Former Vice President Cheney last month formally asked the Central Intelligence Agency to de-classify top secret documents he believes show harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding helped prevent terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, according to a source familiar with the effort.
Cheney Monday night disclosed the request but did not point out it was made before President Barack Obama unsealed the top-secret “torture memos.”
Cheney's decision sets up an potentially dramatic showdown between the president who believes the techniques amounted to unwise and immoral torture and the former vice president who believes the interrogations saved lives.
Cheney, starting with an interview with POLITICO two months ago, has been on a campaign to warn Obama is making the country more vulnerable to attack by pulling back on Bush's policies. Now, the vice president wants to make public documents he argues will prove the efficacy of tactics critics call torture.
“I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country,” Cheney said on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity.” “If we’re going to have this debate, let’s have an honest debate.”
Top White House officials described the decision to release the torture memos Thursday as among the toughest of Obama's young presidency. There was a vigorous debate internally about which documents to release and how much detail to redact. In the end, Obama himself was described as carefully editing his final statement to make sure he hit just the right note.
On his first full day in office, Obama banned most of the techniques described in the memos, which detailed how CIA officers carried out waterboarding, slammed detainees into a “flexible false wall” and put detainees in a “containment box.”
Obama's conservatives critics have attacked his decision to release the memos, with former CIA director Michael Hayden saying Sunday that Obama put national security at risk by revealing U.S. interrogation techniques. "What we have described for our enemies in the midst of a war are the outer limits that any American would ever go to in terms of interrogating an al Qaeda terrorist. That's very valuable information," Hayden said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."
Hayden also said more than half of the most valuable information obtained from two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, came after the interrogators moved to the harsher techniques. But the memos also include one passage where an interrogator notes his belief that the use of the more serious interrogations tactics would not be fruitful.
Obama also has taken fire from the left on the issue, with critics saying Obama should not have ruled out prosecutions for CIA officers who followed the directives in the Justice Department memos. The New York Times editorial page on Sunday called for investigations of the lawyers who wrote the memos – including one who now has a lifetime seat on a federal appeals court – and said Congress should investigate how the memos came about, putting Cheney and others on the stand if needed.
Obama traveled to CIA headquarters Monday and sought to reassure CIA employees that he understood the anxiety some felt over his ban on certain harsh interrogation techniques.
Obama also stressed that he is committed to protecting national security secrets — but said the release of the secret documents prepared by the Bush Justice Department was “the result of a pending court case” that left his administration with little room to maneuver.
“I understand that it’s hard when you are asked to protect the American people against people who have no scruples and would willingly and gladly kill innocents. Al-Qaida’s not constrained by a constitution,” Obama said in his first visit to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Listen to highlights from Cheney's February interview with POLITICO: