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Obama And Cheney: Mr. Spock Vs. Jack Bauer

President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney engaged in a vigorous debate from separate corners over how to protect America from terrorists. In his speech at National Archives in Washington, Mr. Obama laid out his logic for opposing enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding and closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

It was a precise and reasoned articulation of his position, somewhat like an answer from Mr. Spock of Star Trek legend, a half-human, half-Vulcan commander of Starfleet who battles with his human side to be perfectly logical and impervious to emotion. (Mr. Obama has been compared to Spock, an outsider of mixed heritage and cool in the face of adversity.)

In his speech, Mr. Obama said that the Bush administration was "motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people" but misguided. He pointedly criticized the Bush administration's methods: "... I also believe that - too often - our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us - Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens - fell silent."

He continued, "We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable - a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions; that failed to use our values as a compass. And that is why I took several steps upon taking office to better protect the American people."

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute following Mr. Obama's speech, Mr. Cheney predictably defended the Bush administration's use of interrogation methods that Mr. Obama classifies as torture. He maintained that the government obtained vital information from using waterboarding on a few detainees, and that the techniques were deemed legal by government lawyers. "Interrogators had authoritative guidance on the line between interrogation and torture, and they knew to stay on the right side of it. For all that we've lost in this conflict, the United States of America has never lost its moral bearings," Cheney said.

While the definition of "torture" is at the center of the debate, the notion of the moral character of the U.S. is also in play. For Mr. Cheney, the means justify the ends--the U.S. has not been attacked since September 2001. "You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event – coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort," he said.

Like Jack Bauer, the main character in the Fox television show "24," Mr. Cheney believes that the enhanced interrogation methods that Mr. Obama considers torture, like waterboarding (which Mr. Cheney maintains is legal based on what many now believe are flawed legal rulings), save American lives. The success of the enhanced interrogation methods is an "inconvenient truth" that the Obama administration prefers to ignore, according to Mr. Cheney.

"In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists," Mr. Cheney said.

Labeling enhanced interrogation techniques as torture "is to libel the professionals who have saved American lives," he added. He also said that to "completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme...recklessness cloaked in righteousness."

Mr. Obama applied his Spockian logic to equate repeated simulated drowning (waterboarding) with torture and outlined the downsides to American interests. "As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts - they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all," Mr. Obama reasoned in his speech.

Mr. Cheney noted that President Obama's Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair acknowledged that "high value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country."

He didn't mention that Mr. Blair also said, "there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller summed up where the issues around torture and national security stand in the aftermath of the two speeches: "America heard arguments today that fall into the category of irreconcilable. We heard the most articulate spokesmen for the different strategies. The argument was settled at the polls last November 4. But don't think for a moment the debate has ended."

Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of

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