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Cheney Reflects on Civil Liberties, Terror Fight, Bush Team

September 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
"In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir" by former Vice President Dick Cheney chronicles his 40 years in American politics. Judy Woodruff and Cheney discuss the new book and much more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, to our NewsHour conversation with former Vice President Dick Cheney.

I spoke with him a short time ago about his new book, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” and more.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, thank you very much for talking with us.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, it’s nice to be on the program again, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the book is “In My Time.”

And, in the book, you talk extensively, write extensively about your time in government, in Congress. You were chief of staff to President Ford. You were secretary of defense and, of course, vice president.

In all those years in government, was there one action, one policy move that you think has had the greatest impact on this country?

DICK CHENEY: Well, I think, in more recent times, probably the most significant was the period after 9/11, the effort we had to mount to keep the country safe from follow-on attack.

The morning after 9/11, there was a conviction that there would be follow-on attacks. We read a lot of intelligence to that effect. But keeping the country safe for seven-and-a-half years was probably our most significant achievement during that period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there, of course, has been a lot of debate, a lot of discussion about what happened…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … including the debate about national security vs. civil liberties.

I just happened to look at The Wall Street Journal the other day. They, of course, had written a review of the book. And a reader wrote in as a comment. And he said — he said — quote — “There’s no doubt America is safer because of Dick Cheney’s security policies.” But he said, “The Soviet Union was the safest place in the world under Joseph Stalin.” And he said, “When we deny civil liberties to other people, we should always ask ourselves, what price freedom?”

DICK CHENEY: Well, the question I would ask is, what civil liberties were denied to American citizens?

And what we did in two areas — the terror surveillance program probably was the most broad-reaching that we put together in the aftermath of 9/11. We did that with the approval of congressional leadership. They were fully briefed on the whole exercise.

We eventually went back and got modifications in the FISA statutes, the court that oversees the process of our signals intelligence collections. And they would be hard-put to find any evidence that there was, in fact, infringement on people’s civil liberties. There was a lot of emotion generated by that, also by the enhanced interrogation techniques that were used just on a handful of al-Qaida captives, never on an American citizen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you dispute the idea that civil liberties were circumscribed?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think the country, Vice President Cheney, is as safe today as it was when you and President Bush left office?

DICK CHENEY: Well, that depends in part, of course, on what our adversaries are up to. And we can’t know everything there.

I think there’s still a significant threat out there. I don’t think that’s gone, by any means. And I think it’s very important for to us remain vigilant. But, of course, Osama bin Laden’s dead now. That’s a significant plus in terms of greater security.

But I worry very much that we’re still vulnerable to attack if you have a group of terrorists who are dedicated to launching an attack, killing Americans, and they don’t care about surviving themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in connection with that, in fact, there was a story in The New York Times today about a debate inside — today inside the Obama administration over just how far to take the war against terrorists, whether to carry it as far as the foot soldiers, for example, in Somalia, in Yemen, who are worried about parochial concerns about land, or just — or to restrict it to the high-level individuals who may have plotted an attack against the United States.

DICK CHENEY: Well, but it’s difficult to sort of apply those kind of concepts to some organization like al-Qaida.

We had Abu Musab al Zarqawi, for example. It’s a man who was Jordanian by birth, imprisoned in Jordan for terrorism, let out on an amnesty, ended up in Afghanistan running a training camp for al-Qaida, and eventually became the head of al-Qaida in Iraq.

National boundaries didn’t mean anything. Eventually, we killed him, but after he had done enormous damage over a long period of time. Now, you know, do you want to catch him early in his career, when he first commits a terrorist act, or you want to wait until he becomes the leader of all the al-Qaida in Iraq?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are saying you do draw the line or you don’t?

DICK CHENEY: I don’t think you can. I think you have to be aware that there is a threat out there and that, if you find people who are plotting terrorist attacks against Americans overseas or here at home, or our friends and allies, then you have to take action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have been asked this question 1,000 times. The war in Iraq, the justification was, the fear was that Saddam Hussein had a way to threaten the United States or our interests, U.S. interests.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We now know there were no weapons of mass destruction. You have written about that.

In looking back on it, though, with 20/20 hindsight, have you adjusted or changed the justification in your own mind for that war that so many people today think was a mistake?

DICK CHENEY: Yes, well, the — I guess the way I look at it is that the — there was justification. It wasn’t a question that he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. He had no stockpiles. He still had the people. He had the technology. He had the raw materials. And he clearly had the intent.

If you talk to a man like Charles Duelfer, who oversaw the Iraq Survey Group that went in and did the search for — and to see what he had afterwards, he was very concerned about what they did find.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.

DICK CHENEY: They didn’t have any stockpiles of existing weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You talk about national security more than the economy in the book. But when it comes to deficits, you responded to something that Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary, wrote, when at one point you told him Ronald Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.

You responded he took you out of context; that is not really what you meant. But, today, how much of a priority should there be on deficits?

DICK CHENEY: Oh, there has to be a big priority on it.

We’re to the point now, especially as a result of looking at our long-term debt problem and entitlements in particular, we have to have — I hope the special committee that’s been appointed will, in fact, adopt a major program to reduce our deficits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even though there wasn’t that sort of focus on deficits in your administration?

DICK CHENEY: Well, first of all, the deficit wasn’t nearly as big obviously as it is today. It’s been significantly expanded under the Obama administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it was $400 billion when you and President Bush left office.

DICK CHENEY: But now we’re talking about a deficit, a debt that rivals our total national annual economy of upwards of $14 trillion.

The situation today is more serious than it was then. It’s going to require us to go after entitlements, as well as all other aspects of federal spending. And it’s essential that we do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are critical, either mildly or more vigorously, of a number of high-level people in the Bush administration, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and a number of others.

How did you decide — and some said you should have even been more critical, you should have been more unvarnished in you what said. How did you decide how much to pull the curtain back on…

DICK CHENEY: Well, I tried to keep it focused on policy and where there were policy differences, because I thought there were some areas where there were legitimate debates.

I had a major disagreement, for example, with the State Department run by Secretary Rice over the way we handled the North Korean account. I write about that in the book. And I thought it was enlightening in terms of being able to talk about the kinds of problems you encounter in an administration.

And it also dealt with the very important proposition of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist-sponsoring states, in this case Syria.

With respect to Gen. Powell, again, we had worked closely together in the — when we were at the Defense Department.


DICK CHENEY: I write about that. I gave him credit for that, mentioned that I got him appointed as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By the time he got to the State Department and I became vice president, it didn’t work as well, obviously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last question. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, said this week about you, he said — quote — “Whether you agree or disagree with him, this is a man of wisdom and judgment.” He said, “That’s the kind of person I would like to have for vice president.”

DICK CHENEY: Well, that’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you ready to return the favor, that he’s the kind of person you would like to see president?

DICK CHENEY: That’s very kind of Mitt. He’s a good man.

I haven’t endorsed anybody for president. And I do not want to be vice president again. I had a great eight years there, but my political career has ended. I spent 40 years at it. I don’t have any plans to return to public life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Could you support him?

DICK CHENEY: Mitt Romney, if he’s the nominee, certainly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we will leave it there, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The book is “In My Time.”

Thank you very much for talking with us.

DICK CHENEY: Well, it’s good to see you again, Judy.