Dick Cheney isn't fighting Barack Obama; he's refighting his own long-lost battles.

Military analysis.
Feb. 18 2010 6:49 PM

Cheney's War

He's fighting not Obama but his own, long-lost battles.

Dick Cheney. Click image to expand.
Dick Cheney 

It's time for respectable news networks to stop asking Dick Cheney to come on their shows.

Cheney proved the point himself in a Valentine's Day interview on ABC's The Week. His interlocutor, Jonathan Karl, handed him the rope, but it was the former vice president who—displaying a remarkable lack of self-awareness—tied the noose, looped it around his neck, and jumped through the floorboards.

The occasion for the appearance was this remark that Cheney had made three days earlier: "It is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend that we are not at war."

Karl asked Cheney to explain himself, given that Obama had sent more troops to Afghanistan and stepped up drone attacks against militias in Pakistan.

Cheney replied that he's "a complete supporter" of Obama's Afghanistan policies. He was referring only to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger plane with a bomb in his underwear. Obama's "initial response" to the news was to call it the act of "an isolated extremist."

He admitted that Obama "eventually changed his assessment" (when evidence to the contrary came in a few hours later). But, Cheney said, that initial response reflected a "mind-set that concerns me"—a mind-set that views terrorist attacks as "criminal acts" instead of "acts of war."

Cheney then explained the many ways in which he believes this mind-set has caused great danger to national security.

Let's go through his arguments on this point and show why they should disqualify Cheney from speaking in public not only as an expert on the issues but also as a representative of a politically significant point of view.

First, Cheney said, in the case of the underwear bomber, the administration revealed that it "really wasn't equipped to deal with the aftermath of an attempted attack against the United States, in the sense that they didn't know what to do with this guy."

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In fact, as has been widely reported, the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus, not just the FBI, was on this case very shortly after the plane landed in Detroit. Abdulmutallab talked freely before the agents read him his Miranda rights—and, following a brief pause, he spoke freely afterward as well. White House spokesmen later said that he provided "actionable intelligence" about his al-Qaida associates. In short, the administration was equipped—and did know what to do with the guy.

Second, Cheney lambasted the Obama administration's efforts to try these sorts of terrorists as criminals in civilian court when they should be treated as "enemy combatants" and hauled before a military tribunal, preferably at Guantanamo.

"It's very important," Cheney said, "to go back and keep in mind the distinction between handling these events as criminal acts, which was the way we did before 9/11, and then looking at 9/11 and saying, 'This is not a criminal act. … That was an act of war.' "

But, in fact, this distinction has never been so clear-cut or mutually exclusive, not even during Cheney's time as vice president after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a plane with a shoe-bomb three months after 9/11, was found guilty in a civilian court and is now serving a life sentence in a maximum-security federal prison. His prosecution occurred during George W. Bush's presidency.

Karl asked Cheney how the Reid case was different from Abdulmutallab's. Cheney replied that Reid "pled guilty," so there was no need for a trial of one sort of another. This response skirted the issue of whether Reid should have been brought before a federal judge in the first place.

Then Karl, who'd done his homework, went further and quoted the statement read by Reid's sentencing judge. "You are not an enemy combatant," the judge told the would-be bomber. "You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier, gives you far too much stature." Is that a good point? Karl asked Cheney.

"I don't think so," Cheney replied. The judge's reasoning implied that these are "individual criminal acts," he said. Once they're called "acts of war," we can draw on "a much broader range of tools" to go after the combatants—including military force, punishing those who offer terrorist networks safe haven, money, weapons, or training.

There are at least three problems with Cheney's response. First, nothing said by Reid's judge, or by anyone else in this debate, suggests or implies that these attacks were "individual criminal acts." In fact, many defendants have been convicted in federal courts for aiding and abetting terrorist organizations.

Second, trying these people in criminal courts—treating them in a legal forum as thugs, not soldiers—in no way precludes the administration from going after their organizations with the full range of the U.S. government's power, as, indeed, Presidents Obama, Clinton, and, yes, George W. Bush have done.

This leads to the third problem: The Bush administration, in which Cheney so actively served, held the very same "mind-set" that Cheney finds so disturbing in Obama.

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