Interview of the Vice President by Wolf Blitzer, CNN
The Vice President's Ceremonial Office
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building
1:30 P.M. EDT
Q: Mr. Vice President, I know you're a busy man. Thanks very much for joining us.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's good to see you again, Wolf.
Q: We're in a historic room. We'll get to this room later. I want to talk a little bit about it.
But let's talk about some controversial comments you recently made suggesting the insurgents in Iraq were in, your words, their last throes. Do you want revise or amend those comments?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, but I'd be happy to explain what I meant by that. If you go back over a year, a year ago, we intercepted a message from Zarqawi, the top terrorist in Iraq, sent to Osama bin Laden. And it basically said that if the Iraqis were successful at establishing a democracy in Iraq, standing up a viable government, that he'd have to pack his bags and go elsewhere. And he was obviously very concerned about that possibility.
What's happened since then, of course, is that we've had considerable success. We've transferred sovereign authority about a year ago, held elections in January, the first free elections in Iraq in a very long time. We've set up an interim government. There's a constitutional process in place now to draft a constitution. Later this year there'll be a referendum on the constitution, and then national elections finally at the end of the year in the fall. So the political process is going forward making significant progress.
At the same time, we're making progress in terms of training up Iraq security forces. I think the months immediately ahead will be difficult months. I think there will be a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed because I think the terrorists will do everything they can to try to disrupt that process, and that flow of -- that's well underway. But I think it is well underway. I think it is going to be accomplished, that we will, in fact, succeed in getting a democracy established in Iraq. And I think when we do that will be the end of the insurgency.
Q: The commander of the U.S. military Central Command, General John Abizaid, has been testifying on Capitol Hill.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q: He says the insurgency now is at a strength undiminished as it was six months ago, and he says there are actually more foreign fighters in Iraq now than they were six months ago. That doesn't sound like the last throes.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I would disagree. If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period, the throes of a revolution. The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective -- standing up a democracy in Iraq -- that that's a huge defeat for them. They'll do everything they can to stop it.
You look back at World War II, the toughest battles, the most difficult battles both in Europe and in the Pacific occurred just a few months before the end: the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and Okinawa in the spring of 1945. And I see this as a similar situation where they're going to go all out, and they'll do everything they can to disrupt that process. But I think we're strong enough to defeat them. And I think the process itself of establishing a democracy and a viable security force for the Iraqis will, in fact, signal the end, if you will, for the terrorists inside Iraq.
Q: Do you want to offer an assessment how much longer this insurgency will continue?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No. No, I can't say that, but I do believe because this has happened in the past, we've seen these political milestones are very important. When we transferred sovereign authority to the Iraqis a year ago, very important. When we held those elections last January, very important.
The President has been insistent, and I think, properly so in pushing forward on getting these things done. A lot of people said you can't possibly hold elections in January. Others said if you hold elections, there'll be a civil war. None of that came to pass. In fact, we held the elections. The President insisted on it. The Iraqis did a great job. And I think that the success of the venture ultimately turns upon establishing a viable government in Iraq. And I think we're well on our way to doing that, much farther down the road than we were six months or a year ago.
Q: But is this going to be a time frame within a year, two years, five years, how much longer will this insurgency require the troop level of the United States in Iraq right now?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think the way to think about it is defining it in terms of achieving certain conditions on the ground. We don't want to stay a day longer than necessary, but we want to stay long enough to get the job done. And the key here from the standpoint of the security situation is getting the Iraqis into a position where they can take care of their own security --
Q: The Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has told me he thinks that by 2006, the U.S. can start to significantly reduce its troop level. Do you agree with him?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I hope he's correct. But again, we've been very careful not to put a time line on it and say we'll be through by X date where we can begin to bring the troops home by a certain date. We can begin to do that once the Iraqis are in a position to be able to provide for their own security. Now, there'll probably be a continued U.S. presence there for some considerable period of time because there's some things we do they can't do, for example, air support, some of our intelligence and communications and logistics capabilities. But I think the bulk of the effort will increasingly be taken on by Iraqi forces. We've got about 160,000 now that are trained and equipped. They're increasingly more and more capable. We've got more and more of them fielded. They'll take on a bigger and bigger role in terms the ongoing struggle against the insurgents and simultaneously with that, we'll have the political process going forward, as it is demonstrated that we're already able to do that. And once we get to the point where we have a freely elected Iraqi government under a constitution written by Iraqis representative of everybody living in Iraq, Shia, Sunni, Kurd, then I think we'll have created the conditions and circumstances that will make it possible for us to begin to draw down our forces. But I think about it in terms of those conditions being achieved rather than a specific time line.
Q: Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat, on the Foreign Relations Committee just came back from Iraq. He says that the U.S. is currently training 107 battalions of Iraqi troops and only three of those battalions are fully capable right now to take charge.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, a year ago there weren't any Iraqi battalions at all. It takes time to get a battalion up to speed where you take in the recruits, you train them, you equip them. It will take time to create a fully competent U.S. battalion if you started from scratch. We've got a lot of them in the pipeline. There are several different stages. There are three or four now that are up to the top level in terms of competence and capability, able to operate on their own. There are a lot more coming along behind them. So I feel very good about where we are with respect to training.
Q: So you don't want to speculate how long it will take to get all those battalions up to speed?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, but what I'd recommend you do is talk to Dave Petraeus, the former commander of the 101st, the man who is in charge of the training program over there. He's doing a superb job. And in fact, there are more and more Iraqis taking on the fight, equipped to take on the fight with the leadership developed and the capabilities developed so that they can take over important responsibilities.
Q: How many insurgents are there?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't think you can put a figure on it. You've got different kinds of people involved in the process. I think most of the suicide bombers are jihadists, people from outside Iraq. There aren't that many Iraqis who want to commit suicide.
There was a public discussion recently -- somebody said -- did an analysis of al Qaeda websites where they were posting the names of people who had become martyrs by blowing themselves up, killing Iraqis, and the vast majority of them were, in fact, from outside. They were from Saudi Arabia, from Syria, from North Africa. So I think you've got that category of people, and I think they're responsible for the deadliest attacks, if you will, especially the ones against Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces. Then you've got others who I think are tied into the former regime, Saddam loyalists. I think --
Q: Are there thousands of them, hundreds of them, tens of thousands?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I would guess there are some who are dedicated to their point of view and their participation in the conflict. I think they go out oftentimes and buy people to participate in these raids, that they'll pay somebody, for example, to go take a shot at an American soldier, or to plant an IED in a road someplace, and then the basic criminal elements. Remember, shortly before we took Baghdad, Saddam Hussein released all the convicted criminals in all the prisons all over Iraq, so they're on the street, too.
Q: But what I hear you saying the United States doesn't really know how many insurgents there are.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We can make estimates, but nobody can put a hard number on it.
Q: Do you want to --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No.
Q: Let's talk about the CIA report which I'm sure you read suggesting that Iraq today has become, in effect, a more effective terrorist training ground for sending jihadists around the world than Afghanistan under the Taliban ever was.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think -- I haven't seen that specific report you're talking about, or at least -- I don't know whether it's public, or you're talking about a classified report.
Q: There's been a lot of newspaper articles, and we've independently confirmed it. It's a classified report.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't talk about classified reports. So set aside the report itself, again, I think it's important to remember that an awful lot of the jihadists don't ever leave Iraq. They go in and literally strap themselves into a car loaded with explosives or put on a vest full of dynamite and blow themselves up.
Q: But is Iraq becoming a training ground for these kinds of international terrorist activities? If they go there, it's sort of a lab for them, then they go out --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think we're killing an awful lot of them, and I think the fact of the matter is there may be a few who migrate from there back out. But the -- most of the folks that are going in there, and we've got some evidence of this because we've been able -- we've captured some and been able to interrogate them and so forth, have come in and are fairly quickly run through the pipeline, given an assignment, and literally then in the course of completing their mission, blow themselves up.
Q: Let me read to you what Senator Chuck Hagel, a friend of yours, a Republican from Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee told U.S. News and World Report: Things aren't getting better, they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality. And he goes on to say, it's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, as long as I've been Vice President, and since 9/11, we've had people like Chuck Hagel and other politicians, and we've had people in the press corps, and commentators who've said, you can't do Afghanistan. Once we got into Afghanistan, we'd been there a couple of weeks, and Johnny Apple of The New York Times had a front-page story about how we were in a "quagmire." We were going to get trapped in the mountains. Winter was going to make it impossible for us to complete our mission in Afghanistan. They were all wrong.
We were told we couldn't hold elections in Afghanistan. You'll never be able to put it together. They'd never had an election in Afghanistan in the 5,000-year history of the country. It will never work. It did work. I was at the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai who got elected.
We were told we couldn't possibly succeed as quickly as we did against Saddam Hussein in terms of taking him down. We did. You'll never capture Saddam Hussein. We did. We were told you'll never be able to go in and transfer sovereign authority to the Iraqis. We did. You'll never hold an election. We did.
The fact of the matter is, the town has got a lot of people in it who are armchair quarterbacks, or who like to comment on the passing scene. But those who have predicted the demise of our efforts since 9/11, as we fought the war on terror, as we've liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not know what they were talking about. And I would submit to you today that we'll succeed in Iraq just like we did in Afghanistan. We'll stand up a new government under an Iraqi drafted constitution, we'll defeat the insurgency. And in fact, it will be an enormous success story that will have a huge impact, not just in Iraq but throughout the region.
We've already seen the ripple effect, if you will, of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. We see it in Syria having to get out Lebanon. We see it in the Lebanese demanding free elections in the streets of the Lebanon. We see it in the willingness of a lot of governments in that part of the world now willing to consider democracy and freedom.
Q: So the bottom line, Chuck Hagel --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Bottom line is --
Q: Chuck Hagel is --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wrong.
Q: All right. You can disagree with him, but look at these poll numbers, this latest CNN/USA Today Gallup poll numbers. And I know that you don't necessarily have to make policy on the basis of poll numbers.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's not a very good idea.
Q: But they're very disturbing -- they're pretty disturbing. In 2003, right after the war, 71 percent of the American public supported the war in Iraq. It's gone down to 48 percent, 2004. In March, it was 47 percent. Now it's only 39 percent favor the war in Iraq. Those are very disturbing numbers from the administration's perspective. The American public isn't convinced you're doing the right thing.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, Wolf, the business that George Bush is in, being President of the United States, and those of us who work for him is to do what we think is right for the country, and to make tough decisions. The last thing you want to do is to read the latest poll and then base policy on that. There is probably a new poll every day in the country, and Presidents are generally ineffective if they spend all their time reading the polls and trying to make policy accordingly. We're doing what we believe is right. We're convinced it's right. We're convinced that, in fact, we'll achieve our objectives. And, frankly, we don't pay a lot of attention to the polls.
Q: Did you read the Downing -- so called Downing Street memo?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I did not.
Q: Well, it suggests British officials came here before the war, months before the war and said the administration had already decided to go to war against Saddam Hussein. The intelligence wasn't there, and the memo says, it will be fixed around the policy, the intelligence. In other words, they were going to make it up -- you were going to make it up as you go along to justify removing Saddam Hussein from power. You dispute that -- I assume you dispute that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Of course. The memo was written sometime prior to when we actually got involved in Iraq.
Q: In the fall of 2002, and the war was --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right, and remember -- remember what happened after that supposed memo was written. We went to the United Nations. We got a unanimous vote out of the Security Council for a resolution calling on Saddam Hussein to come clean and comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution. We did everything we could to resolve this without having to use military force. We gave him one last chance even in asking him to step down before we launched military operations. The memo is just wrong. In fact the President of the United States took advantage of every possibility to try to resolve this without having to use military force. It wasn't possible in this case. But I'm convinced we did absolutely the right thing. I'm convinced that history will bear that out and that the -- any notion or controversy or poll connected with that in no way should be taken as justification for challenging the policy.
Q: Because you saw that presidential commission that came out with this report on the WMD assessments before the war, their words, the U.S. assessment, intelligence assessment was dead wrong. How could the U.S. government, the intelligence community have been dead wrong in saying that Saddam Hussein had chemical, biological weapons of mass destruction when he didn't have any -- apparently?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, remember what they were dealing with. They had a tough target. I mean, I've got a certain sympathy for the intelligence community. But they did -- their judgment was overwhelmingly that he did, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction. We knew certain things. We knew that he had produced them in the past. We knew he had used them in the past. We knew he had started two wars. We knew he had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own people.
And we found after the fact while he did not have stockpiles, he still had the capability. He still had the technicians who knew how to produce this stuff. He still had some labs that could, in fact, have been converted to this process very quickly.
We also know now something we didn't know at the time which was that the sanctions had been a joke, that, in fact, Saddam Hussein had corrupted the oil-for-food program, intended to provide food and medicine for the Iraqi people, and used it to bribe senior officials at the United Nations and in other governments in order to undermine the sanctions, and that he was simply waiting until such time as the sanctions had been lifted, or had been totally undermined to resume business as usual. So I think eventually he would, in fact, have been back in the business --
Q: I don't want to go too far --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And I think --
Q: -- into history --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, that's all right. But I -- you asked the question.
Q: I know.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think the community did, in fact, miss the exact status of the stockpiles at the time. But I don't think there was any question about his intent, or about what he'd done in the past, or the fact that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.
Q: The criticism though that's been leveled at you is that you, in effect, pressured the intelligence community to come up with this assessment --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, if you go back --
Q: You've heard that, for instance --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's not true. And anybody who's looked at it, and several people have, has found it's not true. The WMD commission looked at that very carefully and found not a shred of evidence to support it. The Senate Intelligence Committee which did a complete and thorough study before the WMD commission and questioned hundreds of intelligence analysts found there was absolutely no truth. They couldn't find one single individual who would validate that comment you just made. There's nothing to support it. There never was because it never happened.
Q: Let's talk about Porter Goss, the CIA Director. He says he has an excellent idea where Osama bin Laden is hiding out. Do you?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We've got a pretty good idea of a general area that he's in, but I -- I don't have the street address.
Q: What is the general area?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't talk -- I don't -- I don't --
Q: It's been widely reported to be somewhere along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't talk about intelligence matters like that.
Q: But it's -- but it's not Iran because some -- like --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm -- I --
Q: -- well, the vice chairman of the House Armed Services --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, I don't talk about -- I don't talk about classified information.
Q: So you don't want to get into that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Correct.
Q: Osama bin Laden. But any assessment of -- is he going to be found soon, not so soon, any idea when?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: What, do you expect me to say three weeks from next Tuesday? (Laughter.) I'm convinced eventually we'll get him. I know for a fact that we've made significant inroads in his organization. We have captured and killed many of his fellow travelers, if you will, most recently a man named Abu Faraj Al Libbi, who was the new number three man in the organization. We've been, I think, enormously successful against al Qaeda. We've still got a lot to do because it's a tough resilient organization, and they're still out there trying to find ways to attack us.
Q: A few other quick questions before we end this interview. Should Gitmo -- Guantanamo Bay's detention center be shut down, the detainees moved elsewhere?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Because it's a vital facility. The people that are there are people we picked up on the battlefield primarily in Afghanistan. They're terrorists. They're bomb-makers. They're facilitators of terror. They're members of al Qaeda and the Taliban. We've screened everybody we had. We had some 800 people down there. We've screened them all, and we've let go those that we've deemed not to be a continuing threat. But the 520 some that are there now are serious, deadly threats to the United States. For the most part, if you let them out, they'll go back to trying to kill Americans.
Q: Nobody says let them out, but move them to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or someplace like that.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Why would you do that?
Q: Because of the reputation of -- at Guantanamo.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: The treatment they're getting -- they got a brand new facility down at Guantanamo. We spent a lot of money to build it. They're very well treated down there. They're living in the tropics. They're well fed. They've got everything they could possibly want. There isn't any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we're treating these people.
Q: The Pew Charitable Trust has a poll that's coming out today that suggests that in much of the world communist China has a more favorable image right now than the United States of America does. Should Americans care about that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think we need to be guided by our principles. I think we need to make firm decisions about what we need to do and carry through and do those. I think we have, in fact, been successful at that. And I, frankly, don't spend a lot of time, Wolf, reading polls. I couldn't do my job if I spent as much time on polls as you do.
Q: Let me move to some domestic issues, then we'll wrap this up. Social Security, is the President ready to forget about the private retirement accounts that he wants as part of Social Security reform?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No. He believes deeply in the personal accounts, and we think they ought to be part of a final solution.
Q: If it's not part of a final solution, if the House and Senate pass legislation that doesn't include these private accounts, will he sign it into law?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I wouldn't say that. I don't know. It would depend on what's in the bill. But the fact is that we've got more ideas being put on the table now. We're making progress, Republicans putting ideas on the table -- contrary, the Democrats aren't. They basically have said they don't want to participate. Their leadership has made this a partisan issue, so there are no democratic ideas put forward by democratic members of Congress at this point. That's unfortunate. I think in the end their voters didn't send them down here and pay them a big salary and let them retire on a nice congressional pension and at the same time refuse to address the obvious flaws and problems that are in Social Security today. We need to fix the system, and I think we will fix the system. We'll get it done. We'll work with the Congress, and I'm convinced we'll produce good legislation.
Q: And the fact that the President gave Senator Robert Bennett of Utah the green light to submit legislation that doesn't include the private accounts --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, what the President did was, he told Bob Bennett he liked Bob Bennett's bill. The Bennett bill specifically has the so-called Pozen proposal in it, the sliding scale by which you would adjust Social Security benefits. It doesn't include personal retirement accounts. But the President likes the Pozen concept because it's incorporated in his own plan.
Q: Let me read to you some comments that Karl Rove made in New York this week and get your reaction at a fundraiser of the Conservative Party of New York state: Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks -- let me restart again: Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding to our attackers.
A lot of Democrats are pretty irate about those comments. They want him to retract them.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I haven't seen Karl's speech. But I think there was a distinction made -- I made it several times in my own speech that the traditional way of dealing with terrorist attacks prior to 9/11 was to treat them as law enforcement matters, to issue subpoenas, to go arrest the individual perpetrators, to put them on trial and lock them, and never look behind the individual perpetrators and never consider it a wartime situation.
After 9/11, we changed all that, and we altered our entire strategy because we began to look on it as a war, that, in fact, the al Qaeda was bound and determined to kill as many Americans as possible, demonstrated that on 9/11, and that we had to not only go after al Qaeda, we also had to go after states that sponsored terror, those who might share weapons of mass destruction with them, et cetera. In other words, one is sort of a crime-solving approach, a law enforcement approach, and the other is a national strategy, military intelligence wartime approach. And I think that's -- that the history clearly demonstrates that they were different approaches prior to 9/11 and after 9/11. Our predecessors, for example --
Q: I think the point that many Democrats, the liberals are making is they supported going to war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda right after 9/11 --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, not --
Q: -- but they didn't necessarily call for --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Not everybody. There were some who opposed what we did in Afghanistan.
Q: A final question about your political ambitions if you have any? So you don't want --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I have no ambitions.
Q: You don't want to run in 2008?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No.
Q: Do you think Hillary Rodham Clinton could be a formidable Democratic presidential candidate?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't -- I'm not worried about Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm doing my job. I've got a job to do for the next three-and-a-half years. I love being Vice President. I'm very proud to serve with this President. But at the end of that time, I'll mark close to 40 years in this business, Wolf, and I think it will time for me to move on to other pursuits.
Q: You look good. You sound good. How do you feel?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great.
Q: Mr. Vice President, it's kind of you to spend some time with us.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good to see you, Wolf.
Q: This is a pretty amazing room.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It is. It's the Ceremonial Office of the Vice President. One time, it was the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt both had offices right next door when they were assistant secretaries in the Navy.
Q: I saw their signatures in the desk.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And then Black Jack Pershing had it for many years from right after World War I until the late 1940s, and then since Eisenhower's -- the Eisenhower administration, basically, Dick Nixon became Vice President. And it's always been the vice presidential office since then.
Q: It's a beautiful room, thanks for joining us.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: All right, good to see you, Wolf.
END 1:55 P.M. EDT
Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Wolf Blitzer, CNN Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/285893