Transcript: Cheney Defends Hard Line Tactics

In Exclusive Interview With ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney Opens Up About His Hard Line Tactics

Dec. 16, 2008—

The following is a transcript from ABC News' Jonathan Karl's exclusive interview with Vice President Dick Cheney on Dec. 15, 2008 in the Executive Office Building.

JONATHAN KARL: Mr. Vice President, there has not been a terrorist attack in the United States in more than seven years. How important have your administration's policies on surveillance, interrogation and detention been in protecting the homeland?

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, I think they've been crucial, Jonathan. I think that anybody who'd looked at the situation the morning after the 9/11 attack would never have bet that we'd been able to go this long without another attack.

We've been able to defeat or disrupt all further attempts to strike the homeland. It's enormously important. I think those programs were crucial. The president made some very tough decisions, and we had some very able and talented people involved in the military and our intelligence services, making certain that we were able to keep the country safe.

KARL: But you've heard leaders, the incoming Congress, saying that this policy has basically been torture and illegal wiretapping, and that they want to undo, basically, the central tenets of your anti-terrorism policy.

CHENEY: They're wrong. On the question of terrorist surveillance, this was always a policy to intercept communications between terrorists or known terrorists, or so-called "dirty numbers," and folks inside the United States to capture those international communications.

It's worked. It's been successful. It's now embodied in the FISA statute that we passed last year -- and that Barack Obama voted for, which I think was a good decision on his part. It's a very, very important capability. It is legal. It was legal from the very beginning. It is constitutional. To claim that it isn't, I think is just wrong.

On the question of so-called torture, we don't do torture. We never have. It's not something that this administration subscribes to. Again, we proceeded very cautiously. We checked. We had the Justice Department issue the requisite opinions in order to know where the bright lines were that you could not cross.

The professionals involved in that program were very, very cautious, very careful -- wouldn't do anything without making certain it was authorized and that it was legal. And any suggestion to the contrary is just wrong. Did it produce the desired results? I think it did.

I think, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the number three man in al Qaeda, the man who planned the attacks of 9/11, provided us with a wealth of information. There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al Qaeda came from that one source. So, it's been a remarkably successful effort. I think the results speak for themselves.

And I think those who allege that we've been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don't know what they're talking about.

KARL: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

CHENEY: I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.

KARL: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?

CHENEY: I don't.

KARL: What is your advice to President-elect Obama then on this? Because he's been quite critical. And he might have supported...

CHENEY: He has.

KARL: ... FISA. But President-elect Obama has been very critical of the counterterrorism policies of this administration.

CHENEY: Well, counterterrorism policy's designed to defeat the terrorists. It turns on intelligence. You can't do anything without collecting first-rate intelligence. And that's what these programs are all about.

I would argue that, for the new administration, how they deal with these issues are going to be very important, because it's going to have a direct impact on whether or not they retain the tools that have been so essential and defending the nation for the last seven-and-a-half years, or whether they give them up.

I think it's vital that they sit down and -- which I believe they're doing -- and look at the specific threat that's out there, to understand these programs and how they operate, and see the extent to which we were very cautious in terms of how we put them together, and then make a decision based on that with respect to whether or not they're going to continue. They shouldn't just fall back on campaign rhetoric to make these very fundamental decisions about the safety of the nation.

KARL: And what if he does fall back on campaign rhetoric and rolls back those policies?

CHENEY: Well...

KARL: What's the danger?

CHENEY: ... I think that would be -- I think that would be very unfortunate.

KARL: And on KSM, one of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?

CHENEY: I do.

KARL: More than two years ago, President Bush said that he was -- wanted to close down Guantanamo Bay. Why has that not happened?

CHENEY: It's very hard to do. Guantanamo has been the repository, if you will, of hundreds of terrorists, or suspected terrorists, that we've captured since 9/11. They -- many of them, hundreds -- have been released back to their home countries. What we have left is the hard core.

Their cases are reviewed on an annual basis to see whether or not they're still a threat, whether or not they're still intelligence value in terms of continuing to hold them.

But -- and we're down now to some 200 being held at Guantanamo. But that includes the core group, the really high-value targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Now, the question: If you're going to close Guantanamo, what are you going to do with those prisoners?

One suggestion is, well, we bring them to the United States. Well, I don't know very many congressmen, for example, who are eager to have 200 al Qaeda terrorists deposited in their district. It's a complex and difficult problem. If you bring them onshore into the United States, they automatically acquire a certain legal rights and responsibilities that the government would then have, that they don't as long as they're at Guantanamo. And that's an important consideration.

These are not American citizens. They are not subject, nor do they have the same rights that an American citizen does vis-a-vis the government. But they are well treated. They also have the opportunity, and the process has started now, to be heard before a military commission with judgment, fair and honest judgment made about their guilt or innocence, to be represented by counsel provided through that process.

So, they -- I don't know any other nation in the world that would do what we've done in terms of taking care of people who are avowed enemies, and many of whom still swear up and down that their only objective is to kill more Americans.

KARL: So, when do you think we'll be at a point where Guantanamo could be responsibly shut down?

CHENEY: Well, I think that that would come with the end of the war on terror.

KARL: When's that going to be?

CHENEY: Well, nobody knows. Nobody can specify that. Now, in previous wars, we've always exercised the right to capture the enemy and then hold them till the end of the conflict. That's what we did in World War II with, you know, thousands, hundreds of thousands of German prisoners. The same basic principle ought to apply here in terms of our right to capture the enemy and hold them.

As I say, the other option is to turn them over to somebody else. A lot of them, nobody wants. I mean, there's a great resistance sometimes in the home countries to taking these people back into their own territory.

And it's not a law -- it's not a traditional law enforcement problem. I mean, one of the things that happened on 9/11 was, we went from thinking about a terrorist attack as a law enforcement problem where you would prosecute an individual, to rather being a strategic threat to the United States where we need to use all of our capabilities to be able to defeat the enemy.

And these folks are, in fact, unlawful combatants, adversaries of the United States, members of al Qaeda. And I think that's true for most of them there. As I say, there's a regular, annual review of each of their cases to make certain that we're still justified in holding them. And if not, to send them back to their home country, if they'll have them.

KARL: But basically, it sounds like you're talking about Guantanamo being a -- it sounds like you're saying Guantanamo Bay will be open indefinitely.

CHENEY: Well, a lot of people, including the president, expressed the view that they'd like to close Guantanamo. I think everybody can say we wished there were no necessity for Guantanamo. But you have to be able to answer these other questions before you can do that responsibly. And that includes, what are you going to do with the prisoners held in Guantanamo? And nobody yet has solved that problem.

KARL: What's the danger in doing this too soon, you know, just make this symbolic gesture to shut the place down?

CHENEY: Well, if you release people that shouldn't have been released -- and that's happened in some cases already -- you end up with them back on the battlefield.

And we've had, as I recall now -- and these are rough numbers, I'd want to check them -- but, say, approximately 30 of these folks have been held in Guantanamo, then released, and ended up back on the battlefield again, and we've encountered them a second time around. But they've either been killed or captured in further conflicts with our forces.

KARL: I don't know if you saw, but on Sunday, John McCain said that the national security team that has been established by President-elect Obama -- Clinton, James Jones, Robert Gates -- this is a team that he could have assembled. How do you assess this incoming team?

CHENEY: Well, I must say, I think it's a pretty good team. I'm not close to Barack Obama, obviously, nor am I a -- do I identify with him politically. He's a liberal. I'm a conservative. But I think the idea of keeping Gates at Defense is excellent. I think Jim Jones will be very, very effective as the national security adviser. And while I would not have hired Senator Clinton, I think she's tough, she's smart, she works very hard and she may turn out to be just what President Obama needs.

KARL: Should he keep the intelligence chiefs as well?

CHENEY: I don't want to get into the business of encouraging them on one course of another. It could be the kiss of death. He's already made his judgments about Jones and Gates and as I say, I think they're both very talented people and they'll do well. For me to get into the business of commenting on individuals where decisions have not yet been made, frankly, I think that would not be fair to them in that process.

KARL: So it was reported that when you went up to lunch for the Republicans shortly before the auto bailout vote that you said if the auto companies go down it will be Hoover time. Do you believe that to be true?

CHENEY: Well, that's not quite what I said. This was a report that came out of a meeting where we did discuss the subject. What I said basically was that a crisis in the auto industry could not have come at a worse time because we were in the midst of a major financial crisis, we're on the downside of what may be the worst recession since the end of World War II and we're in the middle of a presidential transition.

President Bush to the Obama administration and under those circumstances were the automobile industry be allowed to collapse or at least the American portion of it I thought would be extremely unfortunate and that we needed to do everything we could to prevent that. That's sort of the basic picture I made. I did make a reference to Herbert Hoover but I can't recall the exact words for it.

KARL: But if the government doesn't act to save these companies, to give them a lifeline, do we risk headed to Hoover time?

CHENEY: Well, not so much in terms of the time but I would be concerned if under these circumstances we did not as an administration, and we still have major responsibilities for another month, if we didn't do everything we could to avoid those consequences and it would have a lasting impact, if you will, on how we're perceived

KARL: What do you think when you hear the Democrats talk about a stimulus plan of a trillion dollars?

CHENEY: Well, it depends on what goes into it. I'm not sure it's needed or necessary. It's not clear to me that it would have any short term effect. That doesn't mean there aren't things that could be done on some of these longer term projects but I think caution is in order here and to date I have not seen the proposals, I have not seen the arguments for why this is appropriate or why it would be good economic policy at this time.

We clearly are involved now in a recession. We see that around us every day but I think part of that is the fallout from the financial crisis we had earlier this year and it's a global problem. It's not just the United States that's affected here. This is really both, whether we're talking about the recession or we talk about financial problems, these are global issues that are going to effect everybody worldwide and it seems to me you cannot treat this just as an isolated problem inside the United State as has often been the case in the past with our recession. This is one that's going to occur on a global basis.

KARL: You've been called the most powerful vice president in history. Help me understand how a guy who didn't even seek this job out managed to do that.

CHENEY: Well, whatever I've been able to do as vice president, it's been because that's what the president wanted me to do. And I have enjoyed very much my time as vice president, it's been a tremendous experience. It's not anything I sought as you mentioned. The president asked me to take it on and I agreed to do it and I think it was exactly the right decision from my standpoint. In terms of how I'm viewed as a powerful vice president or influential vice president, I think that's something that we'll have to leave to the historians. There are a lot of people out there with opinions and I'll let somebody else sort them out.

KARL: What do you say to those who say you've changed? I mean, you've seen friends go across, say, I don't know Dick Cheney any more. They've really known you just about as long as anybody in this town. What do you say to that?

CHENEY: Well, I ??? the way I think of it is in terms of whether or not I changed, I think a prime motivation for me and much of what I've done was 9/11. And being here on 9/11, going through that experience. And reaching the conclusion that somebody said the other day that I said at that point, that's not going to happen again on my watch. And we've done everything we could, the president has, I have, a lot of the people that we work with, to make certain that didn't happen.

And we've succeeded. But when you contemplate the 9/11 with terrorists instead of being armed with box cutters and airline tickets, equipped with a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind in the middle of one of our cities and think about the consequences of that and then I think we're justified in taking bold action. I think it's incumbent upon us to take bold action to make certain that never happens.

And it does say we've been successful for seven and a half years now and have I changed? Well, not in the sense that I've gone through some fundamental psychological transition here but I have been since that day focused very much on what we needed to do to defend the nation and I think the policies we've recommended, the programs that we've undertaken have been good program. I think those have been sound decisions and if that's what they mean by saying I've changed, I'm guilty.

KARL: What did you think when you saw that shoe flying at the president?

CHENEY: Well, I thought the president handled it rather well. He had some good moves the way he ducked and avoided the shoe and then what was his response? That it was a size 10 and he could see that as it went by. No, I think it's an incident where an Iraqi reporter threw shoes at the president. I don't attribute any special significance to it.

KARL: But when you were told during another interview that the American public is overwhelmingly against the war, you said, "So?" Do you regret saying that? Would you take that back.

CHENEY: No. In effect what I did was, the person who made the statement they didn't ask a question. And after they made a statement, I said, "So?" expecting a question and I didn't get a question. And I took "So" to mean that I didn't have any concern for public opinion. I do. But I don't think and the point I made then is that we could not have done what we'd done if we'd been reading the polls.

If we had responded to the polls I think the world would look very different today than it does. I think Saddam Hussein would still be in power. I think the progress that we've made in liberating 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan might well have not happened.

You can't base public policy or tough decisions in a presidency simply on what's happening in the polls. They change from week to week. You can take two polls on exactly the same day and get totally different results. It's just a bad way to make policy. And we didn't do that. What we did was what we thought was right for the country. We stood once for reelection and were reelected and we've continued to pursue those policies throughout our time in office.

Our objective has not been to see how high we could get our poll numbers by the time we left office. Our objective has been to do other things such as defend the nation, pursue a successful counterinsurgency program to prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan, reform the education system, add prescription drug benefits to Medicare, cut taxes. Those are all things that I think we've succeeded on. They were not all popular, especially what we did in the national security area I think has been controversial but it was the right thing to do and the president and I were elected to make decisions and not to read polls.

KARL: Now, President Bush recently said that his greatest regret was that the intelligence was wrong on weapons of mass destruction. Is that your biggest regret?

CHENEY: No, I wouldn't ??? I understand why he says that. I certainly share the frustration that the intelligence report on Iraq WMD generated but in terms of the intelligence itself, I tend to look at the entire community and what they've done over the course of the last several years. Intelligence ??? it's not a science, it's an art form in many respects and you don't always get it right.

I think while I would mention that as a major failure of the intelligence community, it clearly was. On the other hand, we've had other successes and failures. I think the run-up to 9/11 where we missed that attack was a failure. On the other hand we've had great success since 9/11 in terms of what the intelligence community has contributed overall to the defense of the nation, to defeating al Qaeda, to making it possible for us to do very serious damage to our enemies.

KARL: You probably saw Karl Rove last week said that if the intelligence had been correct we probably would not have gone to war.

CHENEY: I disagree with that. I think ??? as I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq, what they got wrong was that there weren't any stockpiles. What we found in the after action reports, after the intelligence report was done and then various special groups went and looked at the intelligence and what its validity was. What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stocks.

They also found that he had every intention of resuming production once the international sanctions were lifted. He had a long reputation and record of having started two wars. Of having brutalized and killed hundreds of thousands of people, some of them with weapons of mass destruction in his own country. He had violated 16 National Security Council resolutions. He had established a relationship as a terror sponsoring state according to the State Department. He was making $25,000 payments to the families of suicide bombers.

This was a bad actor and the country's better off, the world's better off with Saddam gone and I think we made the right decision in spite of the fact that the original NIE was off in some of its major judgments.

KARL: So you're 30 something ??? how many more days do you have left?

CHENEY: Thirty five!

KARL: Thirty five more days left. Who's counting? hat advice do you have to Joe Biden coming in this role? You've already seen that Harry Reid has said that Biden will not be invited into the policy luncheons up at the Senate. Biden's already signaled that he's going to be scaling back some of this office, what you've done to this office. What's your advice to Biden?

CHENEY: Well, the most important element in deciding what kind of vice presidency any administration is going to have is what the president wants to have done. He is the boss. He is the one who's got to decide what kind of authority he wants to entrust to his vice president, how he fits with the other folks in the administration, what kinds of policies he wants him involved in and it's really unique for each administration.

I've had one meeting with Joe Biden since he won the election. He and his wife came by the house and we were able to show him the official residence and had a pleasant chat. We didn't get into policy in any major way. But Joe Biden's an experienced senator. He's been around a long time. He knows a lot. Whatever contribution he's allowed to make to the Obama administration is really up to President Obama, he'll decide what his role is going to be.

KARL: What are you going to miss most about this job?

CHENEY: Well, I am looking forward to a return to private life. This is the fourth time I've transitioned out of government to the private sector. But I'll also miss it. It's really been just a tremendously remarkable experience. I think the people that I've been pleased to work with including some of my colleagues in the administration, especially the men and women of our armed forces and the intelligence community who have done so much to keep us safe over this period of time. It's been 40 years since I came to Washington to stay 12 months and I think it's about time I went and did something else.

KARL: Regrets?

CHENEY: Oh, not a lot at this stage. I think I'll have a chance to reflect on that after I get out of here and see whether to ??? anything immediately comes to mind. I think given the circumstances we've had to deal with, I think we've done pretty well.

My experience goes back, this is the fourth administration I've worked in. Things that were cited as a regret at the time, Jerry Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, for example, 30 years later look pretty good. So I am cautious in terms of making judgments at this point. A lot of other people can do it. I am not yet out of office and I'll withhold judgment for a while.

KARL: The attacks don't seem to have bothered you but when they make a political ad out of you in the last week of the campaign simply because you've done one event and you know the approval rating, so I understand your position on the polls, but do those attacks on you get to you? Do they bug you?

CHENEY: No. If they didn't I shouldn't take this job. We've talked about how Senator Clinton referred to me as Darth Vader. I asked my wife about that, if that didn't bother her. She said, no, it humanizes you. So it's ??? you've got to have a sense of humor about it. Don't take it personally. You've got to have a thick skin or you shouldn't be in this business. You can turn on the Jay Leno show or David Letterman on any weekday night and over the course of a week there are likely to be two or three shots fired in my direction. You just, you really can't worry about it. Most of them are pretty funny.

KARL: And then finally, what are you going to do next? What's the final act for ???

CHENEY: Well, I don't know yet. I'll say I've got 35 more days to go here with the president and then I'll decide after that. I'm not ready to retire yet but I do want a chance to spend more time with the family. Got some rivers I want to face. Maybe write a book. I haven't decided yet.

So there'll be hopefully plenty of years left to engage in those other activities and my experience has been when you get to one of these major turning points in your life, major milestone where you leave one activity and have to go to something else, on the other side usually are good things. That's always been my experience.