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Challenging Times For Dick Cheney

Aired June 26, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: Slipping maybe, but still second in command. Dick Cheney is both a powerful voice in the Bush administration and an unpopular figure nationwide. His thoughts about Iraq and his image in a CNN interview.
Hello and welcome.

Dick Cheney is an unusual politician, a man who says he doesn't mind being unpopular and seems to be sincere. For the voters who like it, it suggests he's above the fray. For voters who don't, it's more like he's out of touch.

Cheney has been at the center of the Bush administration's most important decisions: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he's also drawing criticism for his secretive habits, for his ties to the giant corporate contractor Halliburton and even a hunting accident that slightly injured and elderly friend.

John King sat down for an interview with the vice president, and we'll bring you that in a moment.

On our program today, challenging times for Dick Cheney.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Greeting Henry Kissinger and reminiscing.

DICK CHENEY, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: As Henry mentioned, he and I go back a long ways, to the Ford administration, when he was secretary of state and I was White House chief of staff. The old days, when I had real power.

KING: Anyone who thinks the vice president doesn't have real power isn't paying attention. New budget director Rob Portman and new press secretary Tony Snow are both long-time Cheney favorites. Yet there also are West Wing rumblings. Some Bush aides and advisers say an always independent Cheney operation is more detached now, something they trace back to fiction over how he handled his hunting accident back in February.

"He and the president are fine," one senior official put it. "There's just a lot of disconnect and disengagement at the staff level."

A White House adviser close to Mr. Cheney described his current staff as, quote, "second team," but also said "He has lowered his profile because he feels it serves the president."

It's not as if the vice president has disappeared. Military bases are a Cheney favorite. And this Texas event, one of 23 mid-term election fundraisers just this year.

There is some grumbling, but adviser Mary Matalin chalks it up to jitters following the White House staff shakeup.

MARY MATALIN, CHENEY ADVISER: The relationship that matters most would be the one between the president and the vice president and whatever other staff issues mattress mice gaggle that's going on needs to reflect more about what that real relationship is.

KING: But many see a lower profile and a political calculation. For all the president's struggles, many see Mr. Cheney as a more flawed spokesman on the major issues of the day, Iraq and gas prices.

STANLEY GREENBERG, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: As bad as the president's standing is, the vice president's standing is even lower, and significantly, you know, lower.

KING: Opening day was one pitch to soften his image. This playful speech another.

CHENEY: The lighting could be better. I can still see the whites of your eyes.

KING: The shooting accident was gold for late night comedians. Long retired though are punch lines about a vice president really in charge. And along with the jokes the perceptions about this relationship have changed significantly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The other thing that's totally evaporated is the notion that somehow we have a co-presidency or that Cheney is really the guy or that Cheney sets policy or that Cheney is the behind-the-scenes player. That is totally evaporated.

KING: Friends say the shooting incident genuinely rattled a man long labeled unflappable, and these friends say if he seems more quiet these days, it's a byproduct of that experience and not having to worry about a presidential campaign of his own.

John King, CNN, Washington.


JONATHAN MANN: John King sat down with the U.S. vice president and began by asking Mr. Cheney if he regrets how he's characterized the war in Iraq to the press.


KING: In the political debate over the war, even your friends say that you have given the Democrats a couple of doozies by saying early on we would be greeted as liberators, by saying about a year ago, the insurgency was in its lasts throes.

I know, factually, you have said you stand by those statements based on the circumstances at the time. You're not new to this game. You've been in national politics for 30-something years.

In the political environment, do you wish you could take those words back?

CHENEY: No. I think that, in fact, we are making very significant progress. There's no doubt in my mind but we're going to win. We will prevail in Iraq. We will prevail in Afghanistan. And I think the evidence is there for anybody who wants to look at it.

With respect to the overall course of the campaign, I think it's been very successful. With respect to this question of liberation, we have, indeed, liberated 50 million people -- 25 million in Afghanistan from the rule of the Taliban; 25 million in Iraq from the rule of Saddam Hussein, two of the worst regimes in modern times, a very, very significant achievement. But we have to stay the course.

It does not make any sense for people to think that somehow we can retreat behind our oceans, leave the Middle East, walk away from Iraq, and we'll be safe and secure here at home. 9/11 put the lie to that. We lost 3,000 people that day. Nineteen people, armed terrorists armed with box cutters, came into the United States and did enormous damage to us. If we pull out, they'll follow us.

It doesn't matter where we go. This is a global conflict. We've seen them attack in London and Madrid and Casablanca and Istanbul and Mombassa and East Africa. They've been on a global basis involved in this conflict, and it will continue whether we complete the job or not in Iraq. Only it'll get worse. Iraq will become a safe haven for terrorists. KING: One of the key issues facing the world right now and the Bush administration is North Korea. It has a missile on a launch pad. Apparently our intelligence suggests it may test that missile any day now. Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, who served in a Democratic administration, writes an op-ed in the "Washington Post" saying, Mr. President, take it out. Launch a military strike, take that missile out. You will destroy not only the missile, he says, but a launch pad that is capable of launching nuclear weapons. Why not? CHENEY: Well, I think that -- I appreciate Bill's advice. KING: I bet you do. CHENEY: And I think that at this stage we are addressing the issue in the proper fashion. And I think, obviously, if you're going to launch strikes at another nation, you'd better be prepared to not just fire one shot. And the fact of the matter is I think the issue is being addressed appropriately. KING: Do we know what's on that missile? Is it a satellite? Is it a warhead? Is it a test? CHENEY: We don't know. That's one of the concerns, that this is a regime that's not transparent, that we believe has developed nuclear weapons, and now has put a missile on a launch pad without telling anybody what it's all about. Is it to put a satellite in orbit or a simple test flight? They will obviously generate concern on the part of their neighbors and the United States to the extent that they continue to operate this way. As the President has made clear, this is not the kind of behavior we'd like to see, given the fact that the North Koreans do have a nuclear program and have refused to come clean about it. KING: What do we know about their capabilities? Some have said this new longer-range missile could reach Guam, perhaps Alaska. Others say, no, it might be able to reach Los Angeles, and there are some who think maybe even right here, Washington, D.C. What do we know? CHENEY: Well, we -- this is the first test of this particular type No Dong II missile. We believe it does have a third stage added to it now, but, again, we don't know what the payload is. I think it's also fair to say that the North Korean missile capabilities are fairly rudimentary. I mean, they've been building Scuds and so forth over the years, but their test flights in the past haven't been notably successful. But we are watching it with interest and following it very closely. KING: As you know, some of your old friends say, where is the Dick Cheney, the sarcastic Dick Cheney, the practical joker Dick Cheney. And your critics say, Dick Cheney has become this dark, nefarious force in the administration that believes in secrecy at all price, that believes congressional oversight is a nuisance. True? CHENEY: Well, I don't think I've changed any. I think I have been very consistent over time. I think, partly, it's important to remember how significant 9/11 was. And we are now engaged in a constant effort, obviously, to protect the nation against further attack. That means we need good intelligence. It means there have to be national security secrets. It means we need to be able to go after and capture or kill those people who are trying to kill Americans. That's not a pleasant business. It's a very serious business. And I suppose people sometimes look at my demeanor and say, well, he's the Darth Vader of the administration. The other thing that's working here, John, is I'm not running for anything. My career will end, politically, with this administration. I have the freedom and the luxury, as does the President, of doing what we think is right for the country. And the advice I give and the positions I take on issues are based upon that fundamental proposition. We're doing what we're doing in Iraq in terms of here in the U.S., with the terrorist surveillance program and so forth, because we think these are essential policies for the nation to follow. We're not trying to improve our standing in the polls. We're not out there trying to win votes for ourselves. Neither one of us will ever be a candidate again. We're doing what we think is right, and I'm very comfortable with that. KING: You're also a human being, though. Your poll ratings are lower than the President's. You have an image that, I think it's fair to say, is not positive with the majority of the American people. That doesn't trouble you at all? CHENEY: There is a great sense of freedom when, in fact, you don't have to worry about the polls. We don't worry about the polls. They go up, the polls go down. The fact of the matter is, we're doing what we think is best for the nation. And that's what the American people elected us to do. I think, ultimately, in the final analysis, the history will judge this President as a very successful, very effective leader, and I'm proud to be part of his team. KING: You are unique in that you're the vice president, the first vice president in quite some time, who is not seeking the presidency in a second term. Let's make a little news, do you have a favorite for '08? CHENEY: No. Republican. I won't go beyond that. We may get involved eventually, but for now, there are a lot of great candidates thinking about it, and I think it's going to be a wide open race. And I think it's very healthy. (END VIDEOTAPE) JONATHAN MANN: CNN's chief national correspondent John King interviewing Vice President Dick Cheney. We take a break now. When we come back, "The One Percent Doctrine." Is the vice president paranoid? Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) JONATHAN MANN: A new book calls Dick Cheney the author of "The One Percent Doctrine," a plan that the United States has to respond to any seemingly serious threat of terrorism, even if there is only a one percent chance of it being real. Prudent behavior in the post-9/11 world or paranoia? Welcome back. Here's another way to think about it. Imagine everything that could possibly go wrong in your own life. What would happen if you tried to prepare, really prepare for all of them? A short time ago we got in touch with Ron Suskind, author of "The One Percent Doctrine" to talk about where the doctrine came from. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR: It emerges from a conversation. The vice president is sitting with CIA briefers two months after 9/11. There is intelligence that Pakistani nuclear scientists sat with bin Laden and Zawahiri just three weeks before 9/11. It's a harrowing combination of nuclear weapons possible in the hands of al Qaeda. The vice president stops the proceedings, says, "If there is even a 1 percent chance that WMDs have been given to terrorists, we need to treat it as a certainty. Not in our analysis or the preponderance of evidence, but in our response." What it does is it separates analysis from action. It firmly establishes in an accountable way the threshold of suspicion, mere suspicion, as the guiding lights of U.S. policy for the world's post powerful nation. It is an astonishing core to the U.S. playbook and it's creating, I think, finally productive conversation debate around the globe. JONATHAN MANN: It is astonishing, because it seems to separate suspicion from any idea of probability. There are all kinds of things that are possible, all kinds of things that imaginative people could suspect, and what separates them from lunatics is they don't worry about the unlikely ones, and this seems to suggest that the United States will be looking for ghosts everywhere. SUSKIND: Well, the United States position and clearly the position of the vice president, who the book shows is firmly at the center of U.S. foreign policy, he is designing our strategy for the most part, is that the United States has no choice but to treat mere suspicion as a threshold, as a mandate for action. It helps to explain, frankly, so much of what we've seen here and around the globe over the last five years, since 9/11. JONATHAN MANN: Did you ever talk directly to the vice president about this? SUSKIND: No, I did not. JONATHAN MANN: Has he responded to this? SUSKIND: No, he has not officially or publicly responded at this point. But the fact is the one percent doctrine is something that has been heard by many, many people in the government in many meetings. The vice president clearly is the forceful character here and he is driving the ship of state when it comes to this so-called war on terror. It is a war, I think. It's a new kind of war. And the United States is trying to feel its way as to how exactly do you respond when the destructive power once held by nations are now possibly held by individuals. That's a big historical change. We're still struggling in this country as to what exactly to do about that. JONATHAN MANN: Now, you say he's guiding this. You choose that phrase carefully or inadvertently? There is someone else who is supposed to be guiding it, which is the president. SUSKIND: Well, I think the dialogue, the relationship between the president and vice president, is subject to some mystery, is rendered, I think, with its greatest clarity in this book, in my book, and you see exactly the co-dependencies they're in, the left hand versus the right hand. I'd put it I think this way. The vice president, essentially the most experienced vice president in U.S. history, meeting one of the least experienced presidents in terms of foreign policy, certainly. The vice president built a kind of architecture, a platform, on which George Bush can be George Bush and still be president. He can be the man of action, he can indulge his instincts, his gut, he can make things personal. But the framework strategically is set for the most part by the vice president. JONATHAN MANN: And the framework led to, the doctrine led to one of history's, certainly our era's greatest mistakes, the hunt for WMD in Iraq. Is there any rethinking that maybe the one percent doctrine isn't really a good way to run a superpower? SUSKIND: Well, you know, there is in fact. You know, look, these are smart people, the president included. They're trying to figure it out. And one of the things that's happening inside of government now, I think this is important, I don't think this has been disclosed, is there are meetings being held for folks at the very top inside of the counterterrorism/foreign policy communities to come up with a new so-called WMD doctrine, essentially a successor to the one percent doctrine. They're trying to figure it out. They don't have a solution yet, but they I think understand deep down that the one percent doctrine is really a tactical mandate. It prompts the most powerful nation to run around like a headless chicken in many cases and that it's not necessarily really anything other than a default strategy driven by tactics, but not a coherent strategy as to how to fight and win the war on terror and especially the global hearts and mind struggle, because every action borne of suspicion that ultimately is not really justified and, of course, there have been plenty of those, creates a backlash here and around the globe. Those backlashes create a host of new problems, maybe many more problems that you originally confronted to solve. Everyone realizes that and they realize we do need a strategy. We may not have one yet. JONATHAN MANN: And ultimately, have they given it up? When you look at what they're doing on North Korea, for example, what they are or aren't doing on Iran, did Iraq basically end the possibility of a one percent approach to threats facing this country? SUSKIND: Again, I don't think there is a replacement at this point. You know, the idea, the vice president's concept, having been in government for many years himself, is that evidence, the search and find for facts, the known and knowable, is going to be a slow footed kind of past tense idea here. The war on terror, the response to 9/11, simply is an era that demands action. Action is the key word. Action for good reason or bad reason or no reason, but action by the United States is as the president often says a game-changer, establishes a status quo, makes people react rather than stop and think and have a chance to act. That is at the core of what has been guiding the world's most powerful nation and what we see now is that when we move, and the United States is like a giant ship, and you move so forcefully in a new direction, it creates roiling waves all over the planet. I think that in some ways the United States is facing more problems in terms of other nations, reluctant friends or old friends, than they did on September 12, after 9/11. That would be considered a defeat, when alliances with other nations may be the only defense we really have against another attack. JONATHAN MANN: Ron Suskind, the book is "The One Percent Doctrine." Thanks so much for talking with us. SUSKIND: Thank you. (END VIDEOTAPE) JONATHAN MANN: We take another break. When we come back, the company he keeps. Dick Cheney's colleagues in the Bush war cabinet. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) JONATHAN MANN: There were just a handful of truly trusted advisers around President Bush when he planned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They called themselves the Vulcans after the Roman god of fire. Some are more influential than ever. Some have gone away. Welcome back. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, is no longer deputy secretary of defense. He's now head of the World Bank. Douglas Fife is no longer undersecretary of defense. He's entered academia. And Colin Powell may be the least Vulcan of them all. He's also gone, of course. The former secretary of state is on the speakers' tour and in private business. Where does that leave Dick Cheney and the rest of the real insiders? Joining us now to talk about that is James Mann, author of "The Rise of the Vulcans." And I suppose I should let everyone know we are not related, much to my regret. Your book is "The Rise of the Vulcans." Is the sequel going to be called "The Decline of the Vulcans"? Is that what we're seeing? JAMES MANN, AUTHOR: Well, it's not my next book but we are seeing, I think, a decline in the influence of Vice President Cheney within the administration. That's a relative statement, because at least as I saw it he was really the central figure in the 2002-2003 period, and he is still enormously powerful, but less so I'd say than he was three or four years ago. JONATHAN MANN: Why is that? And in relative terms, how much less powerful? JAMES MANN: I would say significantly less powerful, but still an enormously influential figure. The reason -- there are several reasons. One is that the policies and views he espoused three or four years ago haven't turned out the way he suggested. There were no weapons of mass destruction, at least none of them were found, and we were not greeted as liberators in Iraq in any lasting way. So, that's the first. The second is that others within the administration have risen in influence. I would mention in particular two. The first is the current secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. And the second, not to be left out, is the president of the United States. I think that he has more of his own views than he did early on in this administration when he was new to national security issues. JONATHAN MANN: What about Donald Rumsfeld? JAMES MANN: I think Rumsfeld is still powerful, but enormously preoccupied with the war in Iraq. And on larger issues within the administration he probably is less influential than three or four years ago. And one can see on recent issues such as Iran the dominant influence of Condoleezza Rice, rather than, say, Rumsfeld or Cheney. JONATHAN MANN: How does that manifest itself? What would be the sign of a Condy Rice policy as opposed to a Don Rumsfeld policy? JAMES MANN: I think it was the secretary of state, Condy Rice, who proposed a different policy towards Iran, a policy of talking to the Iranian government, for example. JONATHAN MANN: Now, we've mentioned only a small number of people. It has been said about George Bush that he only listens to a small number of people. Some of them have gone. Have others taken their places or is the war cabinet, the kitchen cabinet, the number of his trusted advisers, declining as he enters the final years of his presidency? JAMES MANN: I think it's remained about the same. The people we left off the list, for example, is the national security adviser, the current national security adviser, Steve Hadley, who is enormously powerful now, but really stays in the background and really wasn't part of the small group of dominant figures in 2002-2003. JONATHAN MANN: One of the things that Ron Suskind says in his book is that everyone who was in power on 9/11 feels guilty, feels regret. Is there a sense of regret about 9/11, for that matter Afghanistan, Iraq, or as Dick Cheney puts it, are they all walking around the White House confident that history is going to bear out the decisions that they made? JAMES MANN: I suspect that it is different for different people. I think that anybody who thinks that the current secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld, is going to agonize or regret the war in the sense that one of his predecessors, Secretary of Defense McNamara regretted the Vietnam War, I think is dreaming. I don't think you're going to get that sense of regret out of Donald Rumsfeld. On the other hand, I actually have wondered whether his former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, may feel some regret. He certainly never admitted to it, but I wonder. JONATHAN MANN: James Mann. Most recently author of "The Rise of the Vulcans," thanks so much for talking with us. JAMES MANN: Thank you. JONATHAN MANN: And that is INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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