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Vice President Dick Cheney

September 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who say – okay, we’ve got this war against al-Qaida and it’s not finished – we’re still trying to find out about Osama bin Laden, why are we talking about starting a new war with Iraq?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, Iraq is a related, but obviously somewhat different proposition, and the situation in Iraq is the culmination of many years of effort. Saddam Hussein signed up at the end of the Gulf War to certain U.N. Security Council Resolutions to get rid of all of his weapons of mass destruction and to allow inspectors to come in and verify that. He has complied with virtually none of the resolutions that have been applied to him.

Between 1996 and 1998 on six separate occasions, the Security Council took up decisions and found him to be in flagrant violation and demanded that he grant access – unfettered access to inspectors to come in and prove that he’s complied with these resolutions and he absolutely thumbed his nose at the United Nations – never complied. That was ’96 through ’98. Now, since ’98 there haven’t been any inspectors in there at all.

We know based on primarily intelligence reporting, as well as some of the earlier work done by inspectors as well as defectors who’ve come out and told us what’s going on – we know he is continuing to expand and improve his biological weapons capability both in terms of production and delivery systems. We know he is working once again on a nuclear program. The nuclear weapons program was much further along than we thought at the time of Desert Storm before we actually did the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

I was told, as were most of our senior officials, that it was some years away from a nuclear weapon. We found after the war, once we got people in there on the ground that he was probably within a year of actually having a usable nuclear weapon – that was ’91 – 10 years ago. No inspectors have been in there since ’98. We know again that he has the weapons design; we know he has the technicians who know how to build a nuclear weapon, that what he lacks — fissile material – not enriched uranium or plutonium that he could use for a weapon — and we know that he has re-energized, if you will, his efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon.

We know he continues to work on his chemical weapons capabilities, different capability obviously than the B.W. [biological weapons] or the nukes– but that activity is underway; it’s ongoing. We know he’s sitting on top of 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves. As he takes that wealth that is generated off of that, he’s earning a lot of money now on the side, outside the oil for food programme- money that goes into his pocket to be used for whatever purpose he wants- that he is going to continue to ignore the United Nations and to build these deadly capabilities.

If he had nuclear weapons- we don’t know when he’ll get them- there are various estimates on timing but we don’t know everything we’d like to know about his program. Once he’s got a nuclear weapon, I think it’ll be virtually impossible to put together an international coalition to deal with this problem.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Because he would use it as a threat?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: You think of those 30 countries that signed up for the coalition in the Gulf War – many of them will simply take a pass faced with that kind of problem. So time is not on our side. Eventually the international community has to come to grips with the fact that this is a growing threat and all the efforts to date to deal with it diplomatically and through the U.N. have failed.

JIM LEHRER: You said several times just now we know, we know, we know. Are you and the President prepared to tell the members of Congress and the American public, and the international community where there is – I think you would agree – a singular lack of enthusiasm for doing what you and the President are advocating – are you going to lay all this information out in a way that we can all see it?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: We are certainly going to share a good deal of information with selected members of Congress; we’ve got a problem here. When we learn information from sensitive sources about what Saddam Hussein is doing with respect to his weapons program, it has to be treated in a confidential fashion or it will destroy our ability to continue to collect that information.

If you brief 535 members of Congress, it will probably stay classified – and I don’t mean to be critical members of Congress- I was one for 10 years – but that many people, you’re likely to have a leak in very short order. So there’s some happy medium here, where we can go, as we have done in the past – this is not unusual by any means- where you brief just the senior leadership, for example, of the Congress, the big four – the Speaker, Minority Leader in the House and Majority/Minority Leader in the Senate, and maybe key committee chairmen, ranking members, so that they have access to the same information we have and then, in effect, the Congress will work with their leadership in terms of addressing this issue and engaging the debate.

We’ll do everything we can to make as much as we can public, as well too, there will be public hearings. The president is going before the United Nations this week to lay out the case there, but there are certain pieces of information that are highly classified and need to remain highly classified, in terms of our ability to continue to work these problems.

JIM LEHRER: So then it could come down in the final analysis to you and the president saying you just have to take our word for it?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: No. I think clearly when you elect a president and expect him to make these decisions for us, this is a presidential decision, without question. He’s indicated he wants to work as closely as he can with international leaders as well as members of Congress, and we’ll do all that.

We’ll get as many members of Congress read in to what we know as we can. But there has to be some kind of understanding that there’s a limit beyond which we can’t go without destroying our capacity to be able to know what’s going on in a crucial, crucial area.

JIM LEHRER: A lot of people suggested after your two speeches to the two veteran’s organizations recently that you essentially issued an informal declaration of war; that we are, in fact, in a state of war against Iraq – the United States of America is. Is that a correct reading of it?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: No, I think that would be an overstatement. I think it would be fair to say the president has not yet made a decision, other than to conclude that doing nothing is not an option. We cannot continue to ignore this problem. He is going to address it with the United Nations, which is the place to do it since they’re the ones who have passed a whole series of resolutions, which Saddam has ignored without consequence. There’s been no penalty for Saddam Hussein ignoring these requirements.

And that his growing capability increasingly represents a threat to the region, to U.S. forces in the region and ultimately to the United States, itself, and that we have to come to grips with that problem now. That’s sort of — in my mind– sort of a statement of facts. It’s an organization, if you will, of those things that are known out there. What I’ve just said shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. It is, in fact, a recitation of recent history and of what is generally available in the media with respect to his capabilities.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a fair reading though of what you and the President are saying as well – yes, the president is going to go talk to the U.N., yes, we’re going to go deal with Congress, and, yes, we’re going to make as much information available as possible – but if you all don’t go along, the United States of America will, in fact, take unilateral action if it comes down to that?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I don’t want to predict what the president will ultimately decide, Jim- that’s not my role obviously. And he is clearly, as we all are, who are part of this administration, this national security team deeply concerned about what we see happening here. And we do believe it must be addressed, that we cannot simply sit back and allow these current trends with respect to Iraq to continue now.

Next step- what are you going to do about it? Well, that’s what we’re going to discuss with the Congress and with the United Nations and the President will lead that discussion in the weeks ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Is it – do you and the president have an open mind about the final act that may have to be taken? In other words, are you listening as much as talking over these next several weeks, whatever it takes, and to other countries, to members of Congress, who may have reservations, who may have objections to what you all are thinking of doing?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I think we are open minded about it. I think it’s important to understand the President of the United States has special responsibilities here. First and foremost, he has an obligation, has taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic – and that he — he is the one who is charged, that we will look to, to see to it that the United States is defended against a potential threat. That’s a special obligation that nobody else has, except him.

Secondly, we’ve reached the point with respect to Iraq where from a military standpoint the United States is the only nation who can deal with it – there is no other nation in the world that can deal with this threat militarily should it come to that; it hasn’t come to that yet, but it could.

Third, I think most of the rest of the world is not as concerned as we are about vulnerabilities because they haven’t been hit – they didn’t lose 3,000 people last September 11, we did. We understand to a greater extent than ever before I think the vulnerability of modern society to an attack, and so I think it’s perhaps more urgent from our perspective; the president has greater responsibility than anybody else does in this respect, and the final point I guess I’d make is the sense that we have that to date the traditional way of dealing with this problem through the international organization of the United Nations with the Security Council has produced zero results.

JIM LEHRER: So, to make sure I understand what you’re saying – that you believe that the President of the United States has the right and the responsibility to act unilaterally in this situation, if it comes to that.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: No, he has not made that decision yet, and I don’t want to pre-judge it, but I do think it is a question if military action would have allowed us to preempt what happened on 9/11 and avoid the loss of 3,000 American lives, would we have done it – absolutely. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. There aren’t many Americans who wouldn’t sign up to that proposition.

We have to be concerned now – not sort of in the light of what the world looked like before 9/11 but what the world looks like after 9/11 — that we are prepared to make certain that we can defend the United States against foreign threats. And we are especially concerned about Iraq because of the developments we see with respect to his weapons of mass destruction, because he has in the past, for example, had a relationship with terrorist organizations; he’s provided sanctuary in Iraq for terrorist organizations of various kinds — and because of this continued failure over the years of the international community to be able to cope with this problem.

So as we’ve said – the President said and I’ve repeated — time is not on our side. If you wait – his capabilities are only going to grow greater, the threat will only increase, and the difficulty of the world coming together, the international community, to deal with that threat, will become more substantial.

JIM LEHRER: What was the worst time for you personally — on 9/11 or after 9/11?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, that day — I remember the collapse of the World Trade Center. I’d been evacuated down into the – presidential emergency operation – there had been a report that came in that a plane was headed for the White House. They evacuated me at that point to the shelter underneath the White House. That’s the plane that ultimately circled back and hit the Pentagon.

And all of those events – when — the second plane hitting the Trade Center, we understood this was really a terrorist act – to the point where we were dealing with trying to get aircraft on the ground in the early stages and trying to manage the crisis and then to watch as the World Trade Center came down, which was a shock to everybody – it certainly was to me.

I didn’t really expect that that would happen, hadn’t had time to analyze it, think about it, but you’re busy in those early minutes and hours trying to deal with it, and then all of a sudden watch in real time the Center collapse, that was a stark moment-there’s a picture that’s been taken of several of us who were in the PEOC – myself, Mary Matlin, Condi Rice, my wife, Lynn, at that moment, and the look on people’s faces as they watch the Trade Center –

JIM LEHRER: Do you remember what your first reaction was – what is going on here? I mean, what did you think was happening?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: My secretary had called in – I was in a meeting with my speech writer in my office – called in said a plane hit the World Trade Center – so we turned on the television and the first plane had already gone in, and we looked at that – you know, how could that happen – a clear day – there’s no weather problems — how do you get an airplane hitting the World Trade Center – and then we talked about that for a few minutes — and then, as we watched, the second plane, we actually saw the second plane hit and at that moment you knew that it was a terrorist attack.

JIM LEHRER: Difficult question – but you’re Dick Cheney an individual and you’re also Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States – did you think, oh, my God, I’m the Vice President of the United States and our country is being attacked – I mean, what — how did you adjust your thinking to accommodate this awful event and your responsibilities?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, it’s a fascinating question, Jim. What happened – this happened to the president too; he and I have talked about it. You’ve got a job to do, and because you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to focus on that, so you don’t have time for personal considerations. You don’t think that, gee, maybe I’m a target. Even after the airplane was headed for the White House, that of course never hit or circled back and hit the Pentagon – I’m aware at that point what’s transpired out there but you’re thinking in terms of your official responsibilities.

As Vice President one of the things I spend time on is the continuity of government; that’s the main reason I’m here is a back up for the President if anything happens to him. And so my first reaction that morning as soon as I’d heard the third plane had hit the Pentagon was to pick up the telephone and call the president, who was headed for his airplane in Florida and urged him not to return primarily because we didn’t know how extensive the attack was.

We knew what else was in store. We knew Washington was under attack now, and it was important I thought to make sure he did not come back to the middle of an attack, and he didn’t like that but he agreed with it. Then we made arrangements to get Denny Hastert out of town up to a secure facility because he was third in line to the presidency, and we made arrangements because the key here is to get some cabinet members located outside the city at secure locations because — to protect the line of succession — to make certain no matter what happens there’s going to be somebody there who’s constitutionally and statutorily certified to be President of the United States if something happens to those ahead of him on the list, and you can say, well, what about you, you’re number two.

And at one point the Secret Service did recommend evacuating me from the White House complex but I decided not to do that, because we’d already provided for the line of succession; the president was safe; the speaker was safe and others. And it was important I thought for me to stay connected and I could do that if I stayed in the PEOC where I had communications with the President, with the Secretary of Defense, with the Pentagon, and so forth, could continue to work the problem. Now you don’t think of it in personal terms.

You really do think about it institutionally; this is your job, and to some extent you benefit from having a job to do at a moment like this. You have things that you have to make happen. And you don’t have time for the emotional reaction that might otherwise occur if somebody was just sitting there watching these events unfold and had no responsibilities.

JIM LEHRER: But since that day have there been emotional times for when you have felt fear for yourself or for your wife or for your children, for your grandchildren?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Family members — on a couple of occasions – when you want to make sure your kids and grandkids are taken care of, covered, and of course their lives have changed because security has been significantly enhanced since September 11th.

From a personal standpoint I’ve thought a couple of times, the thought’s occurred to me, that the reporting we got from some of the people that we wrapped up in Afghanistan was that a fourth aircraft was headed for the White House – to the Capitol Building – the White House – so obviously it was a potential target and that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, was taken down by the passengers.

Had they not done that, had they not engaged in a very courageous act and taken on the terrorists, the destruction of the aircraft before it could complete its mission, they will have saved my life and that of all of us who were at the White House complex that day, and that’s something that I think about periodically; if it hadn’t been for what they did, that I might not be here today. Those kinds of thoughts occur occasionally, especially when I think about what happened in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

JIM LEHRER: And they will be with you forever. Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Thank you, Jim.