Richard B. Cheney photo

Interview of the Vice President by Bob Schieffer, Face the Nation

January 04, 2009

10:31 A.M. EST

Q: And good morning again. The Vice President joins us in the studio live this morning. Mr. Vice President, thank you for coming. You and I have been talking to each other for a long time now. I think the first time I interviewed you, you were 32 years old -- I was old myself, even in those days -- and you were the Chief of Staff to Vice President Ford. And we've had many interviews over the years since then. So welcome to Face the Nation.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's good to be back.

Q: Let's start with the news, the Middle East. Israel is now invaded into Gaza. Did they inform the United States that they were preparing to do this, Mr. Vice President?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: They didn't seek clearance or approval from us, certainly. They have said now for a period of months, they told me on my last trip over there, that they didn't want to have to act where Gaza was concerned -- they had gotten out of there three years ago -- but if their rocketing didn't stop, they felt they had no choice but to take action. And if they did, they would be very aggressive in terms of trying to take down Hamas. And that's exactly what's happened.

But I think they made the decision, I'm guessing now, after the -- Hamas in effect said the cease-fire was dead on December 19th, and resumed rocketing. And I think under those circumstances, that's basically the way the decision --

Q: Well, do you think it was a mistake for them to go in on the ground now with this invasion? They had unleashed this bombing attack, killed 400 and some odd people that we know of. Do you think it was a mistake to go in there? Does this perhaps increase the chances of widening this?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, it's remember -- it's important to remember who the enemy is here. The enemy is not the Palestinians, from the perspective of the Israelis, it's Hamas. You haven't had a conflict between two U.N. charter-member states, you've got a U.N.-member state being attacked by a terrorist organization. And to go after that terrorist organization I think they probably decided that an air campaign wasn't enough, that they had to go in on the ground if they were going to take down the sites from which the rockets have been launched against Israel.

Again now, I'm speculating based on -- it may be informed speculation, but they haven't told me exactly what they plan to do or when they plan to do it.

Q: Well, do you think now they should work for a cease-fire? What is the United States' position here? Are we urging them to seek a cease-fire now and stop this? What --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: We've been very concerned, especially about the Palestinian people, that they are the victims, in a sense, of Hamas as well. But we think if there is to be a cease-fire you can't simply go back to the status quo ante, what it was a few weeks ago, where you had a cease-fire recognized by one side, but not adhered to by the other. It's got to be a sustainable, durable proposition, and Hamas has to stop rocketing Israel. And I don't think you're going to have a viable cease-fire until they're prepared to do that.

Q: So at this point, at this point, you're not urging a cease-fire.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, no, I think we'd like to see a cease-fire, but it has to meet those conditions. It's got to be sustainable and durable; it can't just be a resumption of what was there that was violated on the 19th of December by Hamas.

Q: All right, well let's talk -- and maybe we'll come back to this, but let's talk a little bit about the last eight years. You came here, you and President Bush were elected in 2000, so I guess I'd ask you the question that Ronald Reagan used to ask: Are we better off now than we were eight years ago?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we've got -- I think we've done some very good things over the course of the last eight years -- defending the country against further terrorist attacks like 9/11 I think is a major accomplishment, for example. I think we made progress on education with No Child Left Behind, and prescription drug benefits for seniors, and so forth. I can point to the tax policy, a series of policies and actions that were put in place that were significant progress.

That there's no question what the new administration, President Obama, are going to have their hands full with a new set of problems, if you will, centered especially on the economy, on the difficulties that have developed in the financial markets over the last six months. Just as our task when we came in was ultimately to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, I think they have to take on the global war on terror. So each administration has its challenges, and the Obama administration certainly has theirs.

Q: The situation in Iraq, what do you see there now? What do you think the state of Iraq is right now?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think Iraq is much better off than it was before we went in in '03 and got rid of Saddam Hussein. I think we are close to achieving most of our objectives. We've seen a significant reduction in the overall level of violence. It's lower now than virtually any time since we've been there in the spring of '03. We've seen the elimination of one of the world's worst regimes. We've seen the Iraqis write a constitution and hold three national elections. We've now entered into a strategic framework agreement with the Iraqis that calls for ultimately the U.S. completion of the assignment and withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. All of those things I think by anybody's standard would be evidence of significant success. And I think we're very close to achieving what it is we set out to do five years ago when we first went into Iraq.

Q: Did you -- I want to ask you this because I have gotten various accounts about this. When we -- back there when we decided to go into Iraq, we told Saddam Hussein to leave or else, to either leave, or we were coming in there to take him out. Did you really think that he would stand and fight?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: We didn't know. Now you look back on it, he clearly was into self-deception in a major way. I think he totally underestimated George Bush and what we were prepared to do. He tried to sort of bluff his way through, I guess would be the best way to describe it, and we called his bluff. He'd been in the business -- this is a guy who started two wars, who'd killed hundreds of thousands of people, including many of his own, with weapons of mass destruction. It was one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century. And he thought he could get away with continuing that, and I think he assumed the U.S. would never go in. And he was wrong.

Q: Do you think, on reflection, that in fact we did have a bad plan? I mean, when you stop back, people in the military were saying it would take a much larger force than we decided to go in with, and in fact, we had a force that was mobile, it was quick, we were able to get to Baghdad. But once we got there, the Iraqis just sort of faded into the civilian population; we didn't really have enough people to guard those ammo dumps that Saddam Hussein abandoned. Wouldn't it have been better, on reflection, to have had a better and a larger force?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we could debate that forever, and we may well. I think that the original campaign was masterfully done, in terms of the small, fast-moving forces you say that achieved our initial objectives of taking down the regime and capturing Baghdad. That was a masterful performance.

I think the thing that we underestimated, at least I underestimated, was the damage that had been done to the Iraqi population by all those years of Saddam's rule, so that there weren't any Iraqis early on who were willing to stand up and take responsibility for their own affairs. Anybody who had that kind of get up and go in earlier years had had their head chopped off. And I think we underestimated the damage that had been done during those years of Saddam's rule, as well as what happened in '91, when they -- remember, when they rose up after the Gulf War, and Saddam very brutally and very aggressively put down those uprisings around the country.

So I would chock that up to miscalculation. I'm not at all sure that having had 400,000 or 500,000 troops there would have achieved the objective we're talking about there. What we finally did, what finally sort of got us across the goal line here, was the surge the President decided upon, coupled with the counterinsurgency strategy.

Q: But isn't that -- I mean, isn't that just -- underline that the original strategy was wrong? I mean, once you got enough troops in there to handle the situation, things calmed down.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, but the number of troops we put in weren't that much more than we'd had there before. We added five brigades, this is what, maybe 30,000 men. And it was up close to where we'd been at the time of the elections when we had forces there to monitor the elections and provide security for the Iraqis to hold elections. We never went over 200,000 troops; we were always significantly below that and we still succeeded.

Q: Well, how do you think we got it so wrong? I mean, we thought he had weapons of mass destruction, and he didn't; we thought we'd be greeted with open arms, and we weren't. What happened?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't really look at it as we got it so wrong, Bob. I think we have in fact --

Q: We got a big part of it wrong.


Q: There weren't any weapons of mass destruction.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Correct, the original intelligence was wrong, no question about it. But there were parts of it that were right. It wasn't 100 percent wrong. It was correct in saying he had the technology; it was correct in saying he still had the people who knew how to build weapons of mass destruction. I think it was also correct in the assessment that once sanctions came off, he'd go back to doing what he'd been doing before. Where it was wrong was it said he had stockpiles and he clearly didn't. So the intelligence was flawed.

But you never have perfect intelligence in this business; you've got to deal with the best you can in terms of making your decisions. The question of how we moved forward, you can debate about whether or not we had the right structure in place, for example, was -- would we have been better off with setting up a government in exile, with exiled Iraqis and getting that organized and in place before we went in, and then turning it over to them. We made the judgment that if we were going to take down the government, we had an obligation to try to restore the best kind of system we could, and that was to give them a shot at --

Q: Did you think that perhaps you looked at the intelligence and saw what you wanted to see, rather than make a real logical analysis of what you saw?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I don't, Bob. I think if you go back and you look at what we were receiving as intelligence from the intelligence community, going back to the very day we were sworn in -- I have seen a report, for example, it was one of the very first we received, and warned about Iraqis' weapons of mass destruction program. As a matter of fact, it was written by a guy who has been one of the public critics on what we did. And he was responsible for the first report. We had reporting like that all the time. We were there right up until we went into Iraq.

So the -- it wasn't a matter just of us looking and seeing what we wanted to see, everybody believed that intelligence. Saddam Hussein had titled the notion that his senior officers and officials, they all believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence services of other countries, the Clinton administration that had been there for eight years before we had, had exactly the same conclusion that we had. And we had numerous reports afterwards with all the studies that were done, the Robb-Silberman Commission, the Senate Intelligence Committee, that said that there was no manipulation of the data, no pressure brought to bear on the analyst. This is what they saw. And they got part of it wrong.

Q: All right. Well, let's take a break here, and we'll come back to talk about this and other things some more in just a second.



Q: And we're back again with the Vice President. Mr. Vice President, in an interview last month with Chris Wallace over at FOX, you said that starting in 2001, the administration, and in many cases you personally, kept congressional leaders fully briefed on the program to monitor America's international phone calls without a warrant. You said that the Republican and Democratic leaders were unanimous when you briefed them that the programs were essential and did not require further congressional action. But the New York Times has noted that Senator Rockefeller wrote you a letter in 2003 of -- reiterating concerns that he said he had expressed at those meetings that the programs raised profound issues and created concern regarding the direction the administration was taking.

So were congressional leaders kept fully informed, or were they not?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: They were kept fully informed.

Q: Well, why would he have written that letter?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I have no idea. I know when -- what happened was the -- everybody who was in the room that day, for example, when I had the leadership down, chairman and ranking members of the intelligence committees including Senator Rockefeller, and asked them if we thought they should continue -- if they thought we should continue the program. They said, yes. Do we need to count on Congress to get authorization for it? They said, no. And he was there. He never objected or opposed that in any way.

Later on when this became public, when the New York Times broke the story -- which frankly I think was an outrageous decision on their part, they were asked by the President of the United States not to on the grounds it would damage national security -- then Senator Rockefeller decided he wanted to hark back to this letter. But the fact was he couldn't even find it. He had to call my office for a copy of the letter that he allegedly had written some years before raising some questions that he had about the program. But --

Q: Well, I mean --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I always -- I always felt it was a bit of a CYA letter. And in those crucial meetings when we sat down to debate the program and tell them about it, in fact everybody in the room signed up to it, nobody objected.

Q: Do you feel you went too far, Mr. Vice President, in your surveillance?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Absolutely not. I think what we did was one of the greatest success stories of the intelligence business in the last century. I think what the National Security Agency did under General Mike Hayden, working with the CIA at the direction of the President, was masterfully done. I think it provided crucial intelligence for us. It's one of the main reasons we've been successful in defending the country against further attacks. And I don't believe we've violated anybody's civil liberties. This was all done in accordance with the President's constitutional authority under Article II of the Constitution, as Commander-In-Chief. The resolution was passed by the Congress immediately after 9/11, and subsequently we have gotten legislative authority signed up to last year when we passed a modified FISA statute.

Q: Do you believe that the President in time of war, that anything he does is legal?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I can't say that anything he does is legal. I think we do, and we have, historic precedent for taking action that you wouldn't take in peace time, but that you will take sometimes in wartime in order to do the basic job that you signed up to when you take the oath of Office, to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

If you hark back in our history, you could look at Abraham Lincoln, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the middle of a civil war.

Q: But nobody thinks that that was legal.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, no. Well, it certainly was in the sense he wasn't impeached. And it was a wartime measure that he took, and I think -- (inaudible) -- was probably a good thing to do. There have been other examples, Lyndon -- or FDR in World War II when he provided for internment camps for Japanese-American citizens. Most people now look back and say that was wrong. But what we did was modest by those comparisons.

And I would also emphasize that what we did, we did with the support and involvement, for example, of the Justice Department. Every single time the President reauthorized the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which he did every 30 to 45 days, it was only after the --

Q: But is it not true that the courts and others have now said that some of those orders that the Justice Department was putting out proved to be --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That was -- that was -- those were the rules that we had to operate by. And the Attorney General of the United States signed off on every single one of those exceptions. The President would not extend the program without the Attorney General's authorization and approval on that.

In terms of all of our actions, we worked to stay close to the Office of Legal Counsel. We followed the guidance we got, which is what you're supposed to do, when you're supposed to do it.

There's subsequently been some controversies that -- and the Supreme Court has made some decisions that didn't agree with what we did at the time, but what we did was authorized by the legal authorities that were to be the source of that kind of advice.

Q: Let me talk to you a little bit about torture. You have said that you do not believe that waterboarding, for example, was torture. You and members of the Cabinet sat in the White House and approved the methods of interrogation that were used by the CIA. Why would something like that reach your level, Mr. Vice President?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, because the CIA did not want to proceed without having a very clear understanding of what was authorized and what was appropriate, and they've seen situations -- I've seen situations before -- where the CIA would get out and undertake an assignment or a mission and would find that the politicians would all run for the hills: Iran-Contra. In fact, what we had here was a situation where the CIA was being very careful and very cautious. They had prisoners like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind of 9/11, in custody. They wanted to know what kind of techniques they could use going forward and still maintain consistency with the statutes and the international agreements that we're party to.

Q: Would you do it again if you had to make those same decisions again? Because a lot of people now say that some of the things that happened here may be the reason that some of our casualties happened, because people saw the publicity of these things, the kinds of things that happened at Abu Ghraib --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I would absolutely do it again, Bob. I think the loss of life if there had been further mass casualty attacks against the United States over the last seven and a half years fully justifies them. Think of what would have happened if there had been an attack and we hadn't taken any of these measures. Then you'd be sitting here today, grilling me, saying why didn't you guys do everything you could to stop it? Why didn't you find out what the enemy was planning to do? Why didn't you interfere with the attacks?

Q: So you would suggest that Barack Obama continue those things?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I would. If he were to seek my advice -- he hasn't, but if he were to seek my advice, I'd say, look, before you go out and start to make policy based on the campaign rhetoric we heard last year, what you need to do is to sit down and find out what we've done, find out how we did it, what the justification was for it, what kind of results were produced, and then make an informed judgment about whether or not you want to keep these things. But I would hope he would avoid doing what others have done in the past, which is letting the campaign rhetoric guide his judgment on this absolutely crucial area.

We were very careful, we did everything by the book, and in fact, we produced very significant results. And I would hope that for the sake of the nation, that this administration and future administrations will continue those policies.

Q: Guantanamo. You've said it should remain open. But for how long, Mr. Vice President?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Guantanamo is there to hold people we believe are unlawful combatants which were captured in the war on terror, namely members of al Qaeda. They're well treated; their cases are reviewed annually by military commissions to see whether or not they should stay or go. We've released more than we've held. There have been hundreds who have been sent back to their home country. But the problem you've got is what do you do with the prisoners that are there?

Now, if you bring them onshore into the United States, they immediately fall heir to certain legal rights and privileges that will create problems. And also I don't know many congressional districts that are eager to have 200 al Qaeda terrorists deposited on their soil.

Q: About 30 seconds left. What's next, Mr. Vice President? You're leaving government, for what, about the fifth time over the last 40 years. What now?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know yet. I'm looking forward to spending time with the family, obviously. We've got six grandchildren now and I always enjoy that. We'll split our time between Washington and Wyoming. Maybe I'll write a book. I haven't made any final, firm commitments yet.

Q: All right. Thank you so much, and I hope we'll have you back again.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'd like to come back, Bob.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.

END 10:54 A.M. EST

Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Bob Schieffer, Face the Nation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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