Dec. 16, 2008 — -- In an exclusive interview with ABC News, a reflective Vice President Dick Cheney praised President-elect Barack Obama's national security team and admitted he's changed during his time in office.
In his first exit interview and first television interview since the November election, Cheney said the 9-11 terrorist attacks most certainly became "a prime motivation," critically shaping his actions in the years that followed.
"Have I changed?" Cheney asked. "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 programs. I think those have been sound decisions, and if that's what they mean by saying I've changed, I'm guilty."
With 35 days left in office, the vice president also weighed in on those who will take the place of the Bush administration, assessing Obama's picks to spearhead national security.
"I must say, I think it's a pretty good team," Cheney said. "I'm not close to Barack Obama, obviously, nor 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."
Cheney likewise weighed in on Sen. Hillary Clinton, who Obama has tapped to be the next secretary of state.
"While I would not have hired Sen. Clinton, I think she's tough," the vice president added. "She's smart, she works very hard and she may turn out to be just what President Obama needs."
Cheney said the new administration must carefully assess the tools put in place to fight terror. "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," he said.
Obama's team needs to look at the specific threats, understand how the programs were put together, and how they operate, the vice president said.
"They shouldn't just fall back on campaign rhetoric to make these very fundamental decisions about the safety of the nation," he warned.
As for what the vice president himself needs, Cheney said there's "no question" he'll miss the job and has "a few stories" that could warrant writing a book.
"I loved being vice president and I loved my time in government," he said. "Being secretary of defense or Ford's chief of staff."
Still, he conceded, "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."
On Waterboarding and Guantanamo
There was no softening of Cheney's stances Monday on sizing up the policies of the Bush administration.
The vice president was unapologetic in his defense of the Bush administration's anti-terror policies, including the use of waterboarding, and said the prison at Guantanamo Bay should remain open as long as there's a war on terror.
Cheney said waterboarding was an appropriate means of getting information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He was also asked whether he authorized the tactics used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
"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," Cheney said. "And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.
"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," he added, referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "So, it's been a remarkably successful effort. I think the results speak for themselves."
Cheney said the prison at Guantanamo Bay could be responsibly shut down only when the war on terror has ended. Asked when that might be, he added, "Well, nobody knows. Nobody can specify that."
Cheney warned that prisoners released from Guantanamo could prove dangerous to the United States, adding that the problem of what to do with released prisoners had not yet been solved.
"If you're going to close Guantanamo, what are you going to do with those prisoners?" he asked. "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."
Meantime, Cheney said the Guantanamo detainees have been "well treated."
"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," he said.
Cheney Disputes Rove
The outgoing vice president also disputed former Bush adviser Karl Rove's recent comments about the decision to go to war in Iraq.
While discussing Bush's legacy earlier this month, Rove said he did not believe the administration would have gone to war had intelligence revealed Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
"I disagree with that," Cheney said Monday. "As I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq, what they got wrong was that there weren't any stockpiles."
"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 stock."
Cheney added that, given Saddam Hussein's capabilities, reputation and track record of brutality, "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."
ABC News' Kate Barrett contributed to this report.