Cheney Defends Bush-era Defense Policies
Thank you all very much, and Arthur, thank you for that
introduction. It’s good to be back at AEI, where we have many friends. Lynne is
one of your longtime scholars, and I’m looking forward to spending more time
here myself as a returning trustee. What happened was, they were looking for a
new member of the board of trustees, and they asked me to head up the search
Listen to former Vice President Cheney’s full speech:
I first came to AEI after serving at the Pentagon, and
departed only after a very interesting job offer came along. I had no
expectation of returning to public life, but my career worked out a little
differently. Those eight years as vice president were quite a journey, and
during a time of big events and great decisions, I don’t think I missed much.
Being the first vice president who had also served as
secretary of defense, naturally my duties tended toward national security. I
focused on those challenges day to day, mostly free from the usual political
distractions. I had the advantage of being a vice president content with the
responsibilities I had, and going about my work with no higher ambition. Today,
I’m an even freer man. Your kind invitation brings me here as a private
citizen–a career in politics behind me, no elections to win or lose, and no
favor to seek.
The responsibilities we carried belong to others now. And
though I’m not here to speak for George W. Bush, I am certain that no one
wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we
do. We understand the complexities of national security decisions. We
understand the pressures that confront a president and his advisers. Above all,
we know what is at stake. And though administrations and policies have changed,
the stakes for America have not changed.
Right now there is considerable debate in this city about
the measures our administration took to defend the American people. Today I
want to set forth the strategic thinking behind our policies. I do so as one
who was there every day of the Bush administration who supported the policies
when they were made, and without hesitation would do so again in the same
When President Obama makes wise decisions, as I believe he
has done in some respects on Afghanistan, and in reversing his plan to release
incendiary photos, he deserves our support. And when he faults or
mischaracterizes the national security decisions we made in the Bush years, he
deserves an answer. The point is not to look backward. Now and for years to
come, a lot rides on our President’s understanding of the security policies
that preceded him. And whatever choices he makes concerning the defense of this
country, those choices should not be based on slogans and campaign rhetoric,
but on a truthful telling of history.
Our administration always faced its share of criticism, and
from some quarters it was always intense. That was especially so in the later
years of our term, when the dangers were as serious as ever, but the sense of
general alarm after September 11, 2001 was a fading memory. Part of our
responsibility, as we saw it, was not to forget the terrible harm that had been
done to America . . . and not to let 9/11 become the prelude to something much
bigger and far worse.
That attack itself was, of course, the most devastating
strike in a series of terrorist plots carried out against Americans at home and
abroad. In 1993, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, hoping to bring down
the towers with a blast from below. The attacks continued in 1995, with the
bombing of U.S. facilities in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the killing of servicemen
at Khobar Towers in 1996; the attack on our embassies in East Africa in 1998;
the murder of American sailors on the USS Cole in 2000; and then the hijackings
of 9/11, and all the grief and loss we suffered on that day.
9/11 caused everyone to take a serious second look at
threats that had been gathering for a while, and enemies whose plans were
getting bolder and more sophisticated. Throughout the 90s, America had
responded to these attacks, if at all, on an ad hoc basis. The first attack on
the World Trade Center was treated as a law enforcement problem, with
everything handled after the fact–crime scene, arrests, indictments, convictions,
prison sentences, case closed.
That’s how it seemed from a law enforcement perspective, at
least–but for the terrorists the case was not closed. For them, it was another
offensive strike in their ongoing war against the United States. And it turned
their minds to even harder strikes with higher casualties. Nine-eleven made
necessary a shift of policy, aimed at a clear strategic threat–what the
Congress called “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national
security and foreign policy of the United States.” From that moment
forward, instead of merely preparing to round up the suspects and count up the
victims after the next attack, we were determined to prevent attacks in the
We could count on almost universal support back then,
because everyone understood the environment we were in. We’d just been hit by a
foreign enemy–leaving 3,000 Americans dead, more than we lost at Pearl Harbor.
In Manhattan, we were staring at 16 acres of ashes. The Pentagon took a direct
hit, and the Capitol or the White House were spared only by the Americans on
Flight 93, who died bravely and defiantly.
Everyone expected a follow-on attack, and our job was to
stop it. We didn’t know what was coming next, but everything we did know in
that autumn of 2001 looked bad. This was the world in which al-Qaida was
seeking nuclear technology, and A. Q. Khan was selling nuclear technology on
the black market. We had the anthrax attack from an unknown source. We had the
training camps of Afghanistan, and dictators like Saddam Hussein with known
ties to Mideast terrorists.
These are just a few of the problems we had on our hands.
And foremost on our minds was the prospect of the very worst coming to pass–a
9/11 with nuclear weapons.
For me, one of the defining experiences was the morning of
9/11 itself. As you might recall, I was in my office in that first hour, when
radar caught sight of an airliner heading toward the White House at 500 miles
an hour. That was Flight 77, the one that ended up hitting the Pentagon. With
the plane still inbound, Secret Service agents came into my office and said we
had to leave, now. A few moments later I found myself in a fortified White
House command post somewhere down below.
There in the bunker came the reports and images that so many
Americans remember from that day–word of the crash in Pennsylvania, the final
phone calls from hijacked planes, the final horror for those who jumped to
their death to escape burning alive. In the years since, I’ve heard occasional
speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll
freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country
from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your
To make certain our nation country never again faced such a
day of horror, we developed a comprehensive strategy, beginning with far
greater homeland security to make the United States a harder target. But since
wars cannot be won on the defensive, we moved decisively against the terrorists
in their hideouts and sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take
down their networks. We decided, as well, to confront the regimes that
sponsored terrorists, and to go after those who provide sanctuary, funding, and
weapons to enemies of the United States. We turned special attention to regimes
that had the capacity to build weapons of mass destruction, and might transfer
such weapons to terrorists.
We did all of these things, and with bipartisan support put
all these policies in place. It has resulted in serious blows against enemy
operations: the take-down of the A.Q. Khan network and the dismantling of
Libya’s nuclear program. It’s required the commitment of many thousands of
troops in two theaters of war, with high points and some low points in both
Iraq and Afghanistan–and at every turn, the people of our military carried the
heaviest burden. Well over seven years into the effort, one thing we know is
that the enemy has spent most of this time on the defensive–and every attempt
to strike inside the United States has failed.
So we’re left to draw one of two conclusions–and here is
the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can
look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and
therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the
same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event–coordinated,
devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime
effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of
the last seven years, and of the policies necessary to protect America for
years to come.
The key to any strategy is accurate intelligence, and
skilled professionals to get that information in time to use it. In seeking to
guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our
Administration gave intelligence officers the tools and lawful authority they
needed to gain vital information. We didn’t invent that authority. It is drawn
from Article Two of the Constitution. And it was given specificity by the
Congress after 9/11, in a Joint Resolution authorizing “all necessary and
appropriate force” to protect the American people.
Our government prevented attacks and saved lives through the
Terrorist Surveillance Program, which let us intercept calls and track contacts
between al-Qaida operatives and persons inside the United States. The program
was top secret, and for good reason, until the editors of the New York Times
got it and put it on the front page. After 9/11, the Times had spent months
publishing the pictures and the stories of everyone killed by al-Qaida on 9/11.
Now here was that same newspaper publishing secrets in a way that could only
help al-Qaida. It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t
serve the interests of our country, or the safety of our people.
In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that
the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the
worst of the terrorists. And in a few cases, that information could be gained
only through tough interrogations.
In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made
my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced
interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists
after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful,
and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the
terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they
prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of
Our successors in office have their own views on all of
By presidential decision, last month we saw the selective
release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a
bold exercise in open government, honoring the public’s right to know. We’re
informed, as well, that there was much agonizing over this decision.
Yet somehow, when the soul-searching was done and the veil
was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given
less than half the truth. The released memos were carefully redacted to leave
out references to what our government learned through the methods in question.
Other memos, laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted, apparently
were not even considered for release. For reasons the administration has yet to
explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the
questions, but not the content of the answers.
Over on the left wing of the president’s party, there
appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the
terrorists. The kind of answers they’re after would be heard before a so-called
“Truth Commission.” Some are even demanding that those who
recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating
political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as
criminals. It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more
possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration
criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.
Apart from doing a serious injustice to intelligence
operators and lawyers who deserve far better for their devoted service, the
danger here is a loss of focus on national security, and what it requires. I
would advise the administration to think very carefully about the course ahead.
All the zeal that has been directed at interrogations is utterly misplaced. And
staying on that path will only lead our government further away from its duty
to protect the American people.
One person who by all accounts objected to the release of
the interrogation memos was the Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta.
He was joined in that view by at least four of his predecessors. I assume they
felt this way because they understand the importance of protecting intelligence
sources, methods, and personnel. But now that this once top-secret information
is out for all to see–including the enemy–let me draw your attention to some
points that are routinely overlooked.
It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence
value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation. You’ve heard endlessly
about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists. One of them was Khalid
Sheikh Muhammed–the mastermind of 9/11, who has also boasted about beheading
We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our
country. We didn’t know about al-Qaida’s plans, but Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and
a few others did know. And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in
the balance, we didn’t think it made sense to let the terrorists answer
questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all.
Maybe you’ve heard that when we captured KSM, he said he
would talk as soon as he got to New York City and saw his lawyer. But like many
critics of interrogations, he clearly misunderstood the business at hand.
American personnel were not there to commence an elaborate legal proceeding,
but to extract information from him before al-Qaida could strike again and kill
more of our people.
In public discussion of these matters, there has been a
strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib
prison with the top secret program of enhanced interrogations. At Abu Ghraib, a
few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law,
military regulations, and simple decency. For the harm they did, to Iraqi
prisoners and to America’s cause, they deserved and received Army justice. And
it takes a deeply unfair cast of mind to equate the disgraces of Abu Ghraib
with the lawful, skillful, and entirely honorable work of CIA personnel trained
to deal with a few malevolent men.
Even before the interrogation program began, and throughout
its operation, it was closely reviewed to ensure that every method used was in
full compliance with the Constitution, statutes, and treaty obligations. On
numerous occasions, leading members of Congress, including the current speaker
of the House, were briefed on the program and on the methods.
Yet for all these exacting efforts to do a hard and
necessary job and to do it right, we hear from some quarters nothing but
feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in
Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony
moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.
I might add that people who consistently distort the truth
in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about “values.”
Intelligence officers of the United States were not trying to rough up some
terrorists simply to avenge the dead of 9/11. We know the difference in this
country between justice and vengeance. Intelligence officers were not trying to
get terrorists to confess to past killings; they were trying to prevent future
killings. From the beginning of the program, there was only one focused and
all-important purpose. We sought, and we in fact obtained, specific information
on terrorist plans.
Those are the basic facts on enhanced interrogations. And to
call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have
saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims.
What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the
future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness,
and would make the American people less safe.
The administration seems to pride itself on searching for
some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take
comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum. If liberals
are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other
decisions, then it may seem to them that the President is on the path of
sensible compromise. But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle
ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some
nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed
terrorist out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not
a national security strategy. When just a single clue that goes unlearned, one
lead that goes unpursued, can bring on catastrophe–it’s no time for splitting
differences. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety
of the American people are in the balance.
Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations
is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can
sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an
imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy.
Apparently using the term “war” where terrorists are concerned is
starting to feel a bit dated. So henceforth we’re advised by the administration
to think of the fight against terrorists as, quote, “Overseas contingency
operations.” In the event of another terrorist attack on America, the
Homeland Security Department assures us it will be ready for this, quote,
“man-made disaster”–never mind that the whole Department was created
for the purpose of protecting Americans from terrorist attack.
And when you hear that there are no more, quote, “enemy
combatants,” as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror,
at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is
gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still
there. And finding some less judgmental or more pleasant-sounding name for
terrorists doesn’t change what they are–or what they would do if we let them
On his second day in office, President Obama announced that
he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little
deliberation and no plan. Now the President says some of these terrorists
should be brought to American soil for trial in our court system. Others, he
says, will be shipped to third countries. But so far, the United States has had
little luck getting other countries to take hardened terrorists. So what happens
then? Attorney General Holder and others have admitted that the United States
will be compelled to accept a number of the terrorists here, in the homeland,
and it has even been suggested US taxpayer dollars will be used to support
them. On this one, I find myself in complete agreement with many in the
President’s own party. Unsure how to explain to their constituents why
terrorists might soon be relocating into their states, these Democrats chose
instead to strip funding for such a move out of the most recent war
The administration has found that it’s easy to receive
applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it’s tricky to come up with an
alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national
security. Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas
since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time
ago. And among these, we learned yesterday, many were treated too leniently,
because 1 in 7 cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have
conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East. I think the President will
find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside
the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to
In the category of euphemism, the prizewinning entry would
be a recent editorial in a familiar newspaper that referred to terrorists we’ve
captured as, quote, “abducted.” Here we have ruthless enemies of this
country, stopped in their tracks by brave operatives in the service of America,
and a major editorial page makes them sound like they were kidnap victims,
picked up at random on their way to the movies.
It’s one thing to adopt the euphemisms that suggest we’re no
longer engaged in a war. These are just words, and in the end it’s the policies
that matter most. You don’t want to call them enemy combatants? Fine. Call them
what you want–just don’t bring them into the United States. Tired of calling
it a war? Use any term you prefer. Just remember it is a serious step to begin
unraveling some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11.
Another term out there that slipped into the discussion is
the notion that American interrogation practices were a “recruitment
tool” for the enemy. On this theory, by the tough questioning of killers,
we have supposedly fallen short of our own values. This recruitment-tool theory
has become something of a mantra lately, including from the President himself.
And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the
evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the
Left, “We brought it on ourselves.”
It is much closer to the truth that terrorists hate this
country precisely because of the values we profess and seek to live by, not by
some alleged failure to do so. Nor are terrorists or those who see them as
victims exactly the best judges of America’s moral standards, one way or the
Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme
of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the
American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to
spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire
population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with
American values than to stop them.
As a practical matter, too, terrorists may lack much, but
they have never lacked for grievances against the United States. Our belief in
freedom of speech and religion, our belief in equal rights for women, our
support for Israel, our cultural and political influence in the world–these
are the true sources of resentment, all mixed in with the lies and conspiracy
theories of the radical clerics. These recruitment tools were in vigorous use
throughout the 1990s, and they were sufficient to motivate the nineteen
recruits who boarded those planes on September 11, 2001.
The United States of America was a good country before 9/11,
just as we are today. List all the things that make us a force for good in the
world–for liberty, for human rights, for the rational, peaceful resolution of
differences–and what you end up with is a list of the reasons why the
terrorists hate America. If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for
compassion had the power to move them, the terrorists would long ago have
abandoned the field. And when they see the American government caught up in
arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have
constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and
wonder whether they had misjudged us all along. Instead the terrorists see just
what they were hoping for–our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders
distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.
What is equally certain is this: The broad-based strategy
set in motion by President Bush obviously had nothing to do with causing the
events of 9/11. But the serious way we dealt with terrorists from then on, and
all the intelligence we gathered in that time, had everything to do with
preventing another 9/11 on our watch. The enhanced interrogations of high-value
detainees and the terrorist surveillance program have without question made our
country safer. Every senior official who has been briefed on these classified matters
knows of specific attacks that were in the planning stages and were stopped by
the programs we put in place.
This might explain why President Obama has reserved unto
himself the right to order the use of enhanced interrogation should he deem it
appropriate. What value remains to that authority is debatable, given that the
enemy now knows exactly what interrogation methods to train against, and which
ones not to worry about. Yet having reserved for himself the authority to order
enhanced interrogation after an emergency, you would think that President Obama
would be less disdainful of what his predecessor authorized after 9/11. It’s
almost gone unnoticed that the president has retained the power to order the
same methods in the same circumstances. When they talk about interrogations, he
and his administration speak as if they have resolved some great moral dilemma
in how to extract critical information from terrorists. Instead they have put
the decision off, while assigning a presumption of moral superiority to any
decision they make in the future.
Releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the
national security interest of the United States. The harm done only begins with
top secret information now in the hands of the terrorists, who have just
received a lengthy insert for their training manual. Across the world,
governments that have helped us capture terrorists will fear that sensitive
joint operations will be compromised. And at the CIA, operatives are left to
wonder if they can depend on the White House or Congress to back them up when
the going gets tough. Why should any agency employee take on a difficult
assignment when, even though they act lawfully and in good faith, years down
the road the press and Congress will treat everything they do with suspicion,
outright hostility, and second-guessing? Some members of Congress are notorious
for demanding they be briefed into the most sensitive intelligence programs.
They support them in private, and then head for the hills at the first sign of
As far as the interrogations are concerned, all that remains
an official secret is the information we gained as a result. Some of his
defenders say the unseen memos are inconclusive, which only raises the question
why they won’t let the American people decide that for themselves. I saw that
information as vice president, and I reviewed some of it again at the National
Archives last month. I’ve formally asked that it be declassified so the
American people can see the intelligence we obtained, the things we learned,
and the consequences for national security. And as you may have heard, last
week that request was formally rejected. It’s worth recalling that ultimate
power of declassification belongs to the President himself. President Obama has
used his declassification power to reveal what happened in the interrogation of
terrorists. Now let him use that same power to show Americans what did not
happen, thanks to the good work of our intelligence officials.
I believe this information will confirm the value of
interrogations–and I am not alone. President Obama’s own Director of National
Intelligence, Admiral Blair, has put it this way: “High value information
came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper
understanding of the al-Qaida organization that was attacking this
country.” End quote. Admiral Blair put that conclusion in writing, only to
see it mysteriously deleted in a later version released by the
administration–the missing twenty-six words that tell an inconvenient truth.
But they couldn’t change the words of George Tenet, the CIA Director under
Presidents Clinton and Bush, who bluntly said: “I know that this program
has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is
worth more than the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National
Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.”
If Americans do get the chance to learn what our country was
spared, it’ll do more than clarify the urgency and the rightness of enhanced
interrogations in the years after 9/11. It may help us to stay focused on
dangers that have not gone away. Instead of idly debating which political
opponents to prosecute and punish, our attention will return to where it
belongs–on the continuing threat of terrorist violence, and on stopping the
men who are planning it.
For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our
administration will stand up well in history–not despite our actions after
9/11, but because of them. And when I think about all that was to come during
our administration and afterward–the recriminations, the second-guessing, the
charges of “hubris”–my mind always goes back to that moment.
To put things in perspective, suppose that on the evening of
9/11, President Bush and I had promised that for as long as we held
office–which was to be another 2,689 days–there would never be another
terrorist attack inside this country. Talk about hubris–it would have seemed a
rash and irresponsible thing to say. People would have doubted that we even
understood the enormity of what had just happened. Everyone had a very bad
feeling about all of this, and felt certain that the Twin Towers, the Pentagon,
and Shanksville were only the beginning of the violence.
Of course, we made no such promise. Instead, we promised an
all-out effort to protect this country. We said we would marshal all elements
of our nation’s power to fight this war and to win it. We said we would never
forget what had happened on 9/11, even if the day came when many others did forget.
We spoke of a war that would “include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and
covert operations, secret even in success.” We followed through on all of
this, and we stayed true to our word.
To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaida
terrorists busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets,
instead of sharing ours with them. And on our watch, they never hit this
country again. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever,
seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and
scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the
danger has passed.
Along the way there were some hard calls. No decision of
national security was ever made lightly, and certainly never made in haste. As
in all warfare, there have been costs–none higher than the sacrifices of those
killed and wounded in our country’s service. And even the most decisive
victories can never take away the sorrow of losing so many of our own–all
those innocent victims of 9/11, and the heroic souls who died trying to save
For all that we’ve lost in this conflict, the United States
has never lost its moral bearings. And when the moral reckoning turns to the
men known as high-value terrorists, I can assure you they were neither innocent
nor victims. As for those who asked them questions and got answers: they did
the right thing, they made our country safer, and a lot of Americans are alive
today because of them.
Like so many others who serve America, they are not the kind
to insist on a thank-you. But I will always be grateful to each one of them,
and proud to have served with them for a time in the same cause. They, and so
many others, have given honorable service to our country through all the
difficulties and all the dangers. I will always admire them and wish them well.
And I am confident that this nation will never take their work, their
dedication, or their achievements, for granted.
Thank you very much.