WASHINGTON - Pingponging across the airwaves, Vice-President Joe Biden and predecessor Dick Cheney bickered Sunday over terror trials and interrogations, credit for success in Iraq and the long-running effort to contain Iran's nuclear program.
Biden called Cheney "misinformed or he is misinforming" on current national security strategies. Cheney said President Barack Obama wasn't taking the al-Qaida threat seriously. But, in a marked change of tone, the former vice-president acknowledged that the Bush White House struggled with how to bring suspected terrorists to justice.
Highly partisan public skirmishes between the Obama White House and Cheney - the result of the former vice-president's unusual public criticism on a successor administration - have become standard fare. And the back-and-forth that was set up in Sunday's sequential appearances of television talk shows did not disappoint.
Biden struck first, declaring that Cheney's attacks on Obama's commitment to fighting terrorism ignored the facts.
"We've eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates," said Biden. "They are in fact not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run. I don't know where Dick Cheney has been. Look, it's one thing, again, to criticize. It's another thing to sort of rewrite history. What is he talking about?"
Cheney did not answer directly, instead insisting that Biden was "dead wrong" to assert that a fresh Sept. 11-style strike was unlikely, calling a nuclear or biological attack by al-Qaida "the biggest strategic threat the United States faces today."
Even so, Cheney appeared to dial back the rhetoric, acknowledging that the Bush administration too was divided on whether terror suspects should be charged and tried in federal civilian courts or taken before military tribunals.
"I can remember," Cheney said, "a meeting in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House where we had a major shootout" - one that he said he lost - about civilian versus military trials for terrorist captives.
"We never clearly or totally resolved those issues. These are tough questions, no doubt about it," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Biden got in the first licks on NBC's "Meet the Press" in an interview taped late Sunday in Canada, where he was attending the Vancouver Olympic Games. On Cheney's assault on the Obama administration, Biden said "his assertions are not accurate."
Cheney demurred on that allegation, choosing instead to take on again Obama's decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In doing so, he admitted for a second time that he had been at odds with the majority of Bush administration officials on the decision to release prisoners from the military lockup to their home country when cases against them were determined to be legally untenable.
"I didn't think that releasing anybody was the right thing to do, unless you had evidence that, you know, there was a mistake of some kind," Cheney said.
On Afghanistan and Obama's decision to increase U.S. forces in the eight-year-old war, Cheney gave Obama high marks. But he derided Biden for giving the Obama administration credit for winding down the war in Iraq without acknowledging the work of president George W. Bush. However, Biden had said: "We built on the positive things that the Bush administration had initiated. And we have jettisoned those things that were negative."
"For them to try to take credit for what happened in Iraq is a little strange. It ought to go with a healthy dose of 'thank you, George Bush,' " Cheney said.
On other disputed topics:
- Biden acknowledged that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed Sept. 11 attack planner, still might face trial in a military tribunal, despite the administration's earlier decision to take him before a civilian federal court in New York. That now seems unlikely given hot opposition from city authorities and members of Congress. Cheney said he believed Mohammed should and eventually would be tried by the military at a military facility.
- Cheney advised the Obama administration against ruling out a military attack on Iran even as it works for a new set of United Nations sanctions. "I don't think you want to eliminate the military - the possibility of military action. I think that's essential to give any kind of meaning at all to negotiations over sanctions," he said.
The back and forth began with Biden on NBC, moved to ABC's "This Week" with Cheney and ended with Biden appearing live on CBS's "Face the Nation.
There Biden got in the last word over Cheney: "Thank God the last administration didn't listen to him in the end" on how to handle terrorism suspects. Declaring that Obama was acting on the precedents set in the Bush White House, Biden said of Cheney, "His fight seems to be with the last administration."