Interview of the Vice President on 60 Minutes II
Gloria Borger: Mr. Vice President, how would you describe the state of the Taliban right now?
Vice President Cheney: Well, they're in- I think they're in terrible shape, frankly. They're - the military campaign I think's been enormously successful. We've seen them lose control over the vast part of Afghanistan. They controlled about 90 percent of it a couple of months ago. And today they've been driven out of most of the major cities. The opposition - Northern Alliance - has taken over most of those cities.
In some cases, it looks as though in the southern part of Afghanistan there've been local uprisings of Pashtun opposition new to the Taliban as well. And - a great sense of relief, I think, for the part - on the part of many people in Afghanistan that the Taliban are no longer in a position of- - of control and authority.
Their military capability also has been enormously affected. The air campaign that General Franks ran against the Taliban, I think was devastating. The precision munitions - being called in on targets, the fact that we put Special Forces on the ground, our people who could in effect lase targets, designate targets and call in air support - I think just had a devastating impact on their forces. They had no idea what was gonna happen to them.
And once that happened, of course, and the Northern Alliance then began to move, the Taliban really has collapsed. Now, that doesn't mean that they don't still have some capability left. They can retreat to the mountains, they can operate as guerrillas. There're still - questions in the area of Kandahar and-- which had been the old heartland of Taliban operation. But they're a far less formidable force today than they were.
Gloria Borger: So if you had to say they were retreating or regrouping, which would it be?
Vice President Cheney: I think they're still in headlong retreat. There's been a call now by Mullah Omar to regroup, to fight.
But there also are indications that some of the Taliban are very unhappy with Mullah Omar. He's the guy who invited in Osama bin Laden; he's the guy who refused to turn him over to us when we asked him to, back in September. And he of course bears the blame and the responsibility for what's happened.
Another key point to make here, I think, Gloria, is that this shows what the president meant when he - we - talked about what's come to be known as the Bush doctrine. The fact that if you harbor terrorists, if you provide sanctuary for a terrorist organization - you will pay the price. You'll face the full wrath of the United States of America, you'll bear responsibility just as the terrorists do for whatever acts they commit against Americans.
And that lesson, I think, has been driven home very effectively. Anybody out there tonight, any government who might have had - aspirations to harbor terrorists - has to look at what happened to the Taliban and probably will reconsider their position.
Gloria Borger: Are you referring to any particular government?
Vice President Cheney: Nope, I'm just referring generically to anybody who'd be foolish enough to think that it's wise for them to provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist organization that might have designs against Americans and against our country.
Gloria Borger: Events that it seems unfolded an awful lot more quickly than many people expected in Afghanistan. And we've just a day or so ago seen photographs of summary executions by the Northern Alliance. Are you worried that this could get a bit out of control?
Vice President Cheney: The history of conflict, especially in this part of the world, is that there have been some times in the past- in the aftermath of conflict - very harsh treatment, executions of prisoners. It happened when the Taliban took Mazar-e Sharif some years ago. And there are a lot of old scores to be settled - after 20 years of, more than 20 years of warfare in Afghanistan.
We've done everything we can to discourage it. We've talked to the commanders and emphasized to them how important it is that they retain control of their forces. I think so far, for the most part, they have. That doesn't mean there aren't isolated instances where in fact, prisoners have been executed. There's not much we can do about that.
These are not American forces, you can't call 'em up and say, "Take that hill," or "Don't go into that particular city" because, as I say, they're not our forces. They're allies for now, we've got common interest in defeating the Taliban. And we've provided the kind of air support and logistic support and intelligence and so forth that was needed for them to be successful in their campaign against the Taliban. And we are trying hard to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.
But no one should be surprised if, in fact, there are some very painful consequences in the aftermath of capturing some of these cities. We'll do everything we can to discourage it. I thought Secretary Rumsfeld put it rather well the other day when he said, "Look. There's a long history of conflicts and changes of government in Afghanistan. When all is said and done and the dust settles, this one will probably have occurred with less loss of life than in any prior conflict."
Gloria Borger: Can the Northern Alliance finish this war, or will America have to put a substantial number of troops on the ground to do it?
Vice President Cheney: I think you've got to remember what our objectives are in Afghanistan. We got involved in this exercise because they were providing sanctuary for Osama bin Laden. Our target has been bin Laden, been the Al Qaeda network that he organizes. When the Taliban refused to produce him, then they became a target as well.
So, in the final analysis, what we want to have happen here is to have an end to the conflict, an end to the years of civil war that have raged in the country. We'd like to see a government formed that is broadly representative of the country at large. We're prepared to work, to do everything we can to support that kind of enterprise. We'll work with the international community, the United Nations and others to try to put that kind of government in place.
Gloria Borger: But what about ground troops? What will that take?
Vice President Cheney: I don't want to make a forecast one way or the other as to what the United States will or won't do with respect to future military operations. It's not helpful to signal in advance what your plans might be or will or won't be with respect to our adversaries.
So far, I think this has been marked by a very successful use by General Franks, he's done a tremendous job as our sync (SIC), and by the our intelligence community, CIA. With teams working together, a relative handful of Americans on the ground supporting the effort. But getting maximum utilization out of our Air Force capabilities especially, naval capabilities, naval air.
And that's had a tremendous effect when married up with the Northern Alliance. We have not had to put a large U.S. force on the ground in Afghanistan to achieve these results. We are prepared to do whatever's necessary in order to achieve the objectives we laid out. There are people on the ground in Afghanistan today, some of them operative on a covert basis. And we'll continue to use any means we deem necessary in order to achieve those objectives.
Gloria Borger: You get daily intelligence briefings on this war. Can you (talk about) Osama bin Laden's state of mind right now?
Vice President Cheney: (SIGH) Difficult. I can speculate, but it's rank speculation. And sometimes you--
Gloria Borger: Go right ahead.
Vice President Cheney: Yeah. The reports you get from the intel community, they'll take bits and pieces and, given expertise and an expert analysis, try to develop a profile that's helpful. Obviously if you were Osama bin Laden today or Mullah Omar, leader of Taliban, leader of Al Qaeda, I think you'd have to be very, very nervous.
You've in effect seen your organizations pounded from a military standpoint. You've seen significant casualties inflicted. You've seen that area that you thought was a sanctuary inside Afghanistan, where you could hide and launch terror attacks outside the country, disappear as the Northern Alliance has moved in and the Taliban has lost control of the countryside, as people have risen up to overthrow the Taliban.
Part of the problem here, too, if you're Osama bin Laden, I think, is that he's operating now as a foreigner in Afghanistan. Remember this is one of the world's great terrorists, he killed thousands of Americans. And hundreds of Muslims at the same time when he took out the World Trade Center. But he also is the guy who blew up two of our embassies in east Africa a few years ago and killed hundreds of other totally innocent people that weren't even Americans. And he's perverted Islam to try to justify killing folks.
And now I think what we've seeing in Afghanistan is, as people welcome, if you will, the end of Taliban rule, there's a lot of animosity on their part for Osama bin Laden as well, too, that he represents this foreign element that was invited into the country by the Taliban as a terrorist activity, and he brought in a large Arab contingent with him. And that they are probably no longer welcome just about any place in Afghanistan.
Gloria Borger: Given the massive number of defections we're hearing about, is your intelligence getting any better about where Osama bin Laden is?
Vice President Cheney: We get a lot of reports. I wouldn't at this point want to get too precise, obviously. I can't, I shouldn't. But it's a fluid situation. The circumstances on the ground have changed dramatically just in a matter of days. And areas that were probably safe for him 48 or 72 hours ago are no longer safe for him. And as that happens, as the president said when we started this, we'll keep after him until we smoke him out and run him to ground.
Gloria Borger: Is he on the run?
Vice President Cheney: I think he is. I think he's probably still in Afghanistan, but I think he's having to move pretty dramatically from place to place to try to stay ahead of the advancing forces of the opposition.
Gloria Borger: Do you?
Vice President Cheney: I have no way to know whether or not he did. It's an interesting question. It's one that we're interested in pursuing and exploring. There are tidbits of information that come up from time to time that suggest the involvement of various organizations of people out there, but at this stage I cannot say with certainty that he was or wasn't.
Gloria Borger: Well, you know that Muhammad Atta the ringleader of the hijackers actually met with Iraqi intelligence.
Vice President Cheney: I know this. In Prague in April of this year as well as earlier. And that information has been made public. The Czechs made that public. Obviously that's an interesting piece of information.
Gloria Borger: Sounds like you have your suspicions?
Vice President Cheney: I can't operate on suspicions. The President and the rest of us who are involved in this effort have to make what we think are the right decisions for the United States and the national security arena and that's what we're doing. And it doesn't do a lot of good for us to speculate. We'd rather operate based on facts and make announcements when we've got announcements to make.
Gloria Borger: Mr. Vice President, during this crisis, you have been constantly sent to what we now know as the undisclosed location or locations for security reasons. Can you tell us why they keep doing this?
Vice President Cheney: We've done it because we feel it's important, especially when the threat level goes up to keep the President or myself separated. Not physically occupy the same space at the same time. In-years past when we're doing presidential security, we've been concerned primarily with the act of an individual. Some nut with a gun who would take out try to take out or assassinate the president of the United States. That's happened all too often in our history. But that's a different scale of threat than a situation in which you've got people able to organization a conspiracy, 19 hijackers to commit suicide on airplanes on Sept. 11.
Able to come into the country and perhaps smuggle weapons of mass destruction in with them. And threaten, in effect, not just one individual, but threatened the government. And conceivably be able to try to decapitate the federal government. That is to say, to take out the entire leadership of our government.
Gloria Borger: So it's--
Vice President Cheney: The one way to thwart that is to make sure we don't have the entire leadership in one place at one time. So when the president now goes up to address the joint session of Congress, I don't go. The president's there, Denny Hastert, the speaker, who's number three, is there. The speaker pro tem, Sen. Byrd is there, he's number four. Most of the cabinet. But it's important to us from the standpoint to conserving the government, the United States, in a crisis, that we always preserve, if you will, the presidential line of succession.
That we have somebody, usually myself. If it's not me it's somebody else, the senior cabinet member, in a position that they could take over should, in fact, an attack be launched that crippled the leadership of the federal government.
Gloria Borger: So what do they do when they take you away? Can you describe it to us?
Vice President Cheney: Obviously some of how we operate is classified and needs to be classified. You don't want to tell your adversary details that would help them overcome the process that's been put in place. But what you want to have is a government that can take over immediately and be up and running in short order. This is not a new problem for us in the sense that we used to deal with it during the Cold War, when we were faced with the possibility of all-out global nuclear war with the Soviet Union. There was a lot of work done by many of us, myself included, over the years in thinking about how to deal with that.
Gloria Borger: So what do they do to you? You're sitting at your desk and working, suddenly...
Vice President Cheney: ...I go to a secure location.
Gloria Borger: Do they come in and get you? I mean how do they...
Vice President Cheney: Now it goes in as part of the schedule. It's planned in advance. I know when the president's goomg to be in the White House. Then generally I'll be someplace else. I have a small staff with me, core staff of my own people with me.
Gloria Borger: Where do you go?
Vice President Cheney: We go to physically secure locations, places where they have good communications. I am in touch with him frequently. Today, for example, he's in Crawford, Texas. I'm here in the White House.
But we had an NFC meeting together that tied together the president in Crawford, myself here in the sitting room. Rice was with the president, Colin Powell was over at the State Department. Paul Wolfowitz filling in for Rumsfeld at Defense. CIA was represented. We're all tied together by very good communications.
So the government continues to function. We have our regular meetings, we have the regular intel briefings and so forth.
Gloria Borger: But are...
Vice President Cheney: But we do it in a way so that we've preserved a core element that could, in fact, take over and operate the federal government should something happen to the President and if the advisors should...
Gloria Borger: Doesn't this kind of conflict with the idea that you're telling everybody to go on with their normal lives, yet you keep being spirited away to a bunker?
Vice President Cheney: Well I don't see it that way. I've talked about that this is a new normalcy. People ask about when are we going to get back to the old days. And my answer is, probably not. Probably won't get all the way back to our old life, if you will. We're always going to have a much greater heightened sense of security with respect to airline travel than ever before.
We do have to spend more time dealing with the problem of how do we respond to a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction? We're going to have to accept probably greater, more stringent requirements with respect to how we handle people coming to visit the United States, people coming in on visas and so forth. And we're going to have to recognize that we do need to have a government that is secure enough so that an attack of the kind that we experienced on Sept. 11 cannot, in effect, decapitate the federal government by taking out the president and the vice president at the same time.
So we have to make adjustments. And those adjustments are easy to make and I don't think it conflicts with the fact that the American people do need to get on with their lives. But it'd be foolish for us not to take into the account that the threat's changed.
Gloria Borger: The American people are on a terror alert. You're at an undisclosed location. Then the other week we learned that you went on a hunting trip. So did the Secret Service give you the all clear and say it's fine to do that? Did you really go hunting?
Vice President Cheney: I did go hunting, as a matter of fact. I'm an avid sportsman, I love to hunt and fish. And I had a longstanding commitment with a group of friends of mine. We've gone to several years up to a certain ....
Gloria Borger: So you felt safe enough?
Vice President Cheney: Well, the key thing here was I was away from the president. I wasn't in the same location he was. We could not have both been eliminated at the same time by a terrorist attack. So I'll be out on the road sometimes doing public things. I did the dinner in New York here a few weeks ago. I'll travel. And when he was in Asia, I was here in the White House.
It's not that I'm always underground, which is sort of the myth that's gotten created out there. But the point is that we're cautious about not being in the same space at the same time. Now if I wanted to go spend the weekend with a few friends on a pheasant hunt, it seems to me that's perfectly appropriate. And it's good for my psyche to get out and relax that way. I enjoy doing it very much. At the same time, I spent two hours every morning before I went out hunting in a secure video conference with the president and national security council dealing with the issues of Afghanistan and homeland security, etcetera.
Gloria Borger: Has the likelihood of a new terror attack in this country increased or decreased, would you say, in the last couple of weeks?
Vice President Cheney: The threat level has clearly gone up in recent weeks because of reporting we've received that led us to believe that in fact there was the likelihood of an additional attack. You never can be certain. If nothing then happens after the threat level's gone up, it may be that your original reporting was inaccurate. It may also be that as you raise the threat level and everybody went up on sort of all-alert kind of status that we discouraged the attack or that we did something to disrupt it or to throw off the timing and they had to back off and regroup. That happens sometimes, too. But there's no question that the threat level is still pretty significant, especially if we come to the end of the road here for bin Laden and Afghanistan and we're successful in wrapping him up.
That, in and of itself, could be a signal that would trigger some kind of a revenge attack, if you will, by people loyal to bin Laden. So it doesn't end, necessarily with him. In the end, we can't wrap it up unless we do get him. The best defense against a terrorist attack is to go destroy the terrorist. And then we're doing that.
But there's still going to be some period of time here, even after we complete operations in Afghanistan. And the terrorist threat is worldwide. He's got cells all over the world. And even if we sort of chop off the head, if you will, we may still find that the al Qaeda organization is there. It's in place. Somebody else rises to lead it and that we continue to have to deal with that threat.
Gloria Borger: So a couple of things, you're saying that if we kill Osama bin Laden, we have to expect retaliation?
Vice President Cheney: It could happen. I don't know. I can't predict. But that's certainly a possibility.
Gloria Borger: And you also said a few weeks ago that there could be these bin Laden cells you just talked about operating in the United States. Do you still believe there are?
Vice President Cheney: We're doing everything we can to wrap them up. And I think we've made major progress against them. That doesn't mean that there aren't people here that we don't know about, that we haven't identified. That they've come into the country under our very sort of open immigration procedures. And that they're hidden away here, waiting for some future point at which they'll launch an attack.
Some of the people who were involved in Sept. 11 attack were here for months or even years before they actually launched the attack on us. We have to assume there are others like that out there until we can actually complete our investigations and do everything we can to capture them.
Gloria Borger: Have you been tested for anthrax?
Vice President Cheney: We never talk about the measures we take with respect to security around the president and myself and those kinds of items. We don't want to tell the competition, the opposition out there, what steps we have or haven't taken.
Gloria Borger: So, you won't say whether you've been vaccinated for small pox or anything?
Vice President Cheney: We never talk about those steps.
Gloria Borger: OK. When you were first spirited away to an undisclosed location, there were all kinds of rumorsm I'm sure you're aware, that were floating around Washington. Like, you know, you've had heart problems and there must be something wrong with Dick Cheney. How's your health?
Vice President Cheney: My health's been fine.
Gloria Borger: Nothing's been affected by this?
Vice President Cheney: No, nothing's been affected by it. I stay close accompanied by doctors all the time. I would be anyway, even if I didn't have a history of heart problems. But my docs keep regular track of me. They've been in recently and downloaded my pacemaker. They have this pacemaker they installed last summer. And they can come in and, in effect, put what looks like a computer map on it. And download onto a laptop the history of everything that's been going on.
Gloria Borger: How's the history? What's been going on?
Vice President Cheney: It's never gone off. So.
Gloria Borger: So, what do you say to Americans who worry about the impact that this kind of a crisis could have on their vice president, given your heart disease?
Vice President Cheney: Well, so far, it's been a set of problems that we have to deal with. But it goes with the turf. And back on my health. I appreciate their thoughts on this. I've run into a lot of people who ask me to see how I'm doing and say they offer prayers for my good health. And I appreciate that.
Gloria Borger: There is a new sense of vulnerability in this country, I think. A real jittery feeling on the part of many Americans. Is America ever going to be the same?
Vice President Cheney: Well, I suppose the same in terms of what dimension? I think we're going to have to make some adjustments. We are making those adjustments already. We've got a brand new office the president has created in the White House called the Office of Homeland Security with Gov. Ridge running it.
We have redirection, if you will, of the FBI more towards the prevention of terrorist acts, rather than just the prosecution of traditional law enforcement kinds of criminals. A lot of things are changing. We're going to be more sensitive, I think, with respect to what goes on around us. The American people have to be.
That's OK. There's nothing wrong with that. It would be nice if it weren't necessary. It would be nice if we lived in a totally peaceful world where nobody had bad intentions with respect to their desire to kill Americans. But that's not the kind of world we live in.
But are we up to the task? Certainly. I don't think there's any question but that the American people and our government are perfectly capable of dealing with this new set of threats and making whatever adjustments are required. And then, getting on with our lives.
Gloria Borger: Mr. Vice President, the president has approved special military tribunals for foreigners accused of terrorism.
Vice President Cheney: Yes.
Gloria Borger: Are we now going to have secret trials?
Vice President Cheney: The question of tribunals, the precedent for it is there. It was used by FBI in World War II with respect to German saboteurs who were sent into the United States to commit acts of sabotage. We set up a military tribunal. These individuals were tried, found guilty and executed.
The same kind of arrangement was used for Abraham Lincoln's assassins during the Civil War. So, it's been done before. The Supreme Court has upheld the president's ability to establish this kind of process. And that's what we've done.
These people are not American citizens. They come into the United States or they conspire to support attacks designed to kill thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Americans, innocent people - men, women and children. They should not be entitled to the same kind of treatment that an American citizen would, going through the normal law enforcement process.
They will get a fair trial. But when the President designates certain individuals who we believe are members of Al Qaeda or another kind of terrorist network who have committed terrorist acts against the United States or who have provided sanctuary for terrorists, he'll have the authority under this procedure to designate those individuals to be tried, prosecuted if you will, through this military tribunal system. And that's as it should be. It's the right thing to do.
Gloria Borger: Very quickly, should the Taliban be part of any post-war coalition in Afghanistan?
Vice President Cheney: I don't think so. I don't think there's that kind of support for them in Afghanistan. I think clearly the folks from that ethnic background need to be represented in post-war government. But for the Taliban per se, I don't think the people of Afghanistan want them in that kind of role.
Gloria Borger: One last question. How did this crisis change you?
Vice President Cheney: Well, I can't say my hair's any grayer. It was already pretty gray when it started. It makes you think about the United States. How we live our lives, your family. When we see, I think, all Americans experience the sort of impact, if you will, of seeing thousands of people in New York City and hundreds here at the Pentagon in Washington killed on Sept. 11. That's something we've never really experienced before. At least our generation hasn't. Maybe somebody who was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, had that kind of experience.
But it was pretty dramatic for all Americans. And I think it forced a lot of us, all of us really, to think anew about how we operate. Certainly about how we function in the government. What our priorities ought to be. It's been, on the one hand, I'm sure, a traumatic experience for a great many people. On the other hand, too, I've been tremendously impressed with how the country has responded and how the American people have come together.
Gloria Borger: What about you, though?
Vice President Cheney: Well, I've got a job to do. And I enjoy very much doing this particular job. I'm enormously privileged to be sitting here as vice president of this administration. Taking on these kinds of assignments, I can't think of more important work that I could be doing with my life at this stage of my career. So, I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad I can help.
Gloria Borger: Thank you very much.
Vice President Cheney: Thank you.
Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President on 60 Minutes II Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/286057