Un-debatable: Contrary to media claim, national security was an issue during 2008 campaign

››› ››› CHRISTINE SCHWEN

Numerous media figures advanced the argument that national security issues discussed by President Obama and Dick Cheney in May 21 speeches weren't debated during the 2008 presidential election campaign. In fact, the issues were vigorously debated during the Republican primary campaign.

Following President Obama's and former Vice President Dick Cheney's May 21 speeches on national security, numerous media figures -- including Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, Fox News' Special Report host Bret Baier, Fox News contributor Mara Liasson, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta and CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer -- advanced the argument that the issues discussed by Obama and Cheney weren't debated during the 2008 presidential election. But those figures did not note that some of the national security issues Obama and Cheney discussed on May 21 -- specifically, the Bush administration's policies of interrogation and detention at the Pentagon's Guantánamo Bay facility -- were vigorously debated during the Republican primary campaign, with Republican primary voters opting against any of the candidates who expressed a viewpoint more like Cheney's.

Indeed, as USA Today reported on June 18, 2007, most of the Republican presidential candidates, like Cheney, opposed closing Guantánamo: "For Republicans, who view fighting terrorism as a top issue in their presidential nomination fight, the divide is over whether to close the prison [in Guantánamo Bay] and how to extract information from detainees. Among the 10 announced Republican candidates, only Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul favor closing the prison."

Several of the Republican presidential debates featured heated exchanges about Guantánamo and interrogation issues. For example, during the May 15, 2007, South Carolina debate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney told moderator and Fox News correspondent Brit Hume that he wanted to "double Guantánamo:"

Now we're going to -- you said the person's going to be in Guantánamo. I'm glad they're at Guantánamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them on Guantánamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there.

Some people have said, we ought to close Guantánamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantánamo. We ought to make sure that the terrorists -- and there's no question but that in a setting like that where you have a ticking bomb that the president of the United States -- not the CIA interrogator, the president of the United States -- has to make the call. And enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used -- not torture but enhanced interrogation techniques, yes.

Later in the debate, Hume asked McCain whether he believed "enhanced interrogation techniques" were "torture." McCain replied:

Yes, and the interesting thing about that aspect is that during the debate, when we had the detainee treatment act, there was a sharp division between those who had served in the military and those who hadn't. Virtually every senior officer, retired or active duty, starting with Colin Powell, General Vessey and everyone else, agreed with my position that we should not torture people.

One of the reasons is, is because if we do it, what happens to our military people when they're captured? And also, they realize there's more to war than the battlefield.

So yes, literally every retired military person and active duty military person who has actually been in battle and served for extended times in the military -- (bell rings) -- supported my position, and I'm glad of it.

During the November 28, 2007, YouTube/CNN Republican presidential debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked Romney if waterboarding is torture. Romney responded in part:

And as I just said, as a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use.

And that is something which I would want to receive the counsel not only of Senator McCain, but of a lot of other people.

And there are people who, for many, many years get the information we need to make sure that we protect our country.

And, by the way, I want to make sure these folks are kept at Guantánamo. I don't want the people that are carrying out attacks on this country to be brought into our jail system and be given legal representation in this country.

McCain then said to Romney: "I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is." When Romney responded that "I know what waterboarding is," McCain replied:

Then I am astonished that you would think such a -- such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our -- who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture. It's in violation of the Geneva Convention. It's in violation of existing law...

(Applause)

And, governor, let me tell you, if we're going to get the high ground in this world and we're going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We're not going to torture people.

We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me.

After Romney stated that he is not in favor or torture, but also doesn't "believe it's appropriate for me, as a presidential candidate, to lay out all the issues one by one, get questioned one by one: Is this torture, is that torture?" McCain said:

Well, then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, which were for the treatment of people who were held prisoners, whether they be illegal combatants or regular prisoners of war. Because it's clear the definition of torture. It's in violation of laws we have passed.

And again, I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not "24" and Jack Bauer.

Life is interrogation techniques which are humane and yet effective. And I just came back from visiting a prison in Iraq. The Army general there said that techniques under the Army Field Manual are working and working effectively, and he didn't think they need to do anything else.

My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America.

Similarly, during the September 5, 2007, Republican presidential debate, Fox News correspondent Wendell Goler asked former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "[I]f you don't think we should close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, how long are you prepared to live with the international criticism it's causing? And how long do you think we should hold people there that we feel we can't gain a conviction on, but are too dangerous to set free?" Giuliani responded, in part: "Well, this reminds me of a period of time in New York when judges would release criminals into the street, or threaten to do it. We can't close Guantanamo because nobody will take the people there."

During the same debate, Goler asked then-Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), "Are you prepared to hold terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely if you feel that we can't convict them and they're too dangerous to set free?" Hunter replied, "Well, absolutely." He later added of the detainees held there:

They've got health care that's better than most HMOs. And they got something else that no Democrat politician in America has: They live in a place called Guantánamo, where not one person has ever been murdered. And there's not one politician, one Democrat politician in America, that can say that about one of the prisons in his home district. We've got to keep Guantánamo open.

Also during that debate, former Rep. Tom Tancredo (CO) indicated that like Cheney, he doesn't believe that waterboarding constitutes torture. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked Tancredo: "You have said the president should have the power to approve enhanced interrogation techniques, like waterboarding in cases where conventional interrogation is not getting the job done. Sir, I want to ask you, is there a line you won't cross in this regard to keep Americans safe? Would you approve the use of torture if you felt it would prevent a terrorist attack?" Tancredo responded in part: "I would do -- certainly, waterboard -- I don't believe that that is, quote, 'torture.' I would do what is necessary to protect this country."

In addition to Sammon, media figures claiming that the 2008 presidential campaign did not debate the issues raised by Obama and Cheney include the following:

  • On the May 22 edition of CBS' The Early Show, Schieffer asserted that "the interesting thing is, this is the debate that we did not have during the campaign -- because if you'll recall, John McCain was one of those who said that we ought to close Guantánamo." CBS correspondent Harry Smith responded, "Exactly."
  • On the May 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Liasson asserted: "I think there is one level you can see this as the clash of the titans, and these two guys really having a debate that we didn't have in the 2008 campaign. She added, "John McCain was actually on the same side as Barack Obama on some of these issues." Later during the discussion, Baier also asserted that "[t]his was not a debate that we had in the campaign."
  • On the May 21 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Sammon stated: "[T]his is the debate that I think a lot of conservatives longed for throughout the campaign. You didn't have, you know, a demonstrably liberal Democrat -- at that time he was posturing as a moderate, Barack Obama -- versus a demonstrably conservative Republican; we had John McCain."
  • During the noon ET hour of the May 21 edition of CNN Newsroom, Acosta stated that Obama and Cheney's "dueling speeches on the war on terror and Guantánamo are being billed by some in Washington as a foreign policy debate that was never really had during the campaign."

From the May 22 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

HARRY SMITH (co-host): The president was, literally, answering Dick Cheney, not the least of from his appearance on Face the Nation two weeks ago.

SCHIEFFER: There's no question about that, Harry. And the interesting thing is this is the debate that we did not have during the campaign --

SMITH: Exactly.

SCHIEFFER: -- because if you'll recall, John McCain was one of those who said we ought to close Guantánamo. I think most people think that Guantánamo is an open sore; that in many ways it's a recruiting tool for these terrorists.

But getting it closed, what do you do with these people? Because, I mean, let's face it, there's some bad dudes down there, and no congressman wants those people brought back into his home district, even to be put into prison.

From the May 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:

BRET BAIER (host): And, Mara, for -- to follow -- for the vice president -- former vice president to follow the president there and hit on those themes of how hard governing really is --

LIASSON: Yeah, look --

BAIER: -- that was an interesting --

LIASSON: -- I think there is one level you can see this as the clash of the titans, and these two guys really having a debate that we didn't have in the 2008 campaign. Cheney wasn't -- didn't feel as unbound and unfettered to actually make this case. John McCain was actually on the same side as Barack Obama on some of these issues.

But I think underneath that you do have two men saying we -- one of them saying we grappled with the same issues as you're grappling with now, and here's the conclusion we came to to keep the country safe.

[...]

BAIER: Charles, last word here. This was not a debate that we had in the campaign.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER (syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor): It's a better one, because a year ago Democrats could demagogue unrestrained. Now Democrats are in power, they have to make tough decisions, and they know how difficult these choices are. It's a better-read debate, and the outcome is going to be extremely interesting to see who wins on the politics and on the substance.

From the May 21 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

SAMMON: Cheney has emerged as the ultimate antidote to President Obama. In fact, this is the debate that I think a lot of conservatives longed for throughout the campaign. You didn't have, you know, a demonstrably liberal Democrat -- at that time he was posturing as a moderate, Barack Obama -- versus a demonstrably conservative Republican; we had John McCain.

But now you have a guy that has obviously established his liberal credentials -- by virtue of the policies he's initiated in his first 120 days -- versus Dick Cheney, a staunch conservative. And I'm telling you, it was -- you couldn't have had a more stark contrast.

From the noon ET hour of the May 21 edition of CNN Newsroom:

ACOSTA: Which makes the clash between President Obama and Vice President Dick Cheney that much more important. Their dueling speeches on the war on terror and Guantánamo are being billed by some in Washington as a foreign policy debate that was never really had during the campaign.

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