Richard B. Cheney photo

The Vice President's Remarks at the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize Luncheon Followed by Q & A

June 19, 2006

The National Press Club
Washington, D.C.

1:25 P.M. EDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you all very much. I appreciate the warm welcome. It's good to be here this afternoon. And, Jonathan, I thank you for your words, and the audience for their warm welcome.

It's true I am the party who called Jim Naughton the morning after the election in '76 and offered him an exclusive interview with the President of the United States on what it was like to lose the '76 election. But I had help -- Aldo Beckman put me up to it. Mr. DeFrank was part of the group, as I recall -- maybe Phil Jones. And it was because Naughton had been so outrageous. For a couple of years he'd managed to make everybody the butt of the joke. What was especially rewarding was that when we promised him the exclusive interview if he'd be up at Camp David that Saturday -- Of course, the President wasn't there; He was in Palm Springs, I think, by then -- but Naughton was worried about missing the interview, since it was going to be 8:00 in the morning, and he wanted a photographer along, so he got hold of George Tames, many may remember the famous photographer from The New York Times and flew him in from Florida, and then they drove up to the Cozy Motel in Thurmont, Maryland where they spent the night to make sure that they didn't miss the meeting the next day. (Laughter.) And when the Marines arrested them at the gate at Camp David -- (laughter) -- and put him on the telephone and some of us were waiting in my office in the West Wing. And of course, Naughton knew then he'd been nailed.

The amazing thing was about two years later, I was running for Congress for the first time in Wyoming. In the midst of my first campaign I had a heart attack, and so I found myself age 37 in the intensive care unit in the hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I've got all of the various wires and tubes running in me and so forth as happens after you've been through one of those experiences. And I was laying there contemplating my future, wondering whether or not I was going to be able to continue my political career and so forth. And my wife, Lynne, walked in laughing. And I didn't see anything very funny about the circumstances. (Laughter.) She handed me a telegram. It said, "Dear Dick, I didn't do it. Signed, Naughton." (Laughter.)

But anyway, we need to get serious. And I'm delighted to have the opportunity to participate once again in the presentation of the Gerald R. Ford Prizes for Distinguished Reporting.

For many years, of course, the highlight of this event was an appearance by the President himself. And although he couldn't make the journey today, as Jack indicated, I had the privilege of talking to him last week. And he obviously asked to extend best wishes to all of you here today. I know the entire Ford family is looking forward to helping him celebrate his 93rd birthday next month, and shortly after that, I believe the 58th wedding anniversary of Jerry and Betty Ford.

It's good to be with the journalists who've received the Ford Prize this afternoon. This is the first opportunity I've had to meet Mark Mazzetti. But Tom, of course, is someone I've known for more than 30 years. He covered President Ford as Vice President and continued covering the White House for Newsweek. He traveled constantly with us, witnessed almost everything that you can see at that level -- summit meetings, campaign events of every conceivable variety, historic debates, two assassination attempts. And I know that Tom, as well as most other journalists who dealt with our 38th President, came away from the experience with unstinting admiration for the man himself.

My own history with President Ford goes back to the very beginning of his presidency, when he put Don Rumsfeld in charge of the transition and Don asked me to join the team. Rumsfeld, of course, became Chief of Staff. I served as the deputy, and then took over that job when President Ford asked Don to go to the Defense Department as Secretary of Defense. The Ford administration lasted from August 9th of 1974 until January 20th of 1977. But as Henry Kissinger has observed, the pace of activity and the volume of challenges in those 29 months were sufficient to fill an eight-year presidency.

A simple, and partial, recitation of events is enough to bring back the feeling of that era, and the nature of the task that fell to President Gerald Ford -- economic recession; the fall of Saigon; the capture and rescue of the USS Mayaguez; the only Supreme Court vacancy in a period of nine years; meetings in Helsinki and the Helsinki Summit; the pardon of former President Nixon; clemency for draft deserters; the death of Chairman Mao; the nation's bicentennial; the nomination battle in 1976 with Ronald Reagan; finally, the general election campaign against Jimmy Carter, in which we started out 30 points behind, but in the end achieved one of the closest electoral college votes in the nation since the election of 1916.

Through all of this, America was exceedingly fortunate to have a steady hand at the wheel. Although Gerald Ford inherited a tarnished office and had to clean up a mess not of his own making, he was more than equal to the enterprise. He spoke plainly and forthrightly to the American people. He made decisions carefully but also firmly. And while he was naturally modest, he was comfortable with responsibility and a master of details. I'll never forget the time when budget season came around, and the President made an announcement to the staff: instead of having the OMB Director brief the news media on the budget, he, the President, would do it himself. And he did. It was a moment without parallel in the last 50 years, and he was superb.

In every respect, Gerald Ford labored hard at his job, and he was good at it. And on his last day in the Oval Office our economy was strong again, the nation was confident again, and largely by the character of President Ford, the wounds of an uneasy time had been healed.

As Chief of Staff, my job entailed many long hours at President Ford's side. In working with him every day, it struck me that whatever the circumstance, whatever the political temperature, whatever the challenge of the moment, I was always dealing fundamentally with the same man. Gerald Ford is the kind of person whose good qualities appear on first impression, and are only confirmed when you spend any length of time with him. If a situation ever tempted the man to be petty or cruel, he never once sank to it. He is abidingly decent, thoughtful, and utterly lacking in pretense. He is also a very wise man who appreciates history, understands human nature, and lives by the New Testament. He has been a mentor and friend and a source of good advice to me and to so many, many others.

And those of us who served in his administration feel a great loyalty and admiration for our leader, and we're extremely grateful that President Ford has received the gift of many years of good health.

President Ford is also a patient and a forgiving man. And so, naturally, he has a high regard for the news media. (Laughter.) It is more than fitting that the good name of our 38th President be attached to the prestigious awards presented this afternoon. And on President Ford's behalf I am happy to congratulate Mark Mazzetti and Tom DeFrank. (Applause.)

And now for the questions.

Q: Now for the -- thank you very much, Mr. Vice President. First question: Are we winning the war on terror?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe we are. I think we've made significant progress if you look back over the last nearly five years now. 9/11, obviously, was a watershed event for us. After 9/11, we adopted a very aggressive strategy that involved a range of activities, but most especially going after the terrorists wherever we could find them on their ground, going after states that sponsored terror, given the fact that the biggest threat now is the possibility of an al Qaeda cell armed with a nuclear weapon or a biological agent in the middle of one of our own cities, the WMD issue. And it has been very important.

Going after the financial networks, where I think we've made significant progress, cooperation with intelligence agencies of other nations, as well, too. I look at the broad sweep of events over that period of time and several things stand out. First of all, the fact -- I define this as sort of a key ingredient of getting the locals into the fight, that is to say the United States cannot all by itself succeed everyplace unless we've got friends and allies willing to participate in the venture.

Certainly, we did that in Afghanistan when we went in and toppled the Taliban government in short order with the help of Afghans who participate in that conflict. We've done it in places like Pakistan, where the government of Pakistan signed on. It has been a good ally. We've captured and killed more al Qaeda in Pakistan than just about any place else in the world. It has happened in Saudi Arabia and is happening now in Iraq where we've gone in, taken down regimes that were safe havens for terrorists, or that we had reason to believe were an integral part of the problem, and, of course, moved aggressively then in Afghanistan and Iraq to stand up new democracies to train their own forces. And that process goes forward.

The other point I'd make in connection with the global war on terror is the fact that it has been nearly five years now and we haven't been hit again. Nobody can promise that we won't be hit. We know that organizations are still out there, that in addition to al Qaeda, there are al Qaeda wannabees. There have been attacks around the world since 9/11 in places like London and Madrid and Istanbul and Casablanca and Mombasa and Tunisia and Jakarta and Bali and many, many other places. But the fact of the matter is, we've been safe and secure here at home. That's not an accident. It didn't happen just because we got lucky. I think there's a great temptation on the part of some people to believe that 9/11 was a one-off affair and it will never happen again, but that's not the case.

One of the reasons -- several reasons I think why we have been successful up until now is that we've gotten extremely aggressive at taking the battle to the enemy overseas, but secondly also because we've taken some measures here at home that have been instrumental in collecting the intelligence we need to be able to disrupt attacks against the United States and to protect the lives of Americans. And there I would point to such things as the Patriot Act and the terrorist surveillance program.

Obviously, there's been some controversy in connection with those, but the terrorist surveillance program has been very important. We've engaged in a debate about the wisdom of the program and whether or not it's legal, but it clearly is legal, we believe. It is consistent with the Constitution. It is a program that is reviewed personally by the President every 45 days. He renews it only after he's been assured by our lead intelligence officials, by the Defense Department, and assured by the Attorney General of the United States that it fully complies with the laws of the land -- then and only then does he renew that act. But I think that combination of things -- very aggressive campaigns overseas in key areas, as well as the extraordinary measures we've taken to defend the nation here at home are in no small part responsible for the fact that we have not been hit again since 9/11.

Again, let me emphasize, nobody can promise that we won't be hit again, but I think we've had significant success primarily because of decisions that the President, coupled with the enormous and tremendously courageous performance of our military, our intelligence people and a lot of others involved in the effort.

Q The court that must approve some of those wire taps, discussions first began, according to this questioner, when you were Chief of Staff for President Ford. What were the discussions at the time, and what was your position on the setting up of those courts?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: As I recall, the act was passed I think in 1978, after -- I was a candidate for Congress then, but I wasn't in the government at that time. I think the important thing I would say, we do support the FISA Act. I think it has been important. The fact of the matter is, the technology has evolved so dramatically in the telecommunications area in the last several years that the FISA Act does not fit precisely all circumstances that we now are faced with. But we work very closely with the FISA courts in terms of carrying out our duties and responsibilities in that area.

Q About a year ago, you said that the insurgency in Iraq was in its final there throes. Do you still believe this?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do. What I was referring to was the series of events that took place in 1995 [sic]. I think the key turning point, when we get back 10 years from now, say, and look back on this period of time, and with respect to the campaign in Iraq, will be that series of events when the Iraqis increasingly took over responsibility for their own affairs. And there I point to the election in January of '05, when we set up the interim government; the drafting of the constitution in the summer of '05; the national referendum in the fall of '05, when the Iraqis overwhelmingly approved that constitution; and then the vote last December, when some 12 million Iraqis, in defiance of the car bombers and the terrorists went to the polls and voted in overwhelming numbers to set up a new government under that constitution, and that process of course has been completed recently with the appointment by Prime Minister Maliki of ministers to fill those jobs.

I think that will have been, from a historical turning point, the period that we'll be able to look at and say, that's when we turned the corner; that's when we began to get a handle on the long-term future of Iraq.

Q Do you think that you underestimated the insurgency's strength?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think so. I guess if I look back on it now, I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we've encountered. I guess the other area that I look at, in terms of an area where I think we were faced with difficulties we didn't anticipate was the devastation that 30 years of Saddam's rule had wrought, if you will, on the psychology of the Iraqi people. Very, very hard to go from the way they were forced to live for a long period of time to a situation in which they have the opportunity for self-government, for setting up and operating their own free and democratically-elected society. That's a huge transition to make.

And if I look back on something that I underestimated, it would be the extent to which that society had been damaged by that series of events that had occurred over 30 years during Saddam's rule, up to and including the 1991 uprising where so many Iraqis rose up against the regime, and then were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein's forces.

Q This questioner wants to know, is there any scenario under which you envision the draft being reinstated.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, none that I can see. I'm a big believer in the all-volunteer force. I think it's produced a magnificent military. We keep the provisions for the draft in case circumstances should arise where it might be needed, but I don't foresee the development of those kinds of conditions any time in the future.

Q You have talked about reclaiming the powers of the presidency that was lost following Watergate, in fact when President Ford had taken office, and you've talked about the notion of the unitary executive. Should there be any limits, and if so, what?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't believe I've ever talked about the unitary executive. Others may have suggested that I talked about that.

But I clearly do believe, and have spoken directly about the importance of a strong presidency, and that I think there have been times in the past, oftentimes in response to events such as Watergate or the war in Vietnam, where Congress has begun to encroach upon the powers and responsibilities of the President; that it was important to go back and try to restore that balance.

I participated in the Iran-Contra investigation in the Congress. For those of you who are bored and don't have anything else to do, there are minority views we filed with that report that lay out a view with respect to how we think the balance ought to exist between the executive and the legislative in the conduct of national security policy. So I do believe there is a -- it's very important to have a strong executive.

What are the limits? The limits are the Constitution. And, certainly, we need to and do adhere to those limitations. But I think if you look at things like the War Powers Act, for example, adopted in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict, that that was an infringement on the President's ability to deploy troops. It's never really been tested. I think it's probably unconstitutional. There are a series of events like that that we believed needed to have the balance righted, if you will, and I think we've done that successfully.

Q This comes as no surprise, this being a press club, I do have several press questions for you. The Bush administration worries that disclosures of classified information may have damaged national security. Can you cite a time in U.S. history when a press disclosure has genuinely damaged national security?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I do believe that there need to be secrets. I think there are things that the federal government does in the national security arena that need to be off limits. And I think the fact of the matter is that there have been stories written that are damaging, if you will, from the standpoint of national security.

I would -- obviously, I can't get into any operational details. One of the frustrations that exist with this debate is that you cannot go out and talk about current operations with the press in order to try to explain to everybody why that particular piece of information needs to say secret.

Let me just say that there have been examples that I am aware of where we've had discussions of ways in which al Qaeda communicates, for example, and because of those conversations they no longer communicate that way, and we've lost the ability in some cases to be able to intercept important communications.

I can think of one situation recently that had to do with a story that appeared in one of our major newspapers. It dealt with certain technical countermeasures that we were considering with respect to how we would deal with a certain type of a problem. And within five days of the publication of that story, there were posted ways to deal with that and to neutralize our activities on one of the jihadist websites. That was about five days from publication in a major U.S. news outlet until it was on a jihadist website -- advice, in effect, on how to counter what our military wanted to do in a particular area.

Now that strikes me as a pretty straightforward, direct example of why it is important that there be secrets. I think oftentimes in the past, there's no question, the executive branch has probably overdone it with respect to classification. On the other hand, the assumption on the part of some of the press that it doesn't matter if it's classified, they have every right to print absolutely anything they want, and they are the final judges, I think that's a mistake.

I think if somebody is asked by the -- say, the President of the United States or a senior administration official who is in a position of authority and has some knowledge in the area to withhold on a particular story, they need to give that serious thought. And I think that we are -- one of the problems we have is that oftentimes as a government we're perceived by other governments overseas, people we have to work with, intelligence services who need to have confidence in our ability to keep a secret, find it difficult to work with us because the United States has oftentimes demonstrated an inability to maintain the security of classified information. So it's the problem.

Q Mr. Vice President, I've been advised by your staff that you need to cut the program off early. So I wanted to ask a final question to you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Why is that? (Laughter.) Something is going on I don't know about. (Laughter.) Or maybe the President is watching.

Q I hope he's not watching, because of this question. (Laughter.) President Bush will be 60 on July 6th. What gift do you plan to give him?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Maybe a shotgun? (Laughter.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: He's got one already. What gift do I plan to give him. Well, we usually don't exchange birthday presidents, we exchange Christmas presents. And I'd have to give serious thought. It's probably -- it's one of those things that need to be secret. (Laughter and applause.)

END 1:47 P.M. EDT

Richard B. Cheney, The Vice President's Remarks at the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize Luncheon Followed by Q & A Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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