Richard B. Cheney photo

Live Interview of the Vice President by Bill Bennett, Morning in America

January 13, 2009

7:33 A.M. EST

Q: Good morning, Mr. Vice President.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good morning, Bill.

Q: Thank you so much.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, Bill, it's nice to be asked to be on your show. When we get down to the last week of the administration, it's fun to talk to old friends.

Q: Well, you do have old friends here, believe me. Two things I want to thank you for, lest I forget, in this interview -- one, I want to thank you for your kindness and courtesy to me and Mrs. Bennett, Elayne Bennett, inviting us to your house on several occasions. It's been wonderful occasions to see you and Lynne.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you.

Q: And I enjoyed seeing the fly room upstairs, where you tie flies.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughter.) Right.

Q: I'll get to that in a second, because my brother, who also ties flies, says that all fishermen, like all truck drivers, are philosophers. So I want to ask you a little philosophy later.

Let me start with this, though. You got a kind of backhanded compliment from President-Elect Obama, who, according to the news reports, said in regard to your advice -- your advice was find out exactly what it is we're doing and why we're doing it, whether or not its worked before you start making decisions based on campaign rhetoric -- for Obama, by contrast, because a number of critics, according to this article, said what Cheney said was pretty good advice. He does seem to be backing off some from some of the more excessive campaign rhetoric, and seems to be approaching somewhat more thoughtfully in line with your recommendation.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we'll see Bill. I hope that's the case. And I don't have any, as I say, pride of authorship on that advice. It's just based on years of experience we've had of how you defend a nation against al Qaeda.

And I think we do have a lot of great experience now, and a lot of very talented people. But a lot of it's turned on the authorities the President granted us, the decisions he made that have subsequently been criticized by, well, by President-Elect Obama during the course of the campaign. So I think it's important for him to pause here and take a breath before they go off the deep end.

Q: Yes, the deep end. It's a different world, isn't it, campaign rhetoric and the kinds of briefings that Barack Obama is getting now about the way the world actually works?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right, there is no question about that. He has been now for several weeks, been getting the same daily intelligence brief that the President and I do.

And I think -- I guess the other point I'd make that is, I think, important here, it's been eight years since we took over -- but there are a lot of people who did good work and were honorable civil servants and public servants during the Clinton administration coming back in. One of the things I worry about, though, is they'll assume they can pick up right where they left off. And the fact is the world has changed in major ways since January of '01 when we took over. And that break in service of some eight years I think they will find has been a period of time when the threat to the nation has changed in fairly dramatic ways.

Q: I want to get into that in a second. But again, before I lose the opportunity, in front of 3.5 million people, I want to say -- I want to thank you for making tough decisions, taking a lot of heat for keeping us safe. We have been safe. And I know -- I have some sense, I don't know -- what that took. I just want to thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you, Bill. A lot of credit goes to, well, I guess to two directions -- one to the President, because he made the tough decisions; and secondly, that are just -- we are uniquely blessed to have a whole bunch of folks, not only in the military, but in our intelligence services and key places in law enforcement, who have done just a superb job in terms of carrying out these policies. They're really first-rate. Some of them put their lives on the line every day for us.

Q: And we never know who they are, some of them, is that true?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's right, some of them will never be known publicly.

Q: You at least get your name in the paper -- (laughter.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, for good or for ill.

Q: That's right. Can we talk one specific before I get to philosophy -- Guantanamo. The papers are reporting this morning that President-Elect Obama may, on the first day or first week, close Guantanamo. Good decision, bad decision?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think it's a bad decision. Guantanamo is sort of a symbol I guess to the left in this country and maybe to some of our critics overseas. But the fact is it's a very well-run facility. The Red Cross is down there all the time checking on it; reporters are free to go down, members of Congress and so forth, to look at it and see what kind of facility it is. And the fact is it's first-rate.

The other key thing that people forget is that we've got a couple hundred very bad actors down there. We've been through, several times, a scrub of the population in Guantanamo. And a good many more have been returned than we still hold, have been returned to their home countries. Now, out of that group, some number has, in fact, gone back onto the battlefield against us.

So we've not been, I think, especially harsh in terms of the judgments we've made. We have let some people go, and we erred a bit on the side obviously of -- in letting the wrong people go on a few occasions. But now what's left, that is the hardcore. And you've got to decide what you're going to do with those folks before you're going to control -- before you're going to close the facility. These are al Qaeda members. These are people that we captured on the battlefield. These are folks whose main objective in life is to kill Americans.

And the thing I've noticed is there's never yet been a congressman come forward and volunteer to take 250 al Qaeda members in his district. Nobody wants to do that. So then the question is, where are you going to put them? And you've got to sort that all out before you close Guantanamo.

But these are not American citizens. They don't have the rights that an American citizen would have. They are unlawful combatants, terrorists, and by definition, their objective is to achieve their political goals by killing as many civilians as possible. They don't abide by the laws of war.

So it's a good facility. There's a reason why it's there. I used to have the impression this is a classic case where they campaigned so hard against Guantanamo that now they don't have any choice but to try to close it. But that's too bad; they've got a lot of tough questions to answer first.

Q: Yes. Well, as you say, when you close a door, you've got to open a door. And which door are they going to open? I remember when I was drug czar, we had this debate about releasing people, and I'd say well, in frustration -- have you ever been frustrated with the Congress, Mr. Cheney?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, once or twice. (Laughter.)

Q: -- I said, let them stay at your place. You don't want them there, let the stay -- where are they going to stay? Anyway, it's a great question.

Let me ask you to step back. When you have arguments and disagreements -- and I don't want to get into the sensationalistic part of it, but the serious part of it -- what is it that, whether we're talking about senators or congressmen who criticized you, fundamentally disagreed with you, what is the disagreement about? Do you say, if you knew what I knew, you would hold my view? Do they look at the same facts as you, and just come out differently? Do they not -- I'm going to throw out several options -- do they not understand the nature of evil or the nature of the threat? Is it Pollyanna attitude? What is the difference? Is the difference in philosophy, a difference in a sense of reality? Or do you have a kind of privileged perspective because of what you have access to that other people don't have? Do you see what I'm getting at?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. I think it's a combination of those things, Bill. We get into the whole area, for example, the Terrorist Surveillance Program --

Q: Right, the perfect example.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great example; important program, allows us to intercept communications from terrorists coming in to the United States, and a program we put in place using presidential authority. And it's worked. It's really given us some very, very good intelligence. Well, certain key members of Congress were briefed on that program from the very beginning. I used to preside over those briefings in my office with the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate on the intelligence committees, for example, or on one occasion the entire congressional leadership down in the Situation Room in the West Wing.

What happened then was they had the information we had, they knew how we were doing it, they knew what we were producing through that process. But then when -- Nancy Pelosi, for example, was part of that group. But then it became public. The New York Times broke the story I think in December of '05, won the Pulitzer for it, which always aggravated me.

Q: Absolutely, the worst --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Not with all members. I don't want to cast a wide net here, but you'll end up with some specific members who knew about the program, had been briefed in the program because of their responsibilities, and who had said to proceed with the program, then suddenly are critical of it publicly because it's controversial. They don't want to stand up and say, well, I was briefed on that program, and it's a good program. So it's that kind of thing that is most frustrating of all.

Q: I guess it's not a failure of judgment or intelligence, but there's a kind of -- I won't put words in your mouth, these are my words -- but a kind of political cowardice, their failure to --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Exactly. The other thing that happens that I find disturbing, we do these National Intelligence Estimates on Iraq WMD, or the Iranian nuclear program, whatever it might be. Those are made available to members of the Intelligence Committee, but they have to go to the Intelligence Committee spaces where we've got a secure facility to read those reports. And very rarely will you find any senator -- very few who will actually go read those reports.

For example, on the Iraq report that was given in '02, I think there were only, out of all the senators, 100 senators, there were only a handful who actually went and ever read the report.

Q: Yes. We have two minutes left. I want to ask you one last question and make a comment. What's your message to your fellow countrymen, fellow citizens of the United States, about the future of this country? What would you like us to do?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm an optimist, Bill. I guess you got to be to be in my business. But I think we've come a very long way during the 40 years I've been in Washington. There's no question what there are probably some problems along the way. We aren't a perfect nation, but we're certainly a unique nation in the history of the world. And I think that's a very, very important quality for us to remember, that we owe a lot to the people who made that possible. And we've got a similar obligation to our kids and grandkids to see to it that we improve it on our watch.

And so I would hope that people take all that to heart, get into the arena if you want to get into the arena. That's not the only way to serve. But it's important to remember that we're part of I think the greatest nation on Earth, and that's something to be very proud of and very serious about.

Q: -- you're right, 40 years. You came to visit -- do you remember coming to visit from the Hill when I was Secretary of Education?


Q: -- a couple of times. That was 23 years ago, Dick Cheney. You've been around a while.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughter.) I showed up here in August of '68 to stay 12 months.

Q: Well, you've served your country, sir, and we thank you for your service. And if you'll hike with me in the Wind Rivers, I'll fish with you anywhere you want.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: All right, you're on.

Q: Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay, Bill. Thanks.

END 7:46 A.M. EST

Richard B. Cheney, Live Interview of the Vice President by Bill Bennett, Morning in America Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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