The Cheney Exit Interview

Vice President Dick Cheney is confident that not only have the Bush administration's controversial surveillance and detention policies proved successful in fending off another terrorist attack in the United States, but that, if he had the chance, he would do it all over again.

Likewise, he said Iraqis were better off because of regime change spurred by the U.S. invasion, and that he would advise President-elect Barack Obama to maintain the Administration's surveillance program and keep open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Appearing on CBS' Face The Nation, the vice president talked at length with host Bob Schieffer about the record of the administration, including its controversial torture program, national security, Saturday's incursion by Israeli ground forces into the Gaza Strip, and the United States' military intervention in Iraq.

Schieffer started the interview with the now-classic question asked of departing administrations: "Are we better off now than we were eight years ago?"

"I think we've done some very good things over the course of the last eight years," Cheney said. "Defending the country against further terrorist attacks like 9/11, I think, is a major accomplishment, for example. I think we made progress on education with No Child Left Behind and prescription drug benefits for seniors, and so forth. I can point to tax policies, a series of policies and actions that were put in place that were significant progress.

"There's no question that the new administration and President Obama are going to have their hands full with a new set of problems, if you will, centered especially upon the economy, upon the difficulties that have developed in the financial markets over the last six months."

He said that just as each administration faces a unique challenge - with his, it was 9/11 and its aftermath - "the Obama administration certainly has theirs."

Regime Change And The U.S. Invasion Of Iraq

While avoiding a general answer to "Are we better off?" Cheney did not hesitate to proclaim Iraqis better off because of the regime change initiated by the American invasion.

"I think Iraq is much better off than it was before we went in in '03 and got rid of Saddam Hussein," he said. "I think we are close to achieving most of our objectives. We've seen a significant reduction in the overall level of violence; it's lower now than virtually anytime since we've been there in the spring of '03. We've seen the elimination of one of the world's worst regimes. We've seen the Iraqis write a constitution and hold three national elections. We've now entered into a strategic framework agreement with the Iraqis that calls for ultimately the U.S. completion of the assignment and withdrawal of our forces from Iraq.

"All of those things I think by anybody's standard would be evidence of significant success. And I think we're very close to achieving what it is we set out to do five years ago when we first went into Iraq.

Cheney said that Saddam Hussein, in standing up to the looming threat of an American-led invasion in 2003, "clearly was into self-deception in a major way. I think he totally underestimated George Bush and what we were prepared to do. He tried to sort of bluff his way through, I guess, would be the best way to describe it, and we called his bluff.

"This is a guy who had started two wars," Cheney said of Saddam, "who had killed hundreds of thousands of people, including many of his own, with weapons of mass destruction. It was one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century. And he thought he could get away with continuing that. And I think he assumed that the U.S. would never go in. And he was wrong."

When Schieffer asked if the original plans for invasion and occupation were flawed, and if some of the bloody fallout that followed could have been avoided if the U.S. had deployed a larger number of troops, Cheney said he had miscalculated both the damage done to Iraqis by Saddam's brutal past and also what he characterized as an inability or unwillingness on the part of Iraqis to take charge themselves, in the vacuum that existed once Saddam was overthrown.

"We could debate that forever, and we may well," he said. "I think that the original campaign was masterfully done, in terms of the small, fast-moving force, as you say, that achieved our initial objectives of taking down the regime and capturing Baghdad. It was a masterful performance.

"I think the thing that we underestimated, at least I underestimated, was the damage that had been done to the Iraqi population by all those years of Saddam's rule, so that there weren't any Iraqis early on who were willing to stand up and take responsibility for their own affairs. Anybody who had had that kind of get-up-and-go in earlier years had had their head chopped off.

"And I think we underestimated the damage that had been done during those years of Saddam's rule, as well as what happened in '91, you may remember, when they rose up after the Gulf War and Saddam, you know, very brutally and very aggressively put down those uprisings around the country. So I would chalk that up to miscalculation."

Cheney said because of the power vacuum, he did not think a larger invasion force - even 400,000 to 500,000 troops - would have achieved the post-invasion objectives. Yet he said that the increase in U.S. troops, the so-called surge, coupled with a counterinsurgency strategy was what "got us across the goal line."

Schieffer asked if the advances made since a larger ground force was deployed didn't actually undermine Cheney's argument that more troops from the start wouldn't have prevented problems.

"Well, the number of troops we put in weren't that much more than we'd had there before," he said. "We added five brigades. This is, what, maybe 30,000 men. And it was up close to where we'd been at the time of the elections, when we had forces there to monitor the elections and to provide security for the Iraqis to hold elections.

"We never went over 200,000 troops. We were always significantly below that. And we still succeeded."

"How do you think we got it so wrong?" Schieffer asked. "I mean, we thought he had weapons of mass destruction and he didn't; we thought we would be greeted with open arms and we weren't. What happened?"

"Well, I don't look at it as we got it so wrong, Bob."

"We got a big part of it wrong," Schieffer said. "There weren't any weapons of mass destruction."

"Correct. The original intelligence was wrong, no question about it. But there were parts of it that were right. It wasn't 100 percent wrong. It was correct in saying he had the technology. It was correct in saying he still had the people who knew how to build weapons of mass destruction. I think it was also correct in the assessment that once sanctions came off, he would go back to doing what he had been doing before.

"Where it was wrong was [where it] said he had stockpiles, and he clearly didn't. So the intelligence was flawed. But you never have perfect intelligence in this business. You have got to deal with the best you can in terms of making your decisions."

"Do you think that perhaps you'd looked at the intelligence and saw what you wanted to see rather than make a real logical analysis of what you saw?" Schieffer asked.

"It wasn't a matter just of us looking and seeing what we wanted to see. Everybody believed that intelligence. Saddam Hussein had peddled that notion to his senior officers and officials. They all believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence services of other countries, the Clinton administration that had been there for eight years before we had, had exactly the same conclusion that we had. And we had numerous reports afterwards with all the studies that were done - the Robb-Silberman commission, the Senate Intelligence Committee - that said that there was no manipulation of the data, no pressure brought to bear on the analysis. This is what they saw, and they got part of it wrong."

The Gaza Conflict

Cheney told Schieffer that the Israeli government did not seek approval or clearance from the U.S. before launching its ground assault. "They have said, now, for a period of months - they told me on my last trip over there - that they didn't want to have to act, where Gaza was concerned - they had gotten out of there three years ago - but if the rocketing didn't stop, they felt they had no choice but to take action."