Cheney Roars Back: The Nightline Interview during his trip to Iraq.

ByABC News
December 18, 2005, 6:47 PM

Dec. 18, 2005 — -- What does Vice President Dick Cheney really think about what's going on in Iraq, the latest revelations about domestic spying and the anti-torture amendment?

The usually media-shy Cheney made a surprise trip Sunday to Iraq, where he talked with ABC News' Terry Moran, co-anchor of "Nightline," about some of the biggest issues facing our country and the world.

Below are excerpts from the interview. Look for more of the discussion Monday, Dec. 19, on "Nightline."

Terry Moran: Let me shift gears. The president has now acknowledged authorizing and reauthorizing, more than 30 times, a program to spy on Americans without any warrant from any court. This is a huge change.

Vice President Dick Cheney: I think that's a slight distortion of what the president said. The president said -- is that we will use all of our power and authority -- the decision we made after 9/11 -- to do everything we can to defend the country. That's our obligation. We take an oath of office to do that.

Moran: That's not in dispute.

Cheney: And that when we have a situation where we have communication between someone inside the U.S. and an acknowledged al Qaeda or terrorist source outside the U.S., that that's something we need to know.

And he has authorized us to look at that. And it is, in fact, consistent with the constitution. It's been reviewed. It's reviewed every 45 days by the president himself, by the attorney general of the U.S., by the president's council, by the director of CIA.

It's been briefed to the Congress over a dozen times. And, in fact, it is a program that is, by every effort we've been able to make, consistent with the statutes and with the law. It's the kind of capability [that], if we'd had before 9/11, might have led us to be able to prevent 9/11.

We had two 9/11 terrorists in San Diego prior to the attack in contact with al Qaeda sources outside the U.S. We didn't know it. The 9/11 Commission talks about it. If we'd had this capability, then we might well have been able to stop it.

Moran: But, Mr. Vice President, this is a program that surveilles people inside the United States. The Constitution--

Cheney: Who are in touch with al Qaeda who are outside the United States.

Moran: Don't you have to have a court give permission for that in any other circumstance -- to eavesdrop on communications in America?

Cheney: Terry, these are communications that involve acknowledged or known terrorists -- dirty numbers, if you will. And in fact, it is consistent with the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief. It's consistent with the resolution that was passed by the Congress after 9/11.

And it has been reviewed repeatedly by the Justice Department every single time it's been renewed, to make certain that it is, in fact, managed in a manner that's fully consistent with the Constitution and with our statutes.

Moran: But that's all the executive branch. The Constitution calls for a court, a co-equal branch of government, as a check on the power of the executive, to give a say-so before an American or someone in America is surveilled, or searched, or spied upon.

Cheney: This has been done, Terry, in a manner that is completely consistent with our obligations and requirements, I can assure you. That's one of the reasons we hold it and watch it so carefully. That's why it has to go the president every 30 days to 45 days, to make absolutely certain we are in compliance with all of the safeguards with respect to individual liberty, and that it is managed in a very conservative fashion, and it is signed up to by the attorney general of the U.S. and reviewed by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department.

So we spend a lot of time making certain that this is, in fact, safeguarded. And as I say, we've briefed Congress on it -- just a few members, the leadership -- on over a dozen occasions.

Moran: Let me take you up on that. Sen. Graham of Florida, ex-Sen. Graham, who was on the Intelligence Committee at the time this program began, suggested to us that when you briefed him, you misled him, [that] you didn't tell him the full scope of the program. That's his feeling now that he sees it exposed.

Cheney: Well, that's not true.

Moran: He knew.

Cheney: He knew. I sat in my office with Gen. Hayden, who was then the head of NSA, who's now the deputy director of the National Intelligence Directorate, and he was briefed as long as he was chairman of the committee, or ranking member of the committee.

Moran: The president has said we do not torture, and Sen. McCain proposed a measure in part to vindicate those values that would ban the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of any person in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. Why did he [Bush] fight so hard against that?

Cheney: Well, we ultimately reached a compromise between the president and Sen. McCain, and it was arrived at just last week. But what I-- Excuse me. The position I took was one that was the position the administration had taken when we signaled to the Congress that we were prepared to veto a bill that went farther than we thought it should, in terms of trying to restrict the prerogatives of the president, and--

Moran: How so, when it comes to cruel, inhuman-- What's the president's prerogative in the cruel treatment of prisoners?

Cheney: There's a definition that's based on prior Supreme Court decisions and prior arguments, and it has to do with the Fourth, Thirteenth, and -- three specific amendments to the Constitution. And the rule is whether or not it shocks the conscience. If it's something that shocks the conscience, the court has agreed that crosses over the line.

Now, you can get into a debate about what shocks the conscience and what is cruel and inhuman. And to some extent, I suppose, that's in the eye of the beholder. But I believe, and we think it's important to remember, that we are in a war against a group of individuals and terrorist organizations that did, in fact, slaughter 3,000 innocent Americans on 9/11, that it's important for us to be able to have effective interrogation of these people when we capture them.

And the debate is over the extent to which we are going to have legislation that restricts or limits that capability. Now, as I say, we've reached a compromise. The president signed on with the McCain amendment. We never had any problem with the McCain amendment. We had problems with trying to extend it as far as he did.

But ultimately, as I say, a compromise was arrived at, and I support the compromise.

Moran: Should American interrogators be staging mock executions [and] waterboarding prisoners? Is that cruel?

Cheney: I am not going to get into specifics here. You're getting into questions about sources and methods, and I don't talk about that, Terry.

Moran: As vice president of the U.S., you can't tell the American people whether

Cheney: I don't talk about--

Moran: or not we would interrogate

Cheney: I can say that we, in fact, are consistent with the commitments of the United States that we don't engage in torture. And we don't.

Moran: Are you troubled at all that more than 100 people in U.S. custody have died -- 26 of them now being investigated as criminal homicides -- people beaten to death, suffocated to death, died of hypothermia in U.S. custody?

Cheney: No. I won't accept your numbers, Terry. But I guess one of the things I'm concerned about is that as we get farther and farther away from 9/11, and there have been no further attacks against the U.S., there seems to be less and less concern about doing what's necessary in order to defend the country.

I think, for example, the Patriot Act -- this week, the Patriot Act, a vital piece of legislation -- it was, in fact, passed in the aftermath of 9/11. It extended to our ability to operate with respect to the counterterrorist effort.

It gave us authorities that were already used in other areas against drug traffickers and so forth that broke down that wall between law enforcement and intelligence that had prohibited cooperation.

And what I'm concerned about, Terry, is that as we get farther and farther from 9/11, we've got -- we seem to have people less and less committed to doing everything that's necessary to defend the country.

The Patriot Act, up for renewal, was filibustered in the Senate this week by the Democrats and blocked from passage. As a result, parts of that are going to expire on Dec. 31. Somehow, I think a lot of people have lost their sense of urgency out there. That's hard for me to do or for the president to do.

We get up every morning, and the first thing we do is an intelligence brief, where we look at the threats to the United States. We do that six days a week. We're well aware that there are still terrorists out there who mean to do evil, that they're trying their best to get their hands on deadlier weapons, biological agents or nuclear weapons, to use against us.

And we need to maintain the capability of this government to be able to defend the nation. And that means we have to take extraordinary measures, but we do do it in a manner that's consistent with the Constitution and consistent with our statutes.

Moran: So this is your first trip to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein?

Cheney: It is.

Moran: What surprised you today? What do you know about Iraq today that you didn't know yesterday?

Cheney: Well, I think, like most people who've looked at it, I've been tremendously impressed with what happened in the election just this past week. I mean, I really think that may be a seminal event in the history of Iraq, that it's such an important part of the process of building a democracy, a viable Iraq, an Iraq that can stand on its own, that the thing that strikes you when you come out is just the mood and the demeanor of the people you talk with -- speaking with Talabani and Jaafri, for example.

I've met with both of them before, but they both, I think, were visibly relieved at how big the turnout was -- that, in fact, the process is working, that there is strong support even in the Sunni areas for participation in the political process.

Moran: But you know, we've had elections before in this country, now, twice before this. There was that moment of hope after the January elections, with the amazing sights that that brought out, and those hopes have been dashed again and again.

What makes you think this time it's going to be different?

Cheney: I disagree with the notion that hopes have been dashed. I don't think that's true.

Moran: Well, the violence has continued.

Cheney: Well, the violence has continued, but I think the key in terms of looking at the elections is that they've made every single milestone that's been set, every single one, from the time we turned over sovereignty in June of '04, to the first elections in January, then writing the constitution, getting the constitution ratified, and now national elections under that new constitution.

They've had three elections this year. Each one's gotten better and stronger and more effective. I do think it's serving to undermine the legitimacy of the insurgency. I think it will make it increasingly difficult for the insurgents to be effective.

We see it, for example, in the volume of tips that we get from the Iraqi people, intelligence information about where to find weapons caches, or who's responsible for some of the terrorist attacks. There's been a quantum leap over the course of the last year in terms of the number of intelligence reports coming in.

The academy is doing better. The Iraqi security services are clearly much, much better now. There's a big change there over the last 18 months. I met today with some of the members and the leader of the 9th Mechanized Iraqi Division. These are men who've signed on to support the new government.

And the benefit of having that election now is we're going to have a government that's a legitimate government of Iraq that nobody can claim lacks legitimacy. It's an Iraqi government elected by Iraqis under a constitution written by Iraqis. And so I think all of that is measurable progress.

And while the level of violence has continued, I do believe that when we look back on this period of time, 2005 will have been the turning point when, in fact, we made sufficient progress both on the political front and the security front, so that we'll see that as the watershed year.

Moran: You talk about undermining the legitimacy of the resistance. Before the war you said Americans would be greeted as liberators here, and yet your own trip here today was undertaken in such secrecy that not even the prime minister of this country knew you were coming, and your movements around are in incredible secrecy and security. Do you ever think about how and why you got it wrong?

Cheney: I don't think I got it wrong. I think the vast majority of the Iraqi people are grateful for what the U.S. did. I think they believe overwhelmingly that they're better off today than they were when Saddam Hussein ruled.

I think the vast majority of them think of us as liberators. And I think your own polls show that, Terry. If you look at the poll that was done just recently by ABC, it shows a great deal of optimism, of hope, on the part of the Iraqi people, that their lives are better and going to get better in the future.

So I really believe the notion that somehow the Iraqi people opposed what we did when we came in and toppled Saddam Hussein, or that a majority of them were against it, is just dead wrong. It's not true. I think a majority of them support it.

Moran: Does the United States maintain secret prisons around the world?

Cheney: I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters.

Moran: Secret prisons?

Cheney: I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters.

Moran: Does the International Red Cross have access to everyone in U.S. custody, as we are obliged?

Cheney: Terry, with all due respect, I won't discuss intelligence matters. I shouldn't.

Moran: I'd like to put this personally, if I can. You're a grandfather. I'm a father. When we look at those girls and we think that the country we're about to pass to them is a country where the vice president can't say whether or not we have secret prisons around the world, whether waterboarding and mock executions is consistent with our values, and a country where the government is surveilling without the warrant of a court, is that the country we want to pass on to them?

Cheney: I want to pass on to them a country that is free, that is not plagued by terrorist attacks, doesn't see a repeat of the terrible events of 9/11 when we lost 3,000 of our people that morning to a handful of terrorists who had no justification at all for what they do.

I can guarantee you that we do do as a government, as an administration, is to support and uphold the Constitution of United States, that we do, in fact, take extraordinary steps to make certain we maintain our constitutional obligations and responsibilities, which includes both defending the country as well as defending individual liberties and protecting the rights of all Americans.

And I want my kids to grow up in a strong, free, independent America where they are safe from the kinds of outrages that have been perpetrated not only in New York and Washington, but in Madrid, Casablanca, and Istanbul, and Bali, and Jakarta, all over the globe.

And we're up against a very tough adversary, and under those circumstances we need to do everything we can to protect the American people. And that's got to be a prime concern for us, and it is.

Moran: Another subject. When did you first hear the name Valerie Plame?

Cheney: Well, I'm going to respectfully decline to talk about that. There is a trial pending. I have been constrained for the last 2.5 years not talking about that case, because there was an investigation under way.

And now with a trial pending, I think it would be inappropriate for me to say anything about it at all, so I have not said anything about it and won't.

Moran: Can you say, as vice president -- can you answer -- did you direct anyone to disclose her identity or to lie about...

Cheney: Terry, you can ask the question any way you want. Scooter Libby is a close friend of mine. He's one of the most able and talented people I know. He's entitled to the presumption of innocence, and from my perspective it would be totally inappropriate for me to comment, period. That's been my posture now for 2.5 years and will continue to be.

Moran: I'm going to try once more, because I'm not really asking about the criminal investigation.

Cheney: The answer will be the same, Terry.

Moran: I'm asking about the conduct of the vice president. And people have a right to know this. Did you direct anyone to disclose her name or to cover up disclosing her name?

Cheney: Terry, I have given you the answer. I will not say any more about it. There will be a time when I can discuss it, but not now.

Moran: Fair enough. You mentioned Scooter Libby is a close friend, and...

Cheney: He is.

Moran: ... he's worked with you for a long time. What do you make of what he's going through?

Cheney: Well, I'm sure it's very tough. But he's a good man. He's a patriot. And as I say, he's entitled to a presumption of innocence. And we'll leave it at that.