"When just a single clue that goes unlearned--one lead that goes unpursued--can bring on catastrophe, it's no time for splitting differences. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance."
A Logical Flaw
But there is a logical flaw to Cheney's so-called "one-percent doctrine," which holds that even if a potential terrorist threat presents only a one-percent possibility it must be treated as a certainty. The flaw is that reacting to unlikely dangers as certainties is almost guaranteed to create even more dangers.
For instance, invading Iraq to eliminate a tiny risk that Saddam Hussein might help al-Qaeda has killed 4,300 American soldiers, spared al-Qaeda's leadership in their hideouts along the Afghan border, strengthened Iran as a regional power, and spread anti-Americanism across the volatile region, including inside nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In other words, reacting to every hypothetical one-percent threat may sound reassuring to frightened Americans but the policy is almost certain to make the situation more dangerous.
Clearly, many Americans understand this. They know that risk is part of life and intrinsic to a Republic, especially one that operates under a system of laws and cherishes what the Founders called "certain unalienable rights."
Many such Americans voted for Barack Obama in hopes that this eloquent expert on constitutional law would break the cycle of Republican fear-mongering and Democratic cowering, that he would uphold the nation's principles and stop exaggerating the dangers.
However, Obama has disappointed many of these supporters. While rhetorically stepping back from some of Bush's excesses and releasing some important evidence on how the United States officially embraced torture for the first time in the nation's history, Obama has maintained much of the legal paradigm of Bush's "war on terror."
In his speech about terrorism on May 21--right before Cheney's--Obama said some of the Guantanamo cases would have to go before revamped Military Commissions that would include a few more safeguards than the Bush/Cheney model but still fall far short of civilian courts.
Obama even proposed a new legal system that would allow for "prolonged detention" of terror suspects without trial. Obama said he wanted to involve Congress and the Judiciary in this process--seeking to distance himself from Bush's views of unilateral presidential powers.
"In our constitutional system," Obama said, "prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man."
However, in truth, prolonged detention has little place at all in the U.S. constitutional system, which includes habeas corpus guarantees against arbitrary imprisonment and the right to fair and open trials.
It's also unclear why an extreme step like prolonged detention is needed. For combatants captured on the battlefield, the law of war permits their detention as POWs for the duration of a conflict, thus negating the argument about how such situations don't lend themselves to the collection of evidence.
Rather, Obama's concept of preventive detention seems aimed at a suspected terrorist who, in Obama's example, has expertise in explosives and who may have been arrested far from a battlefield.
It's unclear why, in that situation, evidence couldn't be collected normally or why witnesses couldn't be developed to prove the case, even if that might require a plea bargain with one suspect to obtain testimony against another.