Transcript: Cheney Defends Hard Line Tactics

Vice President Dick Cheney sits down with ABC News' Jonathan Karl

ByABC News
December 15, 2008, 2:50 PM

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?


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.