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Dick Cheney defends NSA surveillance programs

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who played a key role in spearheading the government's expansion of surveillance authority in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, forcefully defended the legality and necessity of that surveillance on "Fox News Sunday," while slamming the Obama administration on a host of other issues.

The two programs leaked earlier in June, which allow the government to gather a broad swath of data on Americans' telephone activity and foreigners' Internet activity, may have stopped the 9/11 perpetrators in their tracks if they were in place before the attack, Cheney said.

The former vice president also argued that the programs are critically necessary to prevent another attack in the future, especially given the grave threats America faces from terrorism today.

"When you consider somebody smuggling a nuclear device into the United States, it becomes very important to gather intelligence on your enemies and stop that attack before it ever gets launched," he said.

Cheney called the former defense contractor who leaked the programs, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a "traitor" who violated the trust invested in him by the government and thereby dealt considerable harm to America's security.

"I think it's one of the worst occasions in my memory of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interests of the United States," he said.

Cheney raised the possibility that Snowden, who is currently hiding in Hong Kong, colluded with China before the leak, and he worried that Snowden may now be willing to divulge further sensitive information to the Chinese government in exchange for protection from American authorities.

He also speculated that other employees at the National Security Agency may have aided Snowden's leak.

"Was there somebody else in NSA who had access to a lot of this stuff and passed it to him?" Cheney asked. "I think you have to ask that question."

Cheney also downplayed the invasiveness of the programs in question, saying they only gather data about who contacts whom - not any detailed information on the content of correspondence between two parties.

"The allegation is out there that somehow we've got all this personal information on Aunt Fanny or ["Fox News Sunday" host] Chris Wallace or whoever it might be," he said. "That's not the way it works."

He defended the government's decision to keep the programs classified, saying it would be a "dumb idea" to "tell the enemy what you're doing."

But despite his measured defense of the Obama administration's continuation of Bush-era surveillance policies, Cheney found precious little agreement with the administration on a host of other issues, slamming Mr. Obama's response to the Syrian civil war and the IRS targeting scandal, among other recent flashpoints.

Cheney voiced support for the administration's recent decision to supply arms to Syrian rebel groups working to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad, but said the infusion of aid may be "a day late and a dollar short."

"I think it is important that Assad go down. I think my instinct would have been to support the opposition sooner," he said. "You had an opportunity earlier to provide support without having to get American forces directly involved, and they took a pass. Now they are going to do it."

Overall, Cheney said, "I don't think it's been well-handled."

On Mr. Obama's recent declaration that the War on Terror "must end," Cheney slammed the president for speaking prematurely.

"He's wrong. It's not winding down...the threat is bigger than ever," Cheney said, pointing to the spread of extremism in North Africa and the continued danger posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The former vice president also did not buy the administration's claim that it could not have deployed military assets to stop the attack on an American facility in Benghazi, Libya. "The military has the capability, and apparently they did not use it," he said. "I think that was a bad call."

And on the recent scandal involving the IRS' targeting of conservative non-profit groups for excessive scrutiny of their tax status, Cheney called it "one of the worst abuses of power imaginable when you think of the power of the IRS."

He also sounded a skeptical note on the administration's claim that the targeting was the product of a few bad apples in an IRS field office in Cincinnati. "I have trouble believing two guys in Cincinnati dreamed this scheme up," he explained. "I just don't think that's true."

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