Obama, Hubris and Cheney

President Obama’s Thursday speech was simply breathtaking. It was an hubristic exhibition, another chapter in his effort to permanently label the Republicans the “Party of George W. Bush.”

Standing in the hall of the National Archives, Obama began by claiming the Constitution as his ancestor. His sophistry soared, claiming that it was our values that had defeated our enemies throughout history, their soldiers surrendering to ours because they knew we would treat them better than their own governments. That statement he would not dare repeat on the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, Normandy, or Iwo Jima, in Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Then saying he didn’t want to relitigate the past, Mr. Obama presented the longest and most comprehensive condemnation of the Bush administration ever.

According to the president, Bush made decisions based on fear rather than foresight, “trimmed facts and evidence” — i.e., lied about intelligence information — to “fit ideological predispositions.”

Obama accused the Bush administration of casting away our principles, mores and values “as luxuries we could no longer afford.” The president indicted the Bush administration for breaking the law, discarding the Constitution and making the world more dangerous for America.

But, he assures us, he is so much better. His presidency will never, he says, violate the law or the Constitution. And he will, he says, never violate his oath by risking harm to Americans.

He plans to undo the “flawed” military commissions established by the Bush administration and replace them with his own that will establish a “legal framework, with the kind of meaningful due process and rights for the accused that could stand up on appeal.”

He condemns all the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA in the Bush years as torture. No matter whether it’s an open-handed slap to the face or waterboarding, Obama says it’s all the same: it’s torture, and he’s banned the use of those techniques “once and for all.” No exceptions, not even for himself.

According to Obama, he isn’t just better than Bush, he’s better than all those CIA interrogators who found that they couldn’t get useful information from terrorists using only the methods available to the Beverly Hills P.D. for questioning a Rodeo Drive shoplifter.

And Obama tells us that he will keep fewer secrets from us. He said, “I will tell the American people what I know and don’t know, and when I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why.”

I’m nothing more than a beat-up old lawyer, but I’ve had some fancy security clearances in my day. And even I know that if I tell someone why something is secret I reveal too much. And our dear President wants to share responsibility for the decisions of what is classified and what isn’t with Congress and the courts.

Can it get any worse? Yes, it can.

President Obama says he will release terrorists from Gitmo — but only those who won’t endanger the American people. About one in seven of the detainees released from Gitmo has gone back to the business of killing Americans and our allies. Those who were released had managed to convince the expert interrogators and investigators that they were no longer dangerous.

But those Obama releases won’t be a danger because he is better, and smarter, than Bush and Cheney and everyone else.

It is illegal, as Sen. Jeff Sessions has pointed out in two unanswered letters to Attorney General Holder, to bring people who have been trained in terrorism, or committed terrorist acts, into the United States for any purpose. Obama is content, in his moral superiority, to break that law (and, consequently, his oath of office) when it suits his ideological purpose.

It’s no secret that US Predator and other unmanned aircraft are roaming the skies of Pakistan and Afghanistan, dispensing Hellfire missiles at groups around campfires, into residential structures and other buildings to kill terrorists where they lurk.

Is the intelligence on which those strikes are based so perfect that he can be sure of every target? The intelligence he gets is better than what Bush and Cheney had on and after 9-11. But not that much. Intelligence is always a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Is there more due process that should be afforded whoever may be around one of those campfires or in one of those houses? Or is it only that because the Obama administration is doing it, it must be right?

President Obama wants to de-legitimize criticism of his ideas. He insists that those who disagree with the closure of Gitmo — or say that thousands of lives were saved because three terrorists out of the hundreds we captured were waterboarded — are betrayers of our Constitution.

Several times, he referenced the “fear-mongering” and climate of fear he says propels the debate on closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He says we are ill-served by words that are “calculated to scare people rather than educate them.”

Perhaps he was thinking of the words spoken by FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday. Pushed to agree that Gitmo detainees could be kept safely in U.S. prisons, Mueller demurred.

Mueller said that the FBI had grave concerns about Gitmo detainees being brought into the US: “The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalizing others," as well as "the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States."

After Mueller’s testimony, the Senate — apparently stampeded by the FBI fear-monger — voted 90-6 to block the detainees from being moved to the US by denying the $80 million Obama had asked for to close the Gitmo facility and move the 241 detainees to nations including the US for release or continued imprisonment.

What Mueller said has to be taken seriously. But the president is nevertheless content to label nine-tenths of the Senate cowards and those in Congress and elsewhere that oppose him “fear-mongers.”

Unlike Obama, we must admit the possibility that the 90 senators who voted against the Gitmo move funding weren’t driven by fear but by concern for the safety of their constituents and for the laws they have already passed.

And there is a necessary corollary to that admission: that the president is driven as much by hubris — by his own belief that he is better than Bush and Cheney — as by any other factor.

Across town, at the American Enterprise Institute, former Vice President Cheney defended the Bush administration’s record in the war. We have many days ahead to analyze the many important parts of Cheney’s speech. But one must be mentioned now: his piercing proof that Obama’s decision to refuse release of the intelligence memos that prove that the enhanced interrogation methods Obama condemns as torture was entirely political.

Cheney said the EITs were “…legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.” Cheney added, “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, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.”

But we can’t see that information because, as Cheney explained, the Obama administration believes “…the public has a right to know the method of the question, but not the content of the answers.”

If Congressional Republicans do nothing else this year, they must join together to force the release of those documents.

Cheney is not humble, but he knows the difference between pride and hubris.

Cheney said, “For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history — not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them. And when I think about all that was to come during our administration and afterward — the recriminations, the second-guessing, the charges of “hubris” — my mind always goes back to that moment.

“To put things in perspective, suppose that on the evening of 9/11, President Bush and I had promised that for as long as we held office — which was to be another 2,689 days — there would never be another terrorist attack inside this country. Talk about hubris — it would have seemed a rash and irresponsible thing to say. People would have doubted that we even understood the enormity of what had just happened. Everyone had a very bad feeling about all of this, and felt certain that the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Shanksville were only the beginning of the violence.

“Of course, we made no such promise. Instead, we promised an all-out effort to protect this country. We said we would marshal all elements of our nation’s power to fight this war and to win it. We said we would never forget what had happened on 9/11, even if the day came when many others did forget. We spoke of a war that would “include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” We followed through on all of this, and we stayed true to our word.”

President Obama is an ideological absolutist. Vice President Cheney’s ideology is tempered by experience. There will, I hope, be more of these Obama vs. Cheney matchups. Score this round Cheney 1, Hubris 0.