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Speeches Underscore "Great Dividing Line"

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It was a debate separated by an hour in time, ten blocks on the map, an election, and profound ideological differences.

America heard President Obama this morning from the National Archives and former Vice President Dick Cheney, a half mile away at the offices of the American Enterprise Institute.

They laid out the stark differences in their approaches to the interrogations of terrorists and the treatment and trial of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

They both renewed their commitments to keeping America safe, but made it clear they thought the other's strategy would have the opposite effect.

It's hard to imagine a more elevated setting for the President's remarks. He spoke from the Mt. Olympus of American democracy - the great rotunda of the National Archives - surrounded on three sides by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (though documents in the display cases today were facsimiles, to protect the originals from the harsh TV lights).

He was bluntly critical of his predecessor's policies calling them "a series of hasty decisions...based upon fear rather than foresight."

In an ordinary conference room at AEI, the conservative think tank, Cheney said made no apologies for what he called "the comprehensive strategy" he said the Bush Administration developed "to make certain our nation never again faced such a day of horror."

To Obama, that strategy included breaches of America's core values in the methods of surveillance, interrogation and detention of terror suspects.

To Cheney, the policies reflected powers derived from Article II of the Constitution and from the Joint Resolution of Congress authorizing the use of "all necessary and appropriate force" to protect the American people.

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Cheney admitted the dispute represented "the great dividing line in our current debate over national security." And it was evident their minds would not be changed by the arguments of the other. Especially on the use of interrogation techniques that Mr. Obama called harsh and Cheney called tough.

"I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe," said the president. "I could not disagree more."

"They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do," said Cheney of the interrogation methods.

Cheney again called for the release of still-secret CIA memos that he says will show that the interrogation techniques "prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people." While admitting to the use of water-boarding, he said "torture was never permitted."Every method used was in full compliance with the Constitution, with our statutes, and treaty obligations," said Cheney.

But an hour before Cheney spoke those words, President Obama made it clear he doesn't buy them.

"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."

He said those methods undermine the rule of law, alienate the world, serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us.

There were similar clashes on the use of Guantanamo Bay as a detention facility and the methods for putting the captives on trial.

"Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause," said President Obama. "Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained."

But Cheney countered that it may be easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo, "but it's tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America's national security."

And the former republican vice president even sided with those democrats who voted to block the transfer of Gitmo detainees to prisons on U.S. soil.

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.


(CBS)
Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.