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Vice President Dick Cheney

Vice President Dick Cheney discusses the effects of Sept. 11 on America, the threat of al-Qaida, and the status of the war on terrorism. Part II: Mr. Cheney on Iraq and his personal memories of Sept. 11.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Vice President, welcome.

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    Thank you, Jim.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What has 9/11 done to us Americans?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    Well, I think we're still sorting that out in a sense, there clearly – there are a lot of lessons to be learned, if you will, out of that event, and what we've had to do subsequently I think in terms of national security policy, for example, it's changed a lot about the way we think about how we defend the country and about what the threats are hark back to the 20th Century and the Cold War, where most of us grew up and thought about deterring the Soviet Union from Washington attack – sovereign borders meant something; it put at risk the forces of another country and the things they value to deter them from attacking the United States.

    September 11 changed all of that in the sense that it was an attack launched on the soil of the United States, and to some extent planned in Germany, a good NATO ally. I don't mean to be critical of Germany. But the nature of the threat changed so dramatically now that we have to think anew about how we defend ourselves. It means that we've got to be concerned now about parts of the world we didn't used to have to worry about from a strategic standpoint or a military standpoint.

    It may be that some remote corner of Country "X" now, which nobody ever cared about before, all of a sudden is a place where a group of terrorists come together, plan an attack, organize it, and maybe using biological weapons, a relative handful of people with access to the international travel system and finances to smuggle something into the United States, and use it in a deadly attack that would be far more devastating than what happened on September 11, if they use a biological weapon or even a nuclear weapon. So our whole approach to thinking about how we defend ourselves is dramatically different than it used to be.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    On a personal level, are we less free than we were just as individual Americans going about our lives?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    I think most people are probably taking extra precautions. If it fades over time; it probably depends on what part of the country you live in and how much you're concerned about this, how close we are to 9/11.

    But clearly there are continuing pieces of evidence in our lives every day about the way in which we've changed in order to adapt to the potential threat. The aircraft certainly had a significant impact on air travel in just terms of how we do something we always took for granted in the past, so it's – it's clearly affected that.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Are you concerned at all that the government in its role to react to this monumental event has maybe overreacted in terms of taking some freedoms away from Americans?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    I don't believe that, Jim. I think – I don't think we've taken freedom away from Americans. We've tried to be very sensitive to that. We have tried to alert people to the dangers here, and my concern is that there will be another attack and we will find once that attack has occurred that there is something we could have done that might have prevented it but we didn't do it.

    My concern in part is as we get farther and farther away from September 11 that we gradually let our guard down over time. It's hard to keep people sort of on the cusp of being prepared for another potential attack.

    And I think there's a real danger here that we'll get complacent; it's part of our nature. We're optimistic people; we're resilient. We say, yes, well, they had this on 9/11 but they'll never be able to do that again. Well, I hope not. We're doing everything we can to stop it. But of course the danger is that as that fades and recedes into history, that we'll let down our guard, and we can't allow that to happen.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How do you account for the fact that there have been no other attacks in this one year?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    I think a combination of things. You can argue it two ways. One is that we've had considerable success in disrupting the al-Qaida organization – our actions in Afghanistan – our military operations against the al-Qaida and the Taliban, our war on efforts of finances, intelligence coordination, and extent to which we've wrapped up a number of individuals who were crucial in the organization – all of that I think has disrupted their planning and their operations.

    On the other hand, their normal pattern – look back – recent history was – it's as much as two years between major attacks. We had the attack on the East African embassies in 1998. Two years later, we had the attack on the USS Cole; one year later we had the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, so a period of time here between attacks wouldn't be that much out of the norm for them.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You talk about complacency. Is part of the complacency a result of all these alerts that we've had and then nothing happens, and then we have another alert and nothing happens, and another alert, nothing happens? There's been a lot of that since we've even had an alert

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    Right. But it's one of those difficult dilemmas for government in a sense – the more often you go on alert, and nothing happens, then people become sort of immune to the whole notion that there's a crisis there. On the other hand, if you don't go on alert, and something did happen, you'd have a terrible problem then too – so you're trying always to seek the proper balance here. But it's not easy.

    These are judgment calls that the President and senior advisers have to make – whether or not a particular threat has enough credibility so that you want to stand up the forces of the United States, you want to put the American people on guard for the next forty-eight hours, the next two weeks, or whatever it might be.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But is it correct to interpret the lack of alerts these last several weeks and months as meaning what it appears to mean, that the threat has, in fact, lessened?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    I can't say that. I can't say that. You know, there's a fluctuation in the reporting. Our intelligence probably is better, more comprehensive today than it's been before; we've sort of got the mechanism to in-depth focus on this particular problem. So we're probably picking up more than we did before. We're also picking up a lot of noise. We pick up false reporting.

    But to say that there's no threat out there or that the threat has receded – I just can't say that based on what I've seen today. It's not – it's not as though there's a one-to-one relationship there. Sometimes some of the threat reporting we've had, you know, is a disgruntled ex-wife. In other cases it's been a real threat where we've been able to wrap somebody up and prevent something from happening, so it's just – you don't know what you don't know.

    That's the nature of the intelligence business. You have to work with what you can get your hands on, but it is – and in fact it's more an art form than it is a science, and you have to continually work the problem, continually try, as the President is building an office of homeland security, doing a better job of collecting intelligence, of getting the domestic and the foreign agencies working together, of reorganizing the government so we can really focus all of our assets and our resources on this problem of defense, dealing with the fact that we've got three different agencies, dealing with the security of our borders and all of those kinds of issues, so we're constantly improving, we're constantly getting better; we're constantly strengthening our defenses, if you will.

    On the other hand, our adversaries are still out there. There are thousands of people loose with some 60 countries around the world that have al-Qaida cells in them, and they – we know they're planning, trying to mount additional attacks against the United States.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why are they still out there? Why can't we -it's been a year – why can't we round them up and put them out of business?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    Well, most of them don't run around with, you know, a label across their forehead that says al-Qaida. We found for example – we wrapped up a cell in Singapore – Singapore — on the other side of the world from the Middle East – but, in fact, there were a group of people there, some of whom had been through the training camps in Afghanistan, and then returned to Singapore plotting against the United States to launch an attack against one of our Naval vessels, making a port call against our personnel in Singapore.

    And these individuals were middle class professionals; these were not poverty stricken folks that came out of the Middle East who'd been discriminated against or had any sense of injustice in society, but for one reason or another they've signed on for the Jihad, and were prepared to kill Americans, and they were living and operating in Singapore.

    You've got that all over the world – we found cells, evidence of al-Qaida in the UK, in Germany, and Spain, in Italy, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, the Philippines — a lot of places out there where they've been operating; some of them have gone underground and may be quiet for two or three or four years before they're activated and launch an attack. We – there's evidence that they planned several years in advance for the attack on the World Trade Center.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The people who were planning to kill Americans, one of the things that was discussed — In fact you and I talked about it in an interview shortly after 9/11 – that this came as a huge surprise to many Americans that there were all these people out there who hated us so much that they would do what these folks did on 9/11 and then there are thousands more out there, as you've just confirmed again – are out there, prepared to do the same thing. Is this something Americans have to also try to understand why people hate us so?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    Well, to some extent clearly we do. I mean, we need to understand what's the dynamic in society that's led these young men, primarily young men, to be prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to kill Americans. I don't want to over-estimate how extensive the hatred is.

    The fact is it takes only a few people to launch a devastating attack – that's what we learned on September 11 — and to take thousands of lives depending upon the kind of attack they organized.

    Plus, I think it's important also – it takes a certain skill, a certain discipline, a certain training to be able to mount that kind of an attack and avoid detection by our law enforcement, our intelligence agencies. There are clearly people there who can do it; they did it on 9/11. It doesn't mean it's easy. We make it as hard as we can for them, but the fact is, you know, there clearly are still a large number of people who are loose out there and some of them are clearly trying to mount attacks against the U.S.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Should we as Americans be concerned about it? Should we try to mitigate this harsh feeling about us and what we do as a government and as a people?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    That's not my view. My view is that the United States has not conducted itself in such a way as to be deserving such an attack. I don't think that's the case at all. I think in fact there are people motivated to launch attacks against us partly because they dislike some aspect of our policy.

    But to suggest that somehow the United States has done something that merits this kind of an attack, or justifies what these people did, I think – I think there's a fundamental difference in the world view perhaps. They seem to be motivated by a very fundamentalist religious view – expected of sort of an extreme wing of Islam.

    And I don't think that's generally representative of the Islamic people throughout the world. It is clearly representative of a small group that have joined al-Qaida and committed themselves to support Osama bin Laden and to participate in the jihad, in holy war against the infidel – us in this case.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    A lot of folks seem to not understand why we don't know whether Osama bin Laden is alive or dead after one year. What would you tell them?

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    We don't know. We don't have hard evidence either way. As the President said the other day, he said, you know, if he's alive, we'll get him; if he's dead, we already got him. There has been no hard sign of Osama bin Laden now for seven months. That could mean he's dead – perhaps Tora Bora – that's what people speculate – where we did the extensive campaigns late last year — or it could mean he's gone underground. And he lives a fairly authentic lifestyle anyway.

    This is not a man who's got huge trappings of office, and he might well be able to operate underground for a considerable period of time, not communicate or communicate only by couriers and ways that make it difficult for people to know where he is and what he's up to, and I just – actual – factual, most honest answer I can give you is we don't know – he could be dead; he could be alive, and we don't have any way to know for sure.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So a year later, the President said that right after 9/11, two of our major missions here – to put al-Qaida out of business and get rid of Osama bin Laden- now we haven't done either.

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    Well, we also said this is – we're much closer to the front end of the war than we are to the back end of the war. This is going to take a long time; it's not something that can be done in a matter of weeks or even months.

    We've made major progress when we consider what we've done in Afghanistan with a relatively small force took down the Taliban, liberated the Afghan people; did serious damage to the al-Qaida organization but it's not over and it's part of our national character perhaps – well, we've got a problem to solve within one or two weeks. This one doesn't work this way, and this is a struggle that will go on, I think, probably for many years, I expect as long as I'm in government, and you've just got to keep working day in and day out – month in and month out – and it's – that's the nature of the challenge we face here.

    Continued…

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