In recent days, several media figures, including MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski and CNN's Tom Foreman and Campbell Brown, have either uncritically reported or echoed Dick Cheney's assertion that the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies have kept the United States safe. These media figures did not note that a 2008 GAO report found that the U.S. “has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven” in Pakistan, or that many CIA analysts reportedly believe Al Qaeda leaders have declined to attack the U.S. again for strategic reasons, not due to the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies.
In the wake of former Vice President Dick Cheney's recent comments about President Obama's executive orders restricting interrogation techniques and closing the Guantánamo Bay prison within a year, several media figures have either uncritically reported or echoed his assertion that the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies have kept the United States safe. On the February 4 edition of MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, guest host Mika Brzezinski asked Democratic strategist Bob Shrum: “Isn't it safe though to make the argument that, first of all, the Bush administration kept us safe since 9-11? Nothing has happened. Whatever -- whatever has been carried out in terms of homeland security actions has worked.” Additionally, on the February 4 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull, correspondent Tom Foreman uncritically aired an audio clip of Cheney's assertion, “If it hadn't been for what we did with respect to Terrorist Surveillance Program or enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees, and the Patriot Act and so forth, that we would have been attacked again,” which Foreman described as “very tough words.” During a later discussion on the topic, host Campbell Brown failed to challenge a similar assertion by Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, that terrorists have not attacked the United States since September 11, 2001, because “some of the policies we've had over the past eight years have indeed worked.”
Neither Brown, Foreman, nor Brzezinski mentioned that, as Media Matters for America has noted, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on April 17, 2008 -- titled “Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas” -- found that "[t]he United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven in Pakistan's FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]." Investigative journalist Ron Suskind has also reported that many CIA analysts believe Al Qaeda leaders have declined to attack the United States again for strategic reasons, not due to the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies.
Further, the degree to which several terrorist attacks the Bush administration supposedly thwarted were credible threats has been disputed, as has the importance of Bush administration policy to the thwarting of threats.
In addition, Brown failed to challenge May's false assertion that “the highest court that looks at these matters said [former President Bush's program of warrantless domestic wiretapping] was indeed legal. You keep hearing people say 'the illegal terrorist surveillance.' No, we now know it was legal.” In fact, as Media Matters has noted, the FISA Court of Review decision released January 15 applies only to surveillance conducted pursuant to a 2007 congressional statute, the Protect America Act (PAA), and does not say anything about the legality of the warrantless wiretapping program exposed in 2005.
From the February 4 edition of MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
BRZEZINSKI: Joining me now to talk about this, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. What do you make, Bob, of Cheney's warnings? Clearly, to me, it seems like he's basically speaking what is exactly the truth out there, but it seems like he's trying to sort of undermine the Obama administration before they've even had a few weeks in office.
SHRUM: Yeah, there are two things going on here. The first is he's says something the Bush administration said along. No one disagrees with there's a danger of a terrorist attack. Then he's saying, in a kind of attempt at his own rehabilitation, sort of a political Ponzi scheme, based on secret information he can't share with us; we need torture and Guantánamo to prevent this from happening.
Now the last time, based on secret information, we took his word for something, we went in to Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates has seen this information. Secretary of State -- former Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice has seen this information. They both want to close Guantánamo.
So I think there would be tremendous resistance to taking advice from Dick Cheney on this question.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, isn't it safe though to make the argument that, first of all, the Bush administration kept us safe since 9-11. Nothing has happened. Whatever has been carried out in terms of homeland security actions has worked. And if you change policies and if you change your approach to homeland security, and if you change the situation in Guantánamo, you're going to increase the risk of being attacked.
SHRUM: I don't think for one second you would believe that Secretary of Defense Gates, looking at all this information, would support the closing of Guantánamo if he thought it was going to increase the prospects of attack. Look, President Bush, in his rehabilitation effort in his last days in office, told this tall tale about Shaikh Khalid Mohammed and how, somehow where they're waterboarding him, we had prevented attacks. The next day, you looked at every newspaper; there were leaks from all over the government saying we didn't get any useful information from Shaikh Mohammed by torturing him.
I think there's another problem here, by the way, for the Republicans. I think they'd prefer that Dick Cheney just be quiet. Otherwise, if he becomes the face of their party, the way Herbert Hoover did in 1934, they're going to be really hurt in the midterm elections. I don't think they want him out there. I don't think they want him talking. And frankly, after his record, I don't think we need his advice.
From the February 4 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull:
FOREMAN: Furthermore, Cheney aggressively defends some of the Bush policies that have taken the harshest criticism.
CHENEY [audio clip]: If it hadn't been for what we did with respect to Terrorist Surveillance Program or enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees, and the Patriot Act and so forth, that we would have been attacked again.
FOREMAN: So, very tough words. Cheney leveled some of these same charges during the campaign, you may recall. But there's been no response from the White House -- Campbell.
BROWN: Tom Foreman for us tonight -- Tom, thanks.
When we come back, our panel of experts will talk about this. Does Dick Cheney have a point? Is the Obama administration somehow putting us in danger of a devastating terrorist attack?
BROWN: Dick Cheney left the White House in a wheelchair on Inauguration Day, but he hasn't exactly lost his fighting spirit. We told you the former vice president is raising questions about whether the Obama administration can keep us safe. Is he right about some of the points he's made? We're going to find out what our experts think.
Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank, a conservative anti-terrorism think tank. Paul Begala, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, and Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior political analyst joining me right now.
Cliff, let me start with you here. I mean, the fact is that we haven't been attacked by terrorists here at home since 9-11. Do you agree with Cheney's assessment that the Bush administration's policies, no matter how unpopular, are the reason for that and have saved lives?
MAY: Well, I think we know one thing and that is that over the past seven years, eight years, if the terrorists could have attacked us again on our home soil, as every expert predicted they would, they would have done so. If they didn't do it, it wasn't because they thought we were nice fellows and we deserve a break and it wasn't because they weren't trying. So some of the policies we've had over the past eight years have indeed worked. And I think it's very important that the Obama administration look carefully at those policies before discarding any of them.
Just look very carefully at the policies that may have kept us safe over the past eight years so we should be safe for the next four or the next eight years that Obama is in office.
Paul, already the Obama administration is working to discard many of those policies. What do you think?
BEGALA: And yet not wholesale. I think Cliff's advice is well taken. It's offered earnestly, and I think that -- I think that this new president and his team are looking at each thing.
Now, they don't want to make the mistake that the Bush/Cheney administration did. Bush/Cheney administration came in and the Clinton administration warned them that Al Qaeda was the greatest threat against America. They ignored that because it came from the Clinton administration.
Richard Clarke, who was the counterterrorism expert for Reagan and Bush and Clinton and the next Bush, was ignored and shunted aside. Dick Cheney himself was charged with chairing a task force on counterterrorism, and he refused to even convene that task force until the week of the attacks of 9-11.
So I think Cheney here -- if I were a psychologist, I think he maybe's projecting. I think he knows that he failed America and, in part, we were attacked because of his failure and President Bush's failure and I think he's probably feeling a little bitter and guilty about it.
BROWN: Well, there do seem to be, Jeff, some political sort of undertones to this. I mean, he told Politico that protecting our security, and this is his words here, “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business. These are evil people. We're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.” And it sounds like he's implying the new administration doesn't quite have the stomach for doing what may be necessary in the war on terror.
TOOBIN: I think that's not an implication. I think he's saying it directly. And I do think he's sincere. I think he really does think that his policies protected the country. What's missing from what Cheney said is the cost of those policies.
The fact that being known as a country that tortures people, that waterboards people, that created Guantánamo, that had costs for this country, too, in international reputation, in getting people abroad to cooperate with us. So yes, it is true that it was successful in stopping terrorist attacks, but it also had considerable costs as well.
BROWN: And do you concede that, too, Cliff?
MAY: Oh, of course, it has costs. If you protect your citizens as the government is responsible to do and you do it aggressively in a robust manner, it is going to have some costs. And again, all I'm saying -- and I think all that Cheney is really saying, is weigh very carefully the costs and benefits before -- when you do this analysis.
Look, one of the things that the critics of the Bush administration were very strong on was terrorist surveillance. We shouldn't be listening in on the phone calls of terrorists or terror suspects in parts of Pakistan unless we had very specific court orders.
Now, at the end of the day, the Terrorist Surveillance Act was voted for by Obama. He was initially against it. He took a strong, hard look at it and he voted for it, and I give him a lot of credit for that. And since the highest court that looks at these matters said this was indeed legal -- you keep hearing people say “the illegal terrorist surveillance.” No, we now know it was legal and it will be legal under this law unless they change it. So it's very important.
TOOBIN: But the sweet reason of Cliff May there is not exactly what you heard from Cheney. I mean, Cheney was saying that the Obama administration wants to read terrorists their Miranda rights. No one is saying that. I mean, I think there were some real cheap shots.