The New Yorker's Jane Mayer spoke to Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta on May 22, the day after President Obama and Vice President Cheney gave dueling speeches on national security policy in Washington. In the interview, Panetta said he disagreed with Cheney's contention that Obama's policies were making America less safe.
I think he smells some blood in the water on the national-security issue," he told me. "It's almost, a little bit, gallows politics. When you read behind it, it's almost as if he's wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point. I think that's dangerous politics."
Today, a spokesperson for Vice President Cheney responded in Cheney's name: ""I hope my old friend Leon was misquoted. The important thing is whether or not the Obama Administration will continue the policies that have kept us safe for the last 8 years."
Paul Gimigliano, Panetta's spokesman, responded in an e-mail: "The Director does not believe the former Vice President wants an attack. He did not say that. He was simply expressing his profound disagreement with the assertion that President Obama's security policies have made our country less safe. Nor did he question anyone's motives."
I find the heat of this exchange to be manufacturered. Panetta said his piece a month ago. He didn't suggest that Cheney actually wanted an attack; "almost as if" is a provocative construction, but one that conveys the idea that the only thing that would prove Cheney's point would be a terrorist attack; hence it's "gallows politics;" an inherently unjustifiable and unprovable assertion that serves to scare people. To Panetta, that's unhelpful and "dangerous." It's a subtle argument, inartfully expressed.
Panetta's response was fairly indicative of the administration's general thoughts about Cheney's speech, and Cheney's response today is quite measured. There is really no conflict here; no argument; just provocative words among old friends about a very important subject, but words that, out of context and placed side by side, do nothing to further a debate or argument.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.