods involving stress and duress — not just water-boarding — should be prohibited in all cases, even those involving terrorists believed to possess life-saving information about imminent attacks.
And the Obama administration has no current plans to end renditions — a practice utilized during the Clinton/Gore administration before being adopted by Bush and Cheney.
In the end, Obama may make unwise and, indeed, lethal decisions on all of these policies. But as a senator, he voted to restore to America’s intelligence agencies the power to eavesdrop on terrorist suspects abroad after initially opposing the bill.
Since then, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review — the federal appeals court created to rule on questions involving national security surveillance — has reaffirmed that the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for warrants does not apply to the foreign collection of intelligence, even if that intelligence involves Americans.
The former vice president did not talk about all this in his interview with Politico.com. Perhaps he decided that to do so would be seen by his critics as crossing the line from mere attack to barbarian rampage.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)