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."

Advertisement

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.

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.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.