Dick Cheney has never had any qualms about defending the Bush Administration's war on terrorism or criticizing Democrats' alternative approaches to national security. But the former Vice President's vitriol-spewing turn on CNN last Sunday has left many in Washington wondering if it was about more than just protecting his legacy.
Several observers think Cheney may be starting to feel the heat from Democrats' efforts to investigate the Bush Administration's counterterrorism policies — policies Cheney advocated, and for which his protégés allegedly provided the legal basis. But if he was trying to deflect attention from Bush-era policies, Cheney's aggression will likely have the opposite effect. "If his goal was to tamp down talk of a truth commission, he has probably exacerbated the problem," a veteran Republican told TIME. (See pictures inside Guantánamo Bay.)
Cheney didn't sugarcoat his attacks on the Obama Administration, saying its counterterrorism policies "will in fact raise the risk to the American people" of another terrorist attack. Cheney claimed that the Bush policies — including holding suspects at Guantánamo Bay and using harsh interrogation techniques to extract information from them — had helped prevent another attack after 9/11.
This is not the first time Cheney has made those claims, but the timing of his diatribe — his first TV appearance since leaving office — is hard to miss. In recent days, Bush's policies have come under attack from several directions. Senator Patrick Leahy continues to push for a truth commission to look into the more contentious Bush-era practices, including allegations of torture. And Senator Dianne Feinstein's Intelligence Committee has just launched a review of the CIA's interrogation and detention policies. (Read "Leahy's Plan to Probe Bush-Era Wrongdoings.")
At the same time, the Justice Department has released controversial memos authored by John Yoo, a Cheney protégé at the Office of Legal Counsel, which critics say authorized the mistreatment of terrorist suspects. Pressure is also growing on the department to release the report of an internal ethics probe into the actions of Yoo and two other OLC lawyers. Many Democrats would like to see Yoo and Cheney's own lawyer, David Addington, investigated for their role in creating the Bush Administration's so-called torture doctrine. And on the weekend of Cheney's CNN appearance, a leaked Red Cross report on the treatment of Gitmo prisoners used the T word, describing in graphic detail how terrorist suspects were, among other things, beaten, kept in coffin-like boxes, chained to their beds and starved for weeks at a time.
On Capitol Hill, many longtime Cheney watchers say his performance was typical of the man. "Much of what he said was self-serving," Leahy told TIME by e-mail, "and just like the old days, he seems to believe that the best defense of his record is to launch new attacks." (See America's worst Vice Presidents.)
So far President Barack Obama has been reluctant to probe too deeply into Bush-era interrogation and detention policies, saying he'd prefer to look forward, not back. But this charitable attitude is bound to be tested by Cheney's take-no-prisoners strategy — in addition to defending Bush's record, the ex-Veep also poured scorn on Obama's financial policies. The White House responded with some scorn of its own. "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal," Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, said at his daily briefing on Monday.
Others looked past the politics and questioned the soundness of Cheney's argument. "This is his place in history, and he's probably concerned with that," said Representative Jane Harman, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment. "But he's wrong on the facts."
Eric Rosenbach, a former staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and national-security adviser to Senator Chuck Hagel, said there was little evidence to suggest that the interrogation of terrorism suspects under the Bush Administration had led to information that helped prevent attacks on U.S. soil. "At the Intelligence Committee, we tried to test these claims, but the evidence was very, very tenuous," he said.