Interview of the Vice President by Jon Ward and John Solomon of The Washington Times
Vice President's West Wing Office
3:20 P.M. EST
December 17, 2008
Q: Sir, let me ask one first, literally talking about your own public service, seven presidencies. You left one presidency before where the President afterwards, Gerald Ford, became much more popular than he was when he left office. And I'm kind of curious, as you look at this presidency ending now and where you are in popularity, what you think will happen -- how history might look back at this presidency and President Bush compared to where he is now?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there is a parallel in a sense with my experience during the Ford years in that President Ford made a decision that was extraordinarily unpopular at the time when he pardoned former President Nixon. He suffered from it, and he dropped to about 30 points in the polls in one week, as I recall. By the time of his passing a couple of years ago, opinion had totally turned on that. In fact most people by then, even many who had been very critical 30 years before, were in agreement that, in fact, it was a good decision; it was the right thing to do from the standpoint of the country.
I don't want to compare the pardon to what we've been doing. It's just the fact of Presidents making tough decisions and how they are perceived contemporaneously versus what they look like 20 or 30 years down the road. And I myself am personally persuaded that this President and this administration will look very good 20 or 30 years down the road, in light of what we've been able to accomplish with respect to the global war on terror, keeping the nation safe for the last seven and a half years against further attacks by al Qaeda, administering, I think, a very significant defeat to al Qaeda over the course of the last few years, of liberating 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just -- I think the set of accomplishments there -- establishing democracies in both places with constitutions and free elections -- those are major, major kinds of changes in the course of history that I think this President deserves credit for. And I think they'll be recognized as such in the future.
Q: You've been described and attributed to be one of the most powerful and influential Vice Presidents in history. How would you describe your influence, your power, and your contribution to this administration?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: In terms of whether or not I'm the most powerful and influential, I'll let somebody else make those judgments. I think -- I do believe that the vice presidency has been a consequential office, if I can put in those terms, in this administration. But that's, first and foremost, because that's what the President wanted. He's the one who asked me to take the job. He's also the one who decided during the course of his search process eight years ago that he wanted somebody who could be another member of the team, who had a certain set of experiences and so forth, and could be an active participant in the process.
I know the job of vice president has been terribly frustrating for a lot of people. Jerry Ford once told me it was the -- the worst nine months of his life were the years he lived, the months he spent -- it seemed like years -- but the months he spent as Vice President. I watched Nelson Rockefeller in the Ford administration -- he was never happy with the post.
And everybody is familiar with the history that it has not been a consequential office in the past. I think that began to change, I think in particular, during the Carter years. I didn't agree with much of what Jimmy Carter did, but I thought Mondale as Vice President was a good choice for him, and that the office began to have a more significant role in those days. And I think that's gradually grown over time. And I think, as I say, I do believe in this administration it's been a consequential post, because that's what the President wanted to have happen, and he's been true to his word for eight years.
Q: As a former CEO, as you look out at the auto industry, an iconic industry of America that is struggling, so difficult, if you were going to wave a magic wand, what would you recommend? What needs to be done to change that industry? And also, can you give us some sense of what the Bush administration might still be able to do? Will the loans really occur before you leave office?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I can't tell you at this stage precisely what we're going to do, because the President hasn't decided yet. We're working on it, and we had a session just yesterday on it, looking at the options and so forth.
In terms of looking at the industry generally, I think that obviously it's a very, very important part of the global economy. I believe that there are a number of companies out there, some of them operate in the United States, who are profitable, who are producing products people want to buy. And increasingly, we're seeing in places like China and India, and so forth, a steady increase in the demand for the production of automobiles.
I had a guy in here yesterday from China who was talking about the fact that they've quickly reached the point where they'll soon be producing almost 10 million cars a year. Then it won't be that far down the road when China will be producing 20 million units a year -- this contrasted with good years here, we've been doing about 16 million.
And so I think there are, apparently, just looking at it from a distance and not being a expert by any means in the automobile industry, that the American elements of General Motors, Chrysler, and I suppose to a lesser extent Ford, have encountered significant difficulties, I think for a number of reasons. But I'm told they are profitable in many places around the world, but not profitable in the United States. And then I think you've got to analyze -- if you're going to try to solve that problem, you've got to analyze why that might be, and see what changes need to be made in order for those U.S. companies to become economically viable.
And we -- the President, as he's made clear, doesn't want to see any more economic disorder added to the current problems we've got out there of both the financial crisis and being on the downside of the recession. So he's looking at all the options.
Q: Is there anything in those discussions about what's wrong with the industry that the government might try to prod along? Is there a couple of things that are on the table that the administration feels is wrong with them?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, there are a lot of suggestions that have been made. Congress had some; the House Democrats added some to their package; Bob Corker from Tennessee had some ideas that he tried to get approved on the Senate side. I think the -- I guess the way I would state it is there may well be some steps that need to be taken with respect to improving the industry, but at the same time that I look at that, I'm reluctant to see -- well, let me restate that -- I'm cautious about suggesting that government somehow has all the answers here.
In the end, it really depends upon the board of directors and the management of the company. And they're really the only ones who can guarantee long-term viability. And I'm always a little cautious when getting into the business that politicians in Washington have got all the answers as to how the automobile companies ought to function. I don't think that's always helpful.
Q: Sort of along those lines, you've been a long-time fiscal conservative. How do you feel, what do you think about the markedly larger size of the government that this administration is leaving behind -- the size of the deficit, financial commitments that the government now has to a lot of private industries?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, given your druthers, you'd rather not have a growing government in terms of spending, or in terms of authority over the economy. But there are exceptions. And the exceptions historically have been wars. We've been faced since 9/11 with a war, more than one in the sense that you count Iraq and Afghanistan separately.
Defending the nation against further attacks from al Qaeda has been a preeminent concern of ours, and we've spent a lot of money doing that: creating the Department of Homeland Security, enhancing the security of our shipping container business and the airlines, and all of the other things we've done that have made us a safer nation. And then when you talk about what we've had to do in Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of the commitment of troops, the cost of those wars, those have all added to the burden.
But I think it's better to do that than it would be to have ignored those needs and requirements, and seen us not respond the way that the President and I believed we needed to respond to those basic fundamental threats to our nation. I think what al Qaeda represents is a strategic threat of considerable significance. What happened on 9/11 was you had 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters come into the country, destroy 16 acres of downtown Manhattan, do major damage to the headquarters of our military over here at the Pentagon, and kill about 3,000 people. If they had been armed or equipped with a deadly biological agent or a nuclear weapon, we'd have a much larger problem than we did.
So I fully support the spending we did because I think it was essential. And it obviously has, as a byproduct, the fact that it increases the deficit and the overall size of government, but I think this is one of those occasions like World War II when that was appropriate.
Q: So much of the debate on the war on terror, particularly as Democrats have encapsulated in Congress, is focused on the legality of the tactics. Could you talk a little bit behind the scenes of some of the discussions that might have focused on the morality and the ethics of the tactics, and whether those things weighed into the discussions that went into --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: What kind -- which tactics?
Q: Oh, anything from rendition to waterboarding to --
Q: Sleep deprivation.
Q: -- to deprivation, tactics that were used at Gitmo. Is there any -- I'm sure -- were there discussions that also focused just on American values and whether those can be preserved in the course of trying to protect the country from terror attacks?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, let me, before I respond to that, let me state a proposition. It's very important to discriminate between different elements of -- or issues that are often at times conflated and all joined together and balled up. People take Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and interrogation of high-value detainees and sort of throw that all together and say, characterize it as torture policy.
You've got to, I think, back off and recognize that something like Abu Ghraib was not policy. It was, in fact, uncovered and then exposed by the military. There were people involved in that activity who were not conducting themselves in accordance with the standards that we would have expected, and they've paid the price for it. Guantanamo I believe has been a first-rate facility. It's one we absolutely needed and found essential. It's been primarily a military facility. If you're going to evaluate how it's functioned, the policy that we adhere to at Guantanamo basically is the U.S. Army Field Manual.
With respect to high-value detainees and enhanced interrogation techniques, totally separate proposition under the jurisdiction of the Central Intelligence Agency and applied to only a few people who were individuals like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, who we believe possessed significant intelligence about the enemy, about al Qaeda, about their future plans, about how they were organized and trained and equipped, where they operated.
And after 9/11, we badly needed to acquire good intelligence on the enemy. That's an important part of fighting a war. What we did with respect to al Qaeda high-value detainees, if I can put it in those terms, I think there were a total of about 33 who were subjected to enhanced interrogation; only three of those who were subjected to waterboarding -- Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and a third, al Nashiri. That's it, those three guys.
Was it torture? I don't believe it was torture. We spent a great deal of time and effort getting legal advice, legal opinion out of the Office of Legal Counsel, which is where you go for those kinds of opinions, from the Department of Justice as to where the red lines were out there in terms of this you can do, this you can't do. The CIA handled itself, I think, very appropriately. They came to us in the administration, talked to me, talked to others in the administration, about what they felt they needed to do in order to obtain the intelligence that we believe these people were in possession of.
I signed off on it; others did, as well, too. I wasn't the ultimate authority, obviously. As the Vice President, I don't run anything. But I was in the loop. I thought that it was absolutely the right thing to do. I thought the legal opinions that were rendered were sound. I think the techniques were reasonable in terms of what they were asking to be able to do. And I think it produced the desired result. I think it's directly responsible for the fact that we've been able to avoid or defeat further attacks against the homeland for seven and a half years.
And come to the question of morality and ethics, in my mind, the foremost obligation we had from a moral or an ethical standpoint was to the oath of office we took when we were sworn in on January 20th of 2001, to protect and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And that's what we've done. And I think it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation against further attacks like what happened on 9/11. We made the judgment, the President and I and others, that that wasn't going to happen again on our watch. And I feel very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do. If I was faced with those circumstances again, I'd do exactly the same thing.
Q: You would disagree that policy on detainee treatment was made opaque enough that these abuses at Abu Ghraib were -- obviously not directed from the top, but under pressure for more intelligence -- were allowed -- not allowed, but basically --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Abu Ghraib, like I say, I don't think had anything to do with policy, as I understand it. And the people that they were -- the people that were subjected to abusive practices there I don't think had any special intelligence understandings, or if you will, special intelligence information that we needed. I mean, this was not -- as I say, I don't think it was related to policy. I think it was, in fact, a case of individual personnel who were perhaps not properly supervised. And I think the military deserves a lot of credit for the way they handled it because they're the ones that cleaned it up.
Q: Foreign perception of the United States as we've had to fight these dual wars, can you talk -- what you think has happened? Why has America -- the perception of America changed so much in the last eight years? And what do you think will happen over the next few years?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, has the perception of America changed? I suppose it has in some quarters. I think that some of the things we had to do after 9/11 to respond to it and to protect the nation against a further attack clearly generated controversy in some quarters. But what a lot of our friends overseas never really understood, at least not initially, was that 9/11 fundamentally changed the way we looked at this question of terror attacks.
Prior out-of-date 9/11, we looked upon terrorist incidents as a law enforcement problem. You go out and find the bad guy, try him and put him in jail. That's the way we dealt with the World Trade Center bombing in '93. After 9/11, we made a decision, and I think it was exactly the right decision, that when you -- when these actions result in the deaths of 3,000 people here on the homeland, more than we'd ever before lost in this kind of incident, more than Pearl Harbor, then this was a strategic threat to the United States. And when you view it in those terms, then we believed we were fully justified, and indeed obligated, to use all the resources at our command to defeat that enemy so that they couldn't do it again.
And that means you're prepared to use military force, use your intelligence asset to go after those who support terrorism financially, to go after those states that sponsor terror and provide sanctuary or safe harbor to terror. And that's what we did.
I think some of our friends overseas didn't agree with those policies. I think over time that has -- the situation has improved. And after people saw what happened here, but then saw what happened in London when the -- I guess the subways were bombed and buses and so forth, or what happened in Madrid, the train bombings, or more recently, what's happened in Mumbai, that this kind of international terrorism is indeed a threat to those of us who lived in the developed world. And tough, aggressive policy is what's required to succeed against it, and that's what we put in place.
As I say, some of our friends weren't all that happy with it, but a lot of them were, in fact, and supported it. And even as we went into Iraq, while some of our historic friends and allies criticized that, an awful lot -- for example, the NATO states, especially the new member states, sent troops to serve alongside our guys.
So I think it's evolved over time. I think that it's less controversial now than it was, although there's still, obviously, controversy about things like Guantanamo and so forth.
Q: Do you think it's important for the country to be liked, and what effect do you think that something like Abu Ghraib had on U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East? And are you still optimistic that that can happen?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I am optimistic that it will happen. I think you're seeing it in Iraq. I mean, this is a nation that's written a new constitution, had three national elections, getting ready to have another one next year. It's a remarkable thing when you think about it, a nation like Iraq in the heart of the Middle East, governed for decades by a dictator like Saddam Hussein -- I think that's a fundamental, lasting value, and will, in fact, change that part of the world.
What was the first part of your question?
Q: It was a kind of two-parter, but do you think that it is important for the country to be --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, to be liked.
Q: -- to be liked and --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think it's more important that we be respected. And I think that because we are who we are, because we are Americans, that that generates both admiration and criticism -- admiration in terms of people who admire our democracy, who are impressed with what we've been able to accomplish economically. And it's best represented in those millions of people who keep trying to cross our borders and move in with us. I don't know any other nation on Earth that has that kind of appeal to so many other people.
I think there's some criticism generated by those who've disagreed with us over the years. I think in some cases there are governments that go out of their way to be critical of the United States, oftentimes for their own domestic political purposes. I can think of -- well, Vladimir Putin, and some of the statements he's made and the speeches he's given about the United States. And in effect, he has, in this most recent financial crisis made statements that imply that we're responsible for their difficulties.
Q: How do you feel about that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think he's wrong. The question is whether or not he knows he's wrong.
Q: Let me ask you about a secret mission that you and President Bush have engaged in and doesn't get a lot of attention, but I think we'd like to ask you a little bit about it -- the things you do off-calendar in your own time to work with the families of injured, or soldiers who were killed, and those who are injured and recovering. Could you talk a little bit about what you and the President have done, and why you've done it, and why you've done it sort of in a quiet way that doesn't call much attention to it?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure. Well, I think we've -- the President has really set the tone overall, and he feels a very special obligation to those who he has to send in harm's way on behalf of the nation, and a very special obligation to their families, especially the families of those who don't come home again.
And what we've done is we've both visited out to Bethesda or Walter Reed. He, in his travels, spends time with the families of the fallen. If he goes down to Fort Bragg, he'll oftentimes pull together the families of guys who were stationed at Bragg and killed in action, and spend time with the families.
One of the things we've done a number of occasions is to host a barbecue at the Vice President's residence, where we invite in the wounded from Bethesda or Walter Reed, and their families, and provide a meal for them, and invite in usually a country and western singer to participate. We had Charlie Daniels not too long ago. Sara Evans has been in, people like that.
Q: No rap. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No rap, no. The country and western is sort of a compromise between old folks -- you know, the big band sound of the '50s and the rappers that the younger generation understands. I have trouble even following it. (Laughter.) But we -- you know, I think we all feel a very, very special obligation to them.
The other thing that I've tried to do, and I know the President has done the same thing -- of course, one of the reasons he wanted to go to Iraq and Afghanistan was to say thank you. And it was an important trip not only substantively, but symbolically, to tell the troops that are there now how much he appreciates what they've done for all of us.
I've done the same thing. Also I've traveled -- as I traveled around the country, I've spent a lot of time hitting military bases, and spending time with troops who are about to deploy or just back from having been deployed. Earlier this year, for example, I went down to Fort Hood -- Ray Odierno came home and brought home the Three Corps flag headquarters and reestablished it at Fort Hood. It had been the corps headquarters when he was in Baghdad. Had a nice ceremony for him down there, and then had the opportunity to speak to several thousand soldiers at Hood, many of whom were just back from their 15-month deployment and I'd spoken to them before they left, and was able to talk to them after they were back.
Spending time with the troops is one of the highlights of this job. I suppose I still am nostalgic for my time as Secretary of Defense in 41's day. That was a great job.
Q: Are you going to miss this?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I will. It's been a -- it's been a remarkable experience to come back, partly because I spent 25 years, from the time I landed here, I guess the fall of '68, until January of '93, when I left the Defense Department. And in between I -- I've been a junior staffer on the Hill, a bureaucrat in the executive branch, White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, congressman for 10 years. But I thought, after 25 years, that's it. I looked -- I thought about running myself, and then decided I wasn't going to do it, and went off to private life, and never expected to come back.
Then to be invited to come back as part of this administration, and now do it for eight years, is something I never thought I'd get to do. And I'm sensitive of the fact that when I first came here in late '68, early '69, came to the White House, at the beginning of the Nixon administration, I was one of the youngest people in the West Wing. And for a long time in the early -- in the first term of this administration, I was the oldest. I think Fred Fielding has got me by a couple of years now -- (laughter) -- but he wasn't here then.
And to have the opportunity to serve, to serve with this President in these times, is something I'll always be grateful for. And I look forward to return to private life. This is the fourth time I've made this transition. It's not my first rodeo, so to speak.
But I will miss it. It's been a great experience, and I'll always be glad that I had the opportunity to be part of it.
Q: Do you think you'll tackle your years after you leave here with the same sort of focus and strategic objective, the sort of approach that you I think maybe acquired when you were Secretary of Defense?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, it depends on what I decide to do, I suppose.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm not at this stage of a mind to retire. I really -- I just haven't had time to focus on it yet in terms of what comes next. So, will I be focused on whatever I do? Yes, I suppose I'm focused when I'm fly-fishing, too. (Laughter.) So that's -- I don't think you can call that any kind of strategic effort, but I work hard at it.
Q: What advice do you leave for President Obama? Is there any advice you would leave as the person who is going to inherit this extraordinary government and military?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, he's got obviously some very difficult issues that are soon to be on his platter just because of the time we live in. No President gets to choose what issues he has to deal with that come up on his watch. We all -- when we run on a national ticket, as we did in 2000, you've got certain things you want to do and things you tell the people you're going to do if you get elected -- cut taxes, reform education, et cetera. You don't come having run on a platform of, well, we're going to respond to 9/11. Nobody had even conceived that there might be a 9/11 at that point. So you don't get to choose the time in which you govern. And I think that will be true for President Obama, as well.
Very, very important in terms of who you choose, his personnel decisions that occur in the -- during the transition and in the first weeks of the administration are absolutely essential. And I don't -- obviously I've got fundamental differences with President-Elect Obama, Senator Obama still -- but I think some of the personnel decisions he's made are pretty good.
So we'll have to see what happens there. They are -- but keeping Bob Gates on board I think is a -- was a good decision, sound choice. I think Jim Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps, as National Security Advisor is a -- I think a sound proposition. Senator Clinton as Secretary of State -- I would never pick her to be my Secretary of State.
Q: No? (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think -- well, when I see her, I always remember she called me Darth Vader. (Laughter.)
Q: Yes, I forgot about that little episode, right.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, actually we laugh about it at home. My wife says it humanizes me. (Laughter.) But, no, I think she's bright, she's tough, she's hardworking -- I watched her operate the Senate. And it's an interesting choice for Secretary of State. So we'll see how that goes. And like all Americans, I wish him well. We're doing everything we can to help on the transition. And in the end when you put away the banners and the bullhorns of the campaign, he's now our President -- about to be as of January 20th -- and it's important for all of us that he succeed.
Q: That's fair enough. I think that was great.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: All right.
Q: Thank you for covering so much ground in a short time. We very much appreciate it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, listen, I enjoyed it. It's good to talk to you. I had not done a lot of interviews while I've been in this job prior to this.
Q: -- feel very lucky to have that opportunity.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, part of it was just because my main task is to offer up advice to the President, and usually when the press comes in they say, what did you advise him? And the answer is --
Q: "Can't talk about it." (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: The relationship didn't flourish, but it's not out of any lack of respect for what you guys have got to do. You've got to ask, and I'll do my best to answer.
Q: We really appreciate what you covered today -- very, very helpful to us.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: All right.
Q: And we look forward to working with you on the special section -- I think you'll like it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay. All right.
Q: Thank you very much, sir. Have a great holiday.
END 3:57 P.M. EST
Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Jon Ward and John Solomon of The Washington Times Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/286031