WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama fought Thursday to retake command of the emotional debate over closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, denouncing "fear-mongering" by political opponents and insisting that maximum-security prisons in the United States can safely house dangerous terror suspects transferred from Cuba.
In a unique bit of Washington theater, Obama made his case moments before former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his own address defending the Bush administration's creation of the prison camp as vigorously as the new president denounced it.
Obama said shutting down Guantanamo would "enlist our values" to make America safer. Speaking a day after an overwhelming congressional rebuke to his pledge to close the prison, he forcefully declared the camp a hindrance, not a help, to preventing future terrorist attacks. He contends that the prison, which has held hundreds of detainees for years without charges or trials, motivates U.S. enemies overseas.
The president promised to work with lawmakers to develop "an appropriate legal regime" for those who can't be tried and are too dangerous to be released. Still, he did not provide the level of detail about his plans that lawmakers, including Democrats, demanded in a 90-6 Senate vote denying money for the shutdown on Wednesday.
Cheney, in his own speech, denounced some of Obama's actions since taking office as "unwise in the extreme" and "recklessness cloaked in righteousness," repeating his contention from a series of headline-grabbing appearances recently that the new president is endangering the country by turning aside Bush-era policies. The former vice president, a primary architect of the Bush approach, accused Obama of looking for "a political strategy, not a national security strategy."
However, neither Cheney nor Obama brought significant new information to bear on the debate that has roiled Washington for weeks.
Cheney credited Bush administration policies on harsh interrogation tactics and broadened domestic surveillance and lashed out at Obama for dismantling its national security legacy, from plans to close the jail at Guantanamo to halting the CIA's use of secret prisons and harsh interrogations methods.
The use of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques "prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people," Cheney said. He challenged Obama to release secret intelligence documents that he contends would prove this case.
In his speech, Obama chastised what he called "absolutist" critics on both sides who he said are more interested in scoring political points than finding solutions.
Some on the left, he said, "would almost never put national security over transparency." Some on the right, meanwhile, are an "anything goes" crowd. "I've heard words that frankly are calculated to scare people rather than educate them," Obama said.
"We will be ill-served by the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue," he declared.
Cheney, meanwhile, praised Obama for two "wise" decisions, his handling of the war in Afghanistan and his decision to not release prisoner-abuse photos. But he forcefully defended the Bush administration's interrogation program and other policies enacted in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Seven-and-a-half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned," Cheney said.