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Cheney Reflects on Legacy, Defends Interrogation Policy

Vice President Dick Cheney looks back on the Bush administration's eight years in office, answers new questions on claims that the U.S. tortured terror suspects and assesses the challenges ahead for the Obama team.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Vice President, welcome.

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    It's good to be back, Jim.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Thank you, sir. Yesterday President Bush said that he will leave Washington next week with a great sense of accomplishment. Do you feel the same way?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    I do.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Why? Explain.

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    Well, I think there are a number of areas where we've had a significant impact on events or on the course of history, if you will. The one that stands out in my mind, that I think is most important, is something that didn't happen and that's the fact that we were able to interrupt, block, defeat all further attempts by al-Qaida to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States after 9/11.

    That's taken some very tough decisions by the president, some great work by a lot of folks in the intelligence services, in the military and so forth. But I look at that and the lives that were saved and the threats that were defeated as probably our greatest achievement.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    And you feel it's actions that you took, the president took, the administration took – resulted in this happening? In other words, prevented these further attacks – there would have been further attacks had you not been there and you'd not taken action.

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    Yes, sir. I can go back – and a lot of the details are still obviously classified – but what we did in effect was, in the aftermath of 9/11, in '02, '03 timeframe, when we first began to capture high-value detainees – senior members of al-Qaida like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah – we then were able to interrogate them and collect intelligence from them, both about the al al-Qaida organization generally: how they functioned, who they were, where they came from, how they were financed.

    But then also to get specific intelligence on perspective attacks and allow us to go out and wrap up, capture and arrest others. And that list is very impressive.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    And if that had not happened, you think there would have been further attacks?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    There's no doubt in mind there would have been.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Serious attacks of the level like 9/11?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    Serious attacks, well, plans, for example, to fly an airliner into the tallest building on the West Coast, plans to develop a so-called dirty device to be detonated someplace in the United States, plans to highjack aircraft that were all headed for Heathrow and then to capture them, blow them up over Heathrow. And plans to launch aircraft that they'd captured in Europe and destroy them as they came into the United States.

    I mean, it was a robust set of programs. There were others; other regions of the world that were involved as well as the United States. We got a wealth of information from those programs that are the source of some controversy, obviously, but we did not have a lot of information on al-Qaida on 9/11; it was very important that we develop it in the aftermath of 9/11 and we did.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    The president has also said that he made some mistakes in the last eight years. Did you make any?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    Well, make mistakes – I can think of places where I underestimated things. For example, talking about Iraq, the extent of which the Iraqi population had been beaten down by Saddam Hussein was greater than I anticipated.

    That is, we thought that the Iraqis would be able to bounce back fairly quickly once Saddam was gone or the new government established and step up and take major responsibilities for governing Iraq, building a military and so forth and that took longer than I expected.

    I think that what happened in Saddam's reign as well as what happened in '91, when after the Gulf War there was an uprising in Iraq that was brutally crushed by Saddam. I think that eliminated a lot of the people that were potential leaders; if they'd stuck their heads up they'd have been chopped off.

    And if I were to look for one where there was a miscalculation on my part, I think I underestimated the difficulty of getting an Iraqi government stood up.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    When you look back on that, why? How did that miscalculation come about?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    Well, we didn't have that good of intelligence, I don't think, with respect to sort of the state of affairs inside Iraq. A lot of that had been wiped out over the years. Saddam Hussein was so brutal, killed so many people, slaughtered so many innocents, that it had a lasting effect on Iraqi society that was greater than I expected.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Is it fair to say, then, that the miscalculation resulted in chaotic situation that existed immediately after for awhile and got – immediately after the invasion and all that sort of stuff?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    I can't say that. I can't like those –

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Sure.

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    – two particular points. What I can say is I think if we had been able to move more rapidly to stand up a government that was capable, I think we might have avoided some of that. But I don't want to blame all that on the Iraqi government; it was a difficult situation, but it was successful. We now find ourselves in a situation where, five years later, we've achieved most of the objectives that you would have set out in the spring of '03 when we launched into Iraq.

    We've got the violence level down to the its lowest level since '03, we've had three national elections, a constitution written, a new government stood up, a new army recruited and trained, the Iraqis are increasingly able to take on responsibility for themselves and we've now entered into a strategic framework agreement with the new Iraqi government that will provide for the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

    You could not have asked for much more than that in terms of the policies that we started on in '03.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Mr. Vice President, getting from there to here, 4500 Americans have died, at least a hundred thousand Iraqis have died. Has it been worth that?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    I think so.

  • MR. LEHRER:

    Why?

  • VICE PRES. CHENEY:

    Because I believed at the time that what Saddam Hussein represented was, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, was a terror-sponsoring state – so designated by the State Department. He was making payments to the families of suicide bombers; he provided a safe haven and sanctuary for Abu Nidal and other terrorist operations. He had produced and used weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological agents.

    He'd had a nuclear program in the past. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and he did have a relationship with al-Qaida. Now, we've had this debate, keeps people trying to conflate those arguments.

    That's not to say that Saddam was responsible for 9/11; it is to say – as George Tenet, CIA director testified in open session in the Senate – that there was a relationship there that went back 10 years.

    So this was a terror-sponsoring state with access to weapons of mass destruction and that's the greatest threat we faced in the aftermath of 9/11: The next time we found terrorists in the middle of one of our cities, it wouldn't be 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters, it would be terrorists armed with a biological agent or maybe even a nuclear device.

    So I think, given the track record of Saddam Hussein, I think we did exactly the right thing, I think the country's better off for it today, I think it's been part of the effort alongside Afghanistan to liberate 50 million people and establish a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I think those are major, major accomplishments.

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