Richard B. Cheney photo

Interview of the Vice President by Mike Allen, Jim Vandehei and John Harris, the Politico

December 06, 2007

West Wing

10:35 A.M. EST

Q: It's an interesting time, so we really are eager to talk to you about especially a lot of the stuff that's happening on Capitol Hill right now. But I'd love -- I mean, I'd love your overall assessment from -- of what's been happening on the Hill, like Pelosi's leadership and how Democrats have sort of handled their end of negotiating with you guys, whether it's Iraq, the economy, spending -- dealing with that right now. What is your assessment of how the Democratic Congress is handling --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think they're doing all that well. That probably wouldn't surprise anybody. I just think -- I think if you look at the track record on what they've been able to move, on important items that are sort of basic need-to-do-every-year kinds of things, like the appropriations process, I think the record is pretty dismal. We've got one appropriations bill so far that we've got signed; we've still got 11 pending. And here we are at the end of the calendar year, well into the new fiscal year, and I think -- I look at that and see that as an indication in terms of their capacity to function as not a good indicator.

I think the refusal to move the war supplemental to support the troops until after the first of the year is a mistake. I say that in part as a former Secretary of Defense. It's a terrible way to run a railroad -- talk about Defense has got some money they can move around and so forth -- just because it's big doesn't mean that's a smart way to operate. It's not. And I'm, frankly, surprised at why, after all of the efforts they've made to try to hook up various provisions on Iraq to the spending bill, they've been unsuccessful.

In the final analysis, the troops shouldn't suffer for that, and we ought to be able to pass an emergency supplemental, as we've done in years past, to make certain that the troops have got what they need in the field, the department can run efficiently, that the investments that are required to sustain the effort that I think obviously is bearing fruit in Iraq needs to go forward.

I'm puzzled why they are so wedded to their political view that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid aren't going to move that legislation -- said, absolutely not, there won't be another vote on this matter in this Congress. I think that's a big mistake.

I'm also somewhat surprised -- I look at the House -- there are members of the House I worked closely with over the years when I was Secretary of Defense who would ordinarily have been staunch advocates for this kind of legislation, who no longer are staunch advocates -- and I'm referring to my friend, Jack Murtha -- I think of all of them as friends of mine -- but Jack and other senior leaders who now all march to the tune of Nancy Pelosi, to an extent I had not seen, frankly, with any previous Speaker. And I'm surprised by that. I think of John Dingell and the energy business. This is a hot item right now. But I don't see John Dingell driving that train. It looks to me like Nancy Pelosi is driving that train. And that is -- well, it's surprising when I think of the -- I'm trying to think how to say all of this in a gentlemanly fashion -- but the Congress I served in, that wouldn't have happened. We would not have had a Speaker who, from my perspective, is that far out of the sort of mainstream -- she is a San Francisco Democrat, certainly entitled to her views, but able to dictate policy as effectively as she apparently does to the rest of the caucus.

Q: Well, did any of those guys lose their spine? Is that what you're saying?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I was being very diplomatic in the way I phrased it. (Laughter.) They're not carrying the big stick I would have expected with the Democrats in the majority.

Q: Mr. Vice President, what has Senator Reid been like to work with?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Difficult. He's -- I'll leave it at that. He's difficult.

Q: Are you surprised at how partisan he's become, I mean, given both his state and his past politics? He has -- quite frankly, his past views on foreign policy have been -- (inaudible) -- Are you surprised that he's become so stridently anti-war, saying not long ago that the war is lost --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I obviously -- I have major differences with him. When he announced the war was lost, he was clearly wrong. And I -- the man I respect most on the other side of the aisle -- that nobody would be surprised about -- is Joe Lieberman. I see Joe willing to take on the powers that be, if you will, in what used to be his party -- I guess he's not formally a Democrat these days, although he caucuses with them. But I think what happened to Joe Lieberman says a lot about the party; that he was, in effect, purged by the Democrats on this issue because he supported the President on the war on Iraq, and obviously, defeated in the Democratic primary, ran as an independent, and won the election. And he's a very independent sort these days, which he can afford to be.

Q: You mentioned Murtha. Did you see his comments on the surge the other day? What did you make of it?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I thought Jack got it right when he came back and said the surge is working. I think it is. And I think anybody who will go over there and objectively look at that will, in fact, conclude that.

Q: Mr. Vice President, now that the Democrats are the majority in both chambers, do you need to spend more time there, or less time? Or what it's like for you to go up there now, compared to before?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Going up to the Hill?

Q: Yes, sir.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, it's interesting. I spent 10 years in the House. There was a time in my career when I expected that that's where I was going to spend it, was in the Congress. So I still -- I have an affection and a fondness for the Congress. I have a lot of good friends up there, people I served with. A lot of the guys I came in with as freshmen now are committee chairmen, and they're playing a prominent role on both sides of the aisle. So I relish those guys and connections.

In this job -- I'm aware of the kerfuffle here a few months ago -- is he or isn't he; is he part of the executive branch, part of the legislative branch? And the answer really is, you've got a foot in both camps. I obviously work for the President. That's why I'm sitting here in the West Wing of the White House. But I also have a role to play in the Congress as the President of the Senate. I actually get paid -- that's where my paycheck comes from, is the Senate.

So I try to keep lines open to both sides of the Congress, both the House and the Senate. I had that office in the House for six years while we had the majority. I think I'm the first Vice President who ever had an office in the House -- on the House side as Vice President; something Denny Hastert and Bill Thomas arranged. Charlie Rangel got it back, obviously, when control switched, which was -- he's perfectly entitled to. That was the Old Ways and Means Committee space, just off the House floor.

Q: Do you look at the policies of the Democratic Congress as pushing anything specifically related to fighting the war on terror -- (inaudible) -- detainees and other issues like that, but also the war on Iraq, given the descriptions that they're trying to put on -- (inaudible) -- If they were to prevail, what would that mean for the American people? I mean, do you -- I mean, if you sort of cut to the bone of what you guys say and what I think, I mean, do you -- would the country be significantly more at risk for a terrorist attack if they were to prevail in the fight in Iraq, if they were to prevail in the wiretapping legislation, if they were to prevail on their view dealing with detainees?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the way I think about it is that we embarked upon a new strategy after 9/11. We used to treat terrorist attacks as a law enforcement problem. We went out and arrested the bad guy, put him on trial, convicted him, and put him in the slammer. So one of the guys who helped organize the attacks on the World Trade Center is doing life out in Colorado. That was the old way of looking at the world, though. What we learned after 9/11 is we really were under attack. It was a strategic threat to the United States. It was bigger than just a law enforcement problem, and that we had to marshal our resources to go after the terrorists, to go after those who sponsor terror, to go after those who might provide them with more deadly capabilities than they had used up to that time, and that we needed to take steps here at home to be able to defend ourselves against future attacks.

And so we did things like the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which is now all caught up in the FISA statute, for example. We need a robust program for the interrogation of high-value detainees. When you capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you need to know what he knows -- he's the guy who planned 9/11, killed 3,000 Americans -- what are your next plans? And these are all issues that are being debated as we go forward.

I think the policies we put in place in those areas have been directly responsible for our success at defeating all further attacks that have been launched against the United States since 9/11; being able to intercept and disrupt the operations of al Qaeda, as they've attempted them, whether it's launching aircraft out of England headed for the United States that you're going to blow up over the Atlantic, or over U.S. cities. And we've been very successful. It's not an accident; it's because those programs have been there.

If we look at the question of our involvement overseas -- Iraq, Afghanistan and so forth -- I believe the prime enemy we face there has been al Qaeda. I think that's been true in Iraq, as well. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been sort of the long pole in the tent, if you will, in terms of the opposition we face. There have been other elements involved -- we've had some Shia-on-Sunni conflict and so forth -- but a lot of that was stimulated by al Qaeda. Zarqawi goes and blows up the mosque at Samarra in order to precipitate Shia reaction against the Sunni. And for us in the global war on terror, Iraq has been the central front vis-a-vis al Qaeda. That's how they see it. That's what they say when they want to describe it.

If you look at their strategy, it hasn't changed a lot. It's based on the proposition not that they can defeat us, not that can beat us in a stand-up fight -- they can't, they never have -- it's based on the proposition that if they kill enough Americans, they can change American policy. And they cite, as examples of that, Beirut, 1983: Kill 241 Marines and you can get the Americans to withdraw from Lebanon. We did within a matter of months. Or Mogadishu in '93.

So with that basic fundamental proposition, if we were to withdraw precipitously from Iraq, for example, without completing the mission, I think that would validate the al Qaeda strategy. It would say to them they're right, that they're -- for the United States to conduct ourselves in a way that validates the al Qaeda strategy is exactly the wrong thing to do. I think, among other things, it would encourage them to launch further attacks. I think it would encourage them, if we were to operate in a way that said, you're right, if you kill enough Americans, you can change U.S. policy, they'll kill more Americans.

That's sort of the general view I have of the world. And I think in terms of going forward, it's very important for us to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan; that those are not isolated incidents. The notion that somehow Iraq is a bad war and Afghanistan is a good war and we're going to go fight in Afghanistan, we don't want to fight in Iraq is goofy, makes no sense at all.

You look at Zarqawi, who was Jordanian by birth, imprisoned in Jordan for terrorist activities, ultimately released in an amnesty, goes to Afghanistan and operates a training camp in Afghanistan to train terrorists how to do -- (inaudible) --. When we go into Afghanistan, he flees to Iraq and sets up operations in Baghdad. And when we go into Iraq, then he spends all of his time organizing al Qaeda in Iraq to come after Americans and to try to precipitate a conflict, civil conflict, inside.

Now, tell me, do you think national boundaries play into that? The fact of the matter is, in this conflict national boundaries don't have the kind of significance they might have had before, and you cannot say, well, we're going to go fight them in Afghanistan, we're not going to fight them in Iraq.

Q: Do you think it's important for both the White House and for Republicans to be clear in the current climate that they do think that there are potentially devastating costs to some of these Democratic policies; that it's not about -- because often it's sort of written about and thought about in this political context, that Democrats want this, Bush doesn't and Bush wins. But that there are -- I mean, like what you say -- I mean, you sort of summarize what you say, it's like, listen to me, if we do what they want to do in Iraq, people could die if you don't have the right -- proper tools, or, we're more exposed.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I try to state it the way I stated it. Then there's always a great temptation out there anyway -- get into the media -- for people to try to sensationalize this stuff. I was very precise in terms of what I said, and that's how I would like to describe my views.

I think we've got people on the other side who don't believe as I do, where there are honest and legitimate differences. I think -- whether they do think al Qaeda is a problem, or they don't think al Qaeda is involved in Iraq, or that somehow we are -- or they really do want to close Guantanamo, or we shouldn't have an interrogation program for senior leaders of al Qaeda when we capture them, or we shouldn't be operating a program to intercept international communications of al Qaeda when they contact people in the United States -- I just -- I don't believe that.

I think we, in fact, need to do all of those things and I think having done those things is why we have been successful in defeating further attacks against the United States. Nobody can promise there won't be more attacks; I wouldn't say that. But I think six-and-a-half years without another attack succeeding against the United States is a remarkable record, and I think it's directly attributable to those policies. And I think people who want to change those policies, or want to stop them, have an obligation to explain and deal with the consequences that I believe would flow out of stopping those programs.

If we stopped the FISA program, for example -- we've got a big debate going now, partly over this issue of whether or not there should be liability provisions to protect the companies that responded to the legitimate request of the United States government to help us in this effort to intercept foreign-based communications of al Qaeda-affiliated individuals. That's an important provision to get in there, and to resist that strikes me as people who aren't serious about having an effective program. Those companies cannot continue on the course that we need to have them continue on to be a vital part of that program unless we get those kinds of provisions in the statute.

Q: Mr. Vice President, what's the closest we've come to being attacked?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: What's the closest we've come to being attacked? Well, there have been a number of efforts -- I don't know that I'm the resident expert on the closest. The one that I think of, that was the summer before last, when plans were to launch out of I guess it was Heathrow, with explosives onboard aircraft and to do a major attack on several flights at once within a really relatively short period of time.

Q: Mr. Vice President, how concerned are you about the threat from Islam within the United States? And specifically, how concerned are you about Iraqi immigrants that are coming here and the danger that they might pose?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, you've got be very careful here not just to -- you don't want to assume somebody is an enemy or a threat because they're -- follow Islam or because they're from a particular part of the world. I think we work to make certain that we don't have those kinds of threats develop within the United States. I think we've been relatively successful at it.

We've got a large population of people of the Islamic faith in the United States. They are good, loyal Americans, important members of the community, and they're entitled to be judged, just like anybody else, based on their conduct, their activities.

Q: Sir, did you believe the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Did I believe it?

Q: Yes, do you believe the new one that's out -- or is there a reason to question those conclusions?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't have any reason to question the -- what the community has produced, with respect to the NIE on Iran. Now, there are things they don't know. There are always -- there's always the possibility that the circumstances will change. But I think they've done the best job they can with the intelligence that's available to give us their best judgment on those issues.

Q: Do you question the interpretation that many people have made upon the release of that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Interpretation?

Q: Well, a lot of people are saying, well, look Iran was not the threat that you said it was, or it isn't the threat going forward.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it's important to be precise in terms of what it means, and it's important to put it in the broader context of what we've been dealing with in Iran. The reality is that if you go back to a few years ago, Iran had two programs. They had one program to enrich uranium that was headquartered in Natanz, that was covert until it was disclosed in about 2002, if you remember, by political opposition figures inside Iran. And Iran at that point acknowledged, yes, they do have an enrichment program at Natanz. And after that it was subject to IAEA inspection.

They had a separate program, we now know, based in part on the latest NIE -- the covert program that was aimed at the weaponization of fissile material for the creation of a nuclear weapon. What the NIE shows is that in about 2003, they, in effect, halted both those programs. You may remember that the then-public one about the enrichment efforts was suspended, and we know from intelligence now that the covert one that dealt with weaponization was also suspended about that same time.

In January of '06, they resumed their enrichment activities at Natanz, and have continued to pursue those very aggressively. Much of what we've said as an administration, and what we've done diplomatically and so forth, has been aimed at that enrichment program, in terms of getting -- trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their efforts to enrich uranium. That's unaffected by the NIE. The NIE doesn't deal with that. In fact, in the -- what we released by way of the key judgments, there's a footnote at the bottom of the first page that makes that distinction between, on the one hand, the covert weaponization program that they did halt in '03, and the now overt enrichment effort at Natanz.

I look at the concerns that we've had with respect to their enrichment activities, and I'm still concerned. As the President said yesterday, I guess it was, we still think there's need to continue the course we've been on to persuade the Iranians not to enrich uranium. The long pole in the tent in terms of developing nuclear weapons, traditionally, historically, has been developing fissile material, either highly-enriched uranium or plutonium. In this case, they're embarked upon the program to develop uranium, obviously.

Q: How badly does this complicate your strategic objectives, given that you were making some progress with the European allies, or other allies, to put pressure on Iran? If you read, in everything from the Journal op-ed page today to Robert Kagan's piece in the Post to even the front-page piece in the Journal, you've got a lot of people reacting, whether it's China, or folks in the Middle East, saying that this is going to probably give them less incentive to join with the United States in putting pressure on the Iranian regime.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we don't get to say we only pursue those policies if they're easy. It's very important, I think -- and the President clearly does -- that we proceed down the road of trying to persuade Iran diplomatically to give up their efforts to enrich uranium. That has not changed. There's nothing in the NIE that said we should be -- not be concerned about their enrichment activities.

Q: But does it make it harder for you to do that --


Q: Yes.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Perhaps, but it wasn't easy to begin with.

Q: Just a related question. Why was it released, given the degree to which it might tie your hands?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think there was a general belief, that we all shared, that it was important to put it out; that it was not likely to stay classified for long anyway and -- in terms of trying to deal effectively with this kind of an issue, especially in light of what happened with respect to Iraq and the NIE on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that we be up front with what we knew. This is what we know. This is the latest intelligence we have and this is what the analysis says it means and it signifies. So it was our judgment it was better just to lay those key judgments out there, publicly, in an unclassified form. I think that's the right call.

Q: So you thought it might leak?


Q: You thought it might leak, sir?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, based on experience, everything leaks. (Laughter.)

Q: Another quick question about the Congress. You, perhaps, saw the Congressman Emmanuel, yesterday, who was responding to the President's press conference. I wondered what you --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I didn't see him.

Q: Can you give your quick thoughts on the presidential race, since we are Politico? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I don't look at that at all.

Q: Not at all?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Of course I do, but I'm not going to talk about it.

Q: Even the Democratic side?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm -- we're scrupulously neutral in the process, and we need to be.

Q: Mr. Vice President, another question: What are your plans for this year in regards to political travel and that sort of thing?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I will do whatever I can, that I'm asked to do by friends and colleagues, with respect to Congress, in particular, for the House and Senate. I did a fundraiser last evening in Dallas for Ralph Hall. I'll continue to do that, raise funds for the party and so forth; support the efforts with respect to 2008.

Q: With the office on the House side that you lost last time, let's face it, the Republican Party -- if you look at the polls and look at the 2006 results -- it's got real problems. What does it need to do to, for example, improve its brand and its reputation in the hope now of getting that office back?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know. I look at it, and it looks to me like the Democrats have got at least as many, if not more, problems. You look at their standing; they've been in control now in the Congress for what, just under a year, with absolutely dismal ratings. They've produced absolutely nothing that I can see that's of benefit or consistent with the promises that they made when they went out and ran for election. I think the Republicans are going to do well next year.

Q: You don't think there's some basic philosophical questions that the party ought to confront?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think the basic, fundamental philosophy of the Republican Party is the correct one, obviously. I believe that. I spent my whole career supporting it and think it ought to be sustained over time. I think it's important for us to be true to those basic political values that have been successful for us. We need to do what successful parties always do, which is go out and recruit good candidates, raise --

Q: -- for what happened in 2006, when the party lost --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we've been there for 12 years. We had control for a long time, perhaps got a little sloppy as a party. But I think we've got some great talent up there. I think we've got some pretty good --

Q: -- (inaudible) --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I look at -- obviously we've got -- John Boehner now is the Republican leader on the House side. I'm sorry to see my friend, Trent Lott, hang it up. Trent and I served together for a long time. We both arrived here in 1968 as young staffers and then served in the House together for 10 years, and are good friends to this day. So I'm sorry to see Trent step down, but understand.

But if you look -- coming along, Jon Kyl, looks like he's going to be the new Whip, extraordinarily capable individual, somebody I've served with in the House, a good friend. On the Republican side in the House, we've got folks like Eric Cantor and Adam Putnam. I mean, these are folks we're going to hear a lot from in the future. So I think we're well served in that regard.

Q: Do you like Senator Thune?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do. I hunt with the Senator -- he's a courageous man.

Q: Do you like Paul Ryan?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Who, Paul Ryan? Sure -- Wisconsin.

Q: Can we just posit to you on Iraq, and that is, Mr. Vice President, on January 20, 2009 -- you get the afternoon off that day -- what is your best case for how Iraq will look, and how many troops do you think we'll have in Iraq?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm not going to make that forecast in terms of troop levels. I think what Dave Petraeus has been able to do, based on the decision the President made a little less than a year ago, has been the -- I think it's a remarkable success story; one of those military operations that will be studied for many, many years to come.

We've still got a lot of work to do. We're sort of halfway through the surge, in a sense, and will be going back to pre-surge levels over the course of the next year. Now, where exactly we'll end up a year from now is going to be based on recommendations from General Petraeus and the chiefs, and the President will make his decision as to what he thinks is appropriate. But I am fairly confident that we'll have Iran in a good place where we'll be able to look back on it and say that was the right decision, it was a sound decision to go into Iraq, that -- I meant Iraq earlier -- did I say Iran?

Q: Yes, sir --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- that we have, in fact, achieved our objective in terms of having a self-governing Iraq that's capable for the most part of defending themselves, a democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and a nation that will be a positive force and influence, if you will, in the future in terms of events and developments in that part of the world. I think it will be a major success story.

Q: All this by 2009?


Q: Speaking of the history in Iraq, there's been a debate recently on the buildup to the vote for us to go to war, and you obviously were very intimately involved in that. Karl Rove has talked about, listen, Democrats -- and Daschle -- they wanted a speedy vote, before the elections, for the war. And Daschle has said, well, it's nonsense, they're trying to rewrite history. What is your recollection of what was happening? Were they -- were Democrats pushing for a quick vote on the war before the election?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't want to get into that. I, frankly, I've heard a little bit of the argument and I don't understand it. (Laughter.)

Q: I'm sorry, what do you mean by that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I mean, I thought we proceeded in an orderly fashion. But I have not gone back and looked at that. I don't -- it's not clear to me what the issue is that's being debated there.

Q: The issue is whether the White House was pushing, or Democrats were pushing.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I thought we had approached it on a fairly bipartisan basis, and that was reflected in the vote. And we also went through a process with respect to intelligence matters, work at the United Nations seeking resolutions from the U.N. Security Council that applied to the situation. But in terms of, you know, we were pushing, or the Democrats were pushing, that's not -- I'd have to go back and do a lot of research to have an opinion on that.

Q: Mr. Vice President, this was so nice of you. Speaking of 2009, is this it for public service for you, or --


Q: Are you going to write a book?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: This was not planned, so I thought I was through when I left the Congress --

Q: Do you plan to write a book?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I really have not decided what I'm going to do.

Q: -- (inaudible) --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I haven't before.

Q: You've had an interesting life.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think it has been interesting, and partly it's been interesting because I didn't write a book. (Laughter.) I might not have this job if I'd written a book about the last one.

Q: Do you think you'll probably live in Wyoming or live in the Washington area?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, probably both. We've got a home in Jackson we'll keep and we're building a house out here in McLean now. We have a lot out there we bought 10 years ago and we're now about -- don't put that in the paper; I don't want people picketing the lot. (Laughter.) No, we'll keep -- the kids are all here, grandkids are here, and so forth. So even if I move, my wife wouldn't.

Q: When you finally get your Christmas break, what will you be doing after you're done with your party?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: We'll go back the Jackson, go to Wyoming for Christmas.

Q: Thank you very much. We really do appreciate it.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Good luck.

END 11:14 A.M. EST

Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Mike Allen, Jim Vandehei and John Harris, the Politico Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives