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Cheney Defends Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One very vocal participant in the debate over enhanced interrogation techniques is the former vice president. Dick Cheney is defending the previous administration.

Here is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: It's not unusual for former vice presidents to weigh in on their successors. Al Gore, for instance, came out strongly against George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. But it is unusual for a vice president to speak out so soon and so often, and to become the focal point of opposition to the new administration. He was once reclusive, hidden away in that famous undisclosed location. But now Dick Cheney is everywhere, arguing that President Obama, by overturning Bush-era policies on interrogation, surveillance and detention, has made America less safe.

Tomorrow, Cheney will be giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He's been featured on Sunday Morning talk shows, and yesterday appeared on Fox News. His message is always clear and consistent.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I think that we are stripping ourselves of some of the capabilities that we used in order to block, if you will, or disrupt activities by al-Qaida that would have led to additional attacks. I think that's an important debate to have.

I don't think we should just roll over when the new administration says -accuses us of committing torture, which we did not, or somehow violating the law, which we did not. I think you need to stand up and respond to that, and that's what I've done.

LIASSON: The Obama team seems thrilled that their old adversary is so visible. When Dick Cheney goes on television, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responds.

Secretary ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.

LIASSON: Cheney left office with an approval rating under 20 percent in some polls. But Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, says that means nothing to Cheney, who will never run for office again.

Mr. BILL KRISTOL (Editor, Conservative Weekly Standard): Some people say, oh, he's unpopular, it hurts to have him out there. That's not the point. He's not trying to help his own popularity. He's driven the debate in a way where now, we have lots of questions about what did Nancy Pelosi learn? Or was it right for Obama to release the memos? And I think Cheney can win some of these debates subsequently, even though his own personal popularity numbers may remain low.

LIASSON: Cheney has pressed for release of two classified documents he says would show the enhanced interrogation techniques were successful. It's the kind of request he probably would have resisted as vice president, but now it serves his purposes.

Mr. BARTON GELLMAN (Author, "Angler"): He is long-term minded. He's planting little acorns and hoping they'll grow into trees.

LIASSON: That's Barton Gellman, author of the Cheney biography "Angler."

Mr. GELLMAN: He has changed part of the conversation in public from, is waterboarding torture, to, what has waterboarding produced? And there's frankly a very hard debate that's never squarely been faced in the American body politic, which is, what if torture does work? What if waterboarding does work? Are we prepared to be that kind of country?

LIASSON: Some Republicans who, unlike Cheney, will be running for office again are uncomfortable with his vocal support for the Bush administration's national security policies. But others say the former vice president is taking a burden off their shoulders and carrying it himself.

There's also something else motivating Cheney: loyalty to the people who worked for him. Bill Kristol recalls an interview Cheney did with the Weekly Standard.

Mr. KRISTOL: The moment he got most passionate was when he said he had watched previous administrations leave some of their junior guys out to dry. You know, the people hadn't risen to their defense, they had been prosecuted, their reputations had been tarnished. And he said something like, I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen to people who have worked in good faith in the Bush-Cheney administration.

LIASSON: And that's why he defending the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the so-called torture memos. Here he is again, yesterday on Fox News.

Vice President CHENEY: It's one thing to come in and change the policy. It's an entirely different proposition to come in and say that you're somehow going to go after the lawyers and the Justice Department or the agents who carried out that policy. I just - I think that's outrageous, and that's why I've spoken out as I have to defend the policy.

LIASSON: And he'll continue to do so, without regard for his critics in either party, as long as the torture debate lasts.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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