He's fighting not Obama but his own, long-lost battles.
From 2001-08, according to the Bush/Cheney Justice Department's own data, 512 individuals were charged with terrorist-related crimes and, as of 2008 (i.e., when Bush was still president), Justice had won 319 convictions. (Most of the remaining cases had yet to come to trial.)
Human Rights First has parsed and updated this data and concluded that, as of June 2009, 195 of those convictions were in cases where the defendant proclaimed ties to al-Qaida or some other Islamist or jihadist terrorist group.
How many terrorists did the Bush/Cheney administration bring before military tribunals? Three. And only one of them was sentenced to life in prison. The other two were allowed to serve out their sentences at home—one in Australia, the other in Yemen—both while Bush was still president.
In other words, the vast bulk of terrorist cases were handled by the civilian criminal courts—in the Bush and Obama administrations—in part because they have proved much more successful than the still-fledgling system of military tribunals.
Cheney claimed on ABC that "we"—meaning he and George W. Bush—"were successful for seven and a half years in avoiding a further major attack against the United States" precisely because they treated terrorism as a "war" and its practitioners as "enemy combatants."
Yet as its own data clearly show, the Bush administration did no such thing. Or, rather, Bush and his Justice Department officials saw no contradiction between fighting a "war on terrorism" while, quite often, trying the terrorists as criminals.
And here is where it's worth wondering: Just who or what does Dick Cheney represent?
The standard view is that he was the vice president of the previous Republican administration; and, though it's unusual (and a bit un-classy) for someone of his standing to speak out so vehemently against his immediate successor, it is without question newsworthy.
But here is what's really going on. It's not so much that Cheney, the former Republican vice president, is railing against Obama, the standing Democratic president. It's that he's refighting the battles that he decisively lost within his own administration and party.
Cheney admitted as much in the ABC interview. Karl quoted from a 2006 Justice Department report that boasted about how many individuals the Bush administration had indicted and convicted for terrorist-related crimes. And Cheney replied, "Well, we didn't all agree with that."
This was when Cheney wrapped the noose around his neck. There was, he revealed, a meeting in the West Wing where "we had a major shoot-out, over how this was going to be handled, between the Justice Dept., [which] advocated that approach, and many of the rest of us, who wanted to treat it as … an act of war with military commissions."
He added, "I do get very nervous and very upset" when the Justice Department's view becomes "the dominant approach, as it was sometimes in the Bush administration or certainly would appear to be at times in the Obama administration." (Italics added.)
Karl asked whether Cheney had lost that battle in Bush's second term. "I won some, I lost some," the former vice president shrugged. He went on: "I was a big supporter of water-boarding, I was a big supporter of the enhanced interrogation techniques."
"And you opposed the administration's actions of doing away with water-boarding?" Karl asked.
"Yes," Cheney replied.
It's unclear from the transcript whether Karl was referring to Bush's or Obama's administration. Either way, the evidence suggests that the water-boarding stopped toward the end of 2006, halfway into Bush's second term, when two things happened: Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense; and Bush himself acknowledged the CIA's detainee program and transferred Guantanamo Bay to Pentagon control.
In the ABC interview, Cheney derided Obama for announcing, when he entered the White House in January 2009, that officials interrogating terrorist suspects would follow the U.S. Army's manual, which doesn't allow "enhanced" techniques.
Yet it was Republican Sen. John McCain who, on Oct. 5, 2005, three years before Obama's election, sponsored an amendment limiting interrogation techniques to those in the Army's manual and prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. That amendment passed the Senate 90-9.
What Cheney really wants is a restoration of torture and an evisceration of civilian control well beyond the point favored by even his own party's leaders and officeholders—even George W. Bush. His attacks on Obama are actually attempts at revisionist history, part of a campaign to elevate the issue as one of Republicans against Democrats, or conservatives against liberals—when, in fact, it's just Dick Cheney flailing at dragons that fried him long ago.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Dick Cheney by Robert Giroux/Getty Images.