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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."

Cheney said that Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks by Hamas which have been launched from the Gaza Strip. Israel has faced increased criticism for its offensive which began 9 days ago, during which more than 500 Palestinians and 5 Israelis have died, plus countless more injured,

Scheiffer asked if Cheney thought the Israelis' ground invasion might widen the conflict and prove to be a mistake.

"Well, I think it's important to remember who the enemy is here," Cheney said. "You've got a U.N. member state being attacked by a terrorist organization, and to go after that terrorist organization, I think, [Israel] probably decided that an air campaign wasn't enough, that they had to go in on the ground, if they were going to take down the sites from which the rockets have been launched against Israel."

Cheney called his remarks "informed speculation," but said that Israel has not told him what they plan to do or when.

But he also said the administration is not pushing for a cease-fire. [Late on Saturday Alejandro Daniel Wolff, the Deputy Permanent U.S. Representative to the U.N., blocked a Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza on the grounds that it would not be bilateral.]

"We think, if there's to be a cease-fire, you can't simply go back to the status quo ante, what it was a few weeks ago, where you had a cease-fire recognized by one side but not adhered to by the other," Cheney said. "Hamas has to stop rocketing Israel. And I don't think you're going to have a viable cease-fire until they're prepared to do that.

"I think we'd like to see a cease-fire, but … It's got to be a sustainable and durable."

Surveillance And Torture

In a recent Fox News interview during which he was questioned about notifying Congress about the administration's surveillance program (including the use of wiretaps without a warrant or court oversight), Cheney said that Congressional leaders were fully informed and that Republican and Democratic leaders were unanimous in their support.

This opinion was at odds with Sen. John Rockefeller, who wrote a letter to Cheney in 2003 [which was classified and not revealed until news of the wiretap program was broken]. In that letter Rockefeller, who was the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, raised his concerns about the "profound oversight issues" involving warrantless wiretaps, and his inability to endorse the program.

When asked about the discrepancy, Cheney told Schieffer, "They were kept fully informed."

"Well, why would he have written that letter?" Schieffer asked.

"I have no idea," Cheney said. "Everybody who was in the room that day, for example, when I got the leadership down, the chairman and ranking member of the intelligence committees, including Senator Rockefeller, and asked them … if they thought we should continue the program, they said yes. Do we need to come to Congress to get authorization for it? And they said no. And he was there.

"Later on, when this became public, when the New York Times broke the story - which, frankly, I think was an outrageous decision on their part, they were asked by the President of the United States not to, on the grounds it would damage national security - then Senator Rockefeller decided he wanted to hark back to this letter. But the fact was he couldn't even find it. He had to call my office for a copy of the letter that he allegedly had written, some years before, raising some questions that he had about the program."

"I always felt it was a bit of a CYA letter," Cheney said.

Despite the fallout from the Bush administration's program to ignore FISA law and avoid judicial oversight of its surveillance activities of Americans, Cheney said that he did not think the White House went too far.

"Absolutely not. I think what we did was one of the great success stories of the intelligence business in the last century … I think it provided crucial intelligence for us. It's one of the main reasons we've been successful in defending the country against further attacks. And I don't believe we violated anybody's civil liberties."

Cheney likewise characterized the fact that a major terrorist attack on the U.S. has not occurred since 9/11 as proof of the success of the administration's national security initiatives.

Cheney said that the actions of the NSA to intercept all Americans' electronic communications, which had been under strict legal parameters, fell under the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief, because of the resolution passed by the Congress immediately after 9/11. Subsequently, after news of the warrantless wiretap program was leaked, Congress modified the existing FISA statue in accordance with the administration's wishes.

While Cheney could not say whether any action by a president in wartime should be considered "legal," he pointed to historic precedents for presidents taking extra-legal measures in order, he said, to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

"If you hark back in our history, you can look at Abraham Lincoln, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the middle of the Civil War."

"But nobody thinks that that was legal," Schieffer said.

"Well, no - well, it certainly was, in the sense he wasn't impeached," Cheney said. "And it was a wartime measure that he took that I think today, history says, yes, that was probably a good thing to do."

Cheney said other examples may have crossed a line, such as FDR's internment camps for Japanese-American citizens. "Most people now look back and say that was wrong. But what we did was modest by those comparisons."

Cheney also said everything the White House did was done with the "support and involvement" of the Justice Department. When Schieffer pointed out that some of the orders put out by Justice were flawed, Cheney said, "[Those were] the rules that we had to operate by. And the attorney general of the United States signed off on every single one of those exceptions.

"There have subsequently been some controversies," Cheney admitted. "The Supreme Court's made some decisions that didn't agree with what we did at the time. But what we did was authorized by the legal authorities that were to be the source of that kind of advice."

Detention, Torture and Guantanamo

After 9/11, the Bush administration held prisoners detained around the world in a prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, seemingly outside the purview of the U.S. judicial system. The administration has even admitted that prisoners have been waterboarded, against international laws banning torture. Despite the international outcry against the abuses of prisoners, at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere, Cheney said that he did not feel the administration went too far.

The vice president said that high-level approvals of torture were required because the CIA would otherwise not want to pursue such interrogation methods without a clear understanding of what was authorized and appropriate.

"I'd seen situations before," Cheney said, "where the CIA would get out and undertake an assignment or a mission, and then find that the politicians would all run for the hills. Think Iran-Contra."

"Would you do it again if you had to make those same decisions again?" Schieffer asked.

"I would absolutely do it again, Bob," Cheney said. "I think the loss of life, if there had been further mass casualty attacks against the United States over the last seven-and-a-half years, fully justifies it.

"Think of what would happen if there had been an attack and we hadn't taken any of these measures," Cheney said to Schieffer, "and you'd be sitting here today, you know, grilling me, saying, 'Why didn't you guys do everything you could to stop it? Why didn't you find out what the enemy was planning to do? Why didn't you interfere with the attacks?'"

And to the incoming Obama administration, which has pledged to end what it called unconstitutional practices, Cheney even offered advice: maintain current interrogation policies.

"If [Obama] were to seek my advice - he hasn't, but if he were to seek my advice - I would say, look, before you go out and start to make policy based on the campaign rhetoric we heard last year, what you need to do is to sit down and find out what we've done, find out how we did it, what the justification was for it, what kind of results it's produced, and then make an informed judgment about whether or not you want to keep these things.

"But I would hope he would avoid doing what others have done in the past, which is letting the campaign rhetoric guide his judgment in this absolutely crucial area. We were very careful. We did everything by the book. And in fact, we produced very significant results. And I would hope that for the sake of the nation, that this administration and future administrations will continue those policies."

On the matter of Guantanamo Bay prison, Cheney said it should remain open because, if the prisoners held there were to be relocated to prisons within the United States, "they immediately fall here to certain legal rights and privileges that will create problems.

"I don't know many congressional districts that are eager to have 200 al Qaeda terrorists deposited on their soil," he added.


Cheney said he had no final commitments beyond January 20, when he will be leaving a government job for about the fifth time, following his work in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush 41 administrations.

"I'm looking forward to spending time with the family, obviously," he said. "We've got six grandchildren now, and I always enjoy that. We'll split our time between Washington and Wyoming. Maybe I'll write a book."

Read the full "Face the Nation" transcript here.

By producer David Morgan.

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