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Interview with Dick Cheney

Aired September 6, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I've covered Dick Cheney for many years, as a Defense secretary and certainly as vice president of the United States. Today, I found him to be very much the same as I always knew him -- steadfast in his views, unapologetic for doing what he believed and still believes is right.

I interviewed Cheney here in Los Angeles earlier today.


BLITZER: Your biggest regret, as it relates to your time in office.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Geez, you're going to have to go back. That covers 40 years.

BLITZER: The -- the eight years you were vice president.

CHENEY: Well, I -- I think as a general proposition, on the big decisions, I think we got it right. I worked for George Bush. I'm proud to have worked for him. I think that a lot of the most controversial things we did, that people didn't like and -- and criticized us for, things like the terror surveillance program or the enhanced interrogation techniques, were things that allowed us to save lives.

And the net result, the value of our policies is best evaluated in terms of the fact that after 9/11, there were no further mass casualty attacks against the United States, that we stopped every single prospective attack on the U.S. For the last seven-and-a-half years that we were there. I think that speaks for all of our policy.

BLITZER: It certainly does. But, you know, you're a human being. I'm a human being.

CHENEY: Um-hmm.

BLITZER: I make mistakes all the time. You must have made some mistakes as vice president of the United States.

CHENEY: Well, I made mistakes that I talk about in the book.

BLITZER: Give me an example.

CHENEY: Well, I got kicked out of Yale twice when I was a student (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Well, I'm talking about as vice president.


BLITZER: We all make mistakes when we're in college.

CHENEY: Wolf, Wolf, the -- what I find in this whole operation is people want you to admit, quote, you made a mistake...

BLITZER: What's wrong with that, if you made a mistake, what's wrong with that?

CHENEY: But what they want is they don't want just an admission of a mistake, they want to you say you did something wrong that they disagreed with. It's all about politics and I'm...

BLITZER: But there's nothing wrong with that.

CHENEY: Wolf, I wrote what I believe. I wrote my experiences. I talked, for example, about things that I got wrong in the Bush One administration. I disagreed, for example, with the idea of going to Congress to get authorization to go into Kuwait. The president overrode me. He was right, I was wrong. I mean there -- there are examples like that. I thought...

BLITZER: That was the first President Bush.

CHENEY: I thought wage-price controls was a serious mistake. I was an integral part of wage-price control enforcement.

BLITZER: But during the eight years of the -- the second Bush administration, no mistakes?

CHENEY: I have said all I'm going to say about it, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

CHENEY: I'm proud of the policies we put in place. I think they did the job we intended for them to do. And I'm not inclined to make any mea culpas.


BLITZER: All right, that's just a little bit of the interview. Stand by for much more of my conversation with Dick Cheney. We speak about the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his prediction about Syria's future, his new book, his own heart condition. He's going to show us the device that helps keep him alive. We go in-depth on that.

Stand by. Much more of Dick Cheney coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: As Washington sharpens its focus on the issue of jobs, I sat down with the former vice president Dick Cheney in Los Angeles earlier today. I sought to get his views on how the Bush-Cheney administration contributed to this huge economic crisis.


BLITZER: When you took office, you and President Bush, the Bush administration, there were budget surpluses as far as the eye could see. When you left office, the national debt had doubled and the economy was teetering potentially on depression. How much responsibility do you personally take for seeing that economic disaster potentially unfold?

CHENEY: Well, like most administrations, Wolf, we had to deal with the circumstances that we inherited, and that included within a matter of months after we were sworn in 9/11. And all of the sudden we're faced with the prospect of 3,000 dead Americans as a result of a terrorist attack that morning. We had to undertake massive programs, create a whole new department, the Department of Homeland Security, and take a lot of steps. It costs a lot of money, frankly, in order to guard against another attack like that.

Plus, we ended up obviously with two major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, so there was no question but what the policies we pursued for, I think, with good reason. I would not have reversed those policies. It necessitated spending money that we would not have otherwise had to spend.

BLITZER: Did you ever think of cutting spending to pay for all those added expenses?

CHENEY: Well, we had -- we tried to separate out what the military costs were as a separate item from the rest of the normal budget, or even the normal defense budget, but the fact of the matter was you couldn't, for example, set up a whole new security system for air travel, build a whole new -- one of the largest departments in the federal government like the Department of Homeland Security, undertake all of the efforts we did overseas without having to spend money. It was just a fact of life.

BLITZER: But you could have cut -- I mean, there were other expenses that you had. Every year your budget went up and up and up. You'll remember John McCain always saying you guys spent money like drunken sailors, with no disrespect to drunken sailors.

CHENEY: John was a sailor, I think. A sensitive subject.

BLITZER: Yes, he was. So it wasn't just the war on terrorism, the new security procedures. Significant tax cuts that were not paid for, a Medicare benefit, prescription drug benefit for seniors, wasn't paid for. All of these new expenses reduced revenue, and the $5 trillion national debt went up to more than $10 trillion when you left office.

CHENEY: I think if you look at it, for example, on tax policy, I would argue that I'm heavily involved on the tax side of things. I had to cast the tie-breaking vote at one point.

BLITZER: The 2003 tax cut.

CHENEY: But what we did when we took down the rate, the overall rate, we also cut the rate on capital gains and dividends. It had a significant impact on the economy, and it was a vital part of recovery in the economy.


BLITZER: But it also had a significant impact in increasing the national debt.

CHENEY: Well, I disagree. I mean, you and I probably have a different point of view in terms of the impact of taxes on the economy. But I'm one of those people who believes -- I'm a supply sider, if you will, and I really believe that the tax cuts we put in, in fact, kept the economy from going even deeper into the hole as a result of --


BLITZER: The prescription drug benefit, which costs potentially down the road trillions of dollars, did you ever think that that should be justify set with spending cuts?

CHENEY: Well, the original plan was that you would grant the prescription drug benefit in return for Congress in acting reforms in the Medicare program. We got the prescription drug benefit and we never got the full package of reforms. So there were places where the system didn't produce as much as we had anticipated or hoped from the standpoint of savings, but I think with respect to the wars and the war on terror, and the threat that we inherited, that we had to face, and that we had to deal with, we didn't have any choice but to spend a lot of money.

BLITZER: There was a lot of money on that, but there were other expenses.

Looking back, is there anything you could have done, should have done to avoid that financial collapse near the end of your administration?

CHENEY: Well, I think we did a lot, obviously. I think the program that the president put in place, together working with Treasury and Ben Bernanke over at the Federal Reserve --

BLITZER: The TARP program.

CHENEY: -- the TARP program, was very controversial. It was tough to get it adopted. It was rejected originally, and then we finally got it approved. I think it did a lot of good in terms of putting the financial system in order.

We were in big trouble from a financial standpoint, but only the federal government can deal with the question of maintaining the monetary system. And we had a situation where we had major financial situations who weren't able to borrow money.


BLITZER: But what could you have done to avoid even the need for a TARP program? These financial institutions were collapsing.

CHENEY: Well, one of the things that would have been helpful would have been if the Democratic Congress had adopted our recommendations for fixing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They were huge problems. This whole question of substandard mortgages and financial securities that were based upon that ultimately created a lot of the problem that we had to deal with, and that was a direct result of the failure of Congress to enact the reforms that we recommended for those programs.

BLITZER: All right. So, with hindsight -- and then we'll move on to another subject -- with hindsight, is there anything you should have done differently during those eight years that would have avoided that financial turmoil at the end of your eight years?

CHENEY: Well, I'm not an expert in the financial area, Wolf. Somebody may be able to have a specific answer that they could suggest, but I think generally, given the circumstances we inherited and the problems we had to deal with in terms of the war on terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, et cetera, that we had no choice but to go down the course we did.

Now, eventually, we got a program in place that I think rescued the financial system and the basic financial institutions. The Obama administration came in, obviously, after that, and they had to deal with a difficult set of circumstances.

BLITZER: A lot of your fellow conservatives hated that TARP program.

CHENEY: I know they did, but I think -- and I'm one of those who argues against governmental involvement in the economy. But the one exception I would make is that when you're talking about the financial system of the country, sort of the backbone of the economy, basic fundamental credibility of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury and the value of the currency and so forth, the only institution in our society that has the capacity to deal with the crisis there is the federal government.

You can't palm that off on the states, or even the private sector. So we did what we thought we had to do. We did it reluctantly. And if I had my druthers, nobody would -- I wouldn't have liked to be in that spot, but we really felt it necessary, and I supported it.


BLITZER: All right. We're going to have much more of my interview with Dick Cheney coming up, including our panel that will fact-check his comments about the war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, the weapons of mass destruction or not. Much more of the interview with Dick Cheney coming up.



BLITZER: Let's talk about the war in Iraq and the buildup to the war in Iraq, which you remember well and you write extensively about it in the book "In My Time."

In August of 2002 -- the invasion took place in March of 2003 -- you told the Veterans of Foreign Wars:


CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.


BLITZER: That statement was incorrect, right?

CHENEY: The statement was incorrect?

BLITZER: The statement you made.

CHENEY: It was based on the intelligence that we had received at the time. It also tracks almost perfectly with what Bill Clinton had said two years earlier based on the same intelligence when he was president.

BLITZER: But you say there was no doubt.

There was doubt.

CHENEY: Well, there was not at the time, not at the time.


CHENEY: The intelligence we had received repeatedly since the transition period, when we started getting our intelligence briefings, and for 27 months after that, right until '03, all showed that he had significant activity under way with respect to weapons of mass destruction.

Now, what we found after the war, when we went in with the Iraq Survey Group, was we found there were no stockpiles, but he did in fact had a preserve and still had the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the people, he had the technology, he had the feedstocks, he had the basic capacity to resume production as soon as the sanctions were lifted, and that that was in fact his intent.

If you go back and you look at statements by David Kay, who chaired the Iraq Survey Group, he said -- after he finished, he came out and he said, look, I thought there were stockpiles, too, but there weren't, but I was even more concerned once I saw what he did have, because it was clear to him that Saddam was gearing up to get back into the business again.

BLITZER: Because if you read the 9/11 Commission report and other reports and all sorts of books, "Fiasco," that book, there were those analysts in the U.S. government who had doubts, who had serious doubts, at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, at the State Department. At the CIA, there were some analysts who said, we're not so sure about these stockpiles and weapons of mass destruction.

CHENEY: With all due respect, Wolf, I think that's a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

The fact of the matter is, if you go back and you look at 1998, two years before we arrived, you had Bill Clinton making public statements that he believed that Saddam Hussein did in fact have weapons of mass destruction and that he would use them unless he was stopped. And based on that, he signed legislation passed by the Congress that made changing the regime in Iraq an object of U.S. foreign policy and appropriated $100 million for that purpose.


CHENEY: That was all before we even arrived at the election, two years before the election.

BLITZER: Because I remembering Hans Blix on several occasions, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector of the U.N.

They expressed doubts all the time. They thought, as you once thought when you were defense secretary and the years that followed, that Saddam had been contained in a box. He represented an enormous threat to his own people, but not to anyone else.

You didn't agree with them, did you?

CHENEY: I didn't. I also think there was a little thing called 9/11 that happened.


BLITZER: Did he have any involvement in 9/11?

CHENEY: Listen. Hear me out, Wolf.

The fact of the matter is, on 9/11, we moved from a situation in which before that we thought about terrorist attacks as law enforcement problems. Somebody blows up a building. We go out, we arrest him, we try him, we put him in jail.

On 9/11, when we lost 3,000 people that morning, we decided it wasn't just a law enforcement problem, that it was in fact an act of war. And we had to deal with the possibility of further attacks. Everybody expected there would be more. The morning after 9/11, nobody would have bet there wouldn't be any for the next seven years.

But we expected there to be more attacks. We expected there was a very real possibility that it would mount an effort for example by al Qaeda to try to attack us with weapons of mass destruction. We had intelligence that suggested they were pursuing that kind of capability.

We had to be focused upon those places in that part of the world where terrorists could get their hands on anthrax or upon some other deadly substance or upon nuclear weapons. And that led us to sit down and take a look, for example, at a country like Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

And we concluded, based on that, that that was a place where there was most likely to be this interchange, if you will, between terrorism on the one hand and a rogue state on the other.

BLITZER: But just to be precise, he had no involvement with al Qaeda and planning or implementing 9/11?

CHENEY: He had no responsibility that we were ever able to confirm for 9/11. We were told right after 9/11, I received a briefing from the CIA provided to me by George Tenet that he had.


BLITZER: But that turned out to be false?

CHENEY: Turned out to be false.

But at the time, he -- supposedly, Mohamed Atta, who was the leader hijacker, had met with one of the senior officials of the Iraq intelligence service in Prague five months before 9/11. That was information provided to us by our intelligence.

BLITZER: False intelligence.

CHENEY: Yes, but you didn't know it was false. The CIA didn't come in and say this is false. There were months that went by that they in fact had that very much on their platter.

Now, in the final analysis, they were never able to confirm it. But initial reporting was that there had in fact been this cooperation if you will between Mohamed Atta and the head of Iraqi intelligence.

BLITZER: But that turned out to be false, incorrect, because you always said -- and we interviewed -- I interviewed you many times -- he's in a box. He's contained. He represents a threat to his own people, no one else.

Under this theory, though, after 9/11, that potentially he could represent a huge threat to the United States if he started cooperating with al Qaeda in a major way, there were other state sponsors of terror that the United States did not go after in a way as it did Saddam Hussein, like Iran, for example, a relationship with terrorists, right? CHENEY: Correct.

BLITZER: Syria, a relationship with groups you consider terrorists, Hamas, Hezbollah. Why didn't you go after Syria or Iran, just Iraq?

CHENEY: Well, because that was the next one that we were really concerned about.

We had first of all to deal with Afghanistan, because the attacks of 9/11 had been launched out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan had provided safe haven to bin Laden. He had set up training camps and trained some 20,000 terrorists. Afghanistan came front and center. It was the base of operations from which they launched that attack.

BLITZER: Afghanistan, everybody understands, because they did have a huge al Qaeda presence.


CHENEY: Right behind Afghanistan was Iraq. And we were convinced based upon Saddam Hussein's history, based on the fact that he had started two wars, based on the fact that he had violated 16 out of 17 national security -- or U.N. Security Council resolutions, based on the fact that he had produced and used weapons of mass destruction against his own people -- there were thousands of dead Kurds because Saddam Hussein had killed them with his WMD -- that that was the target we had to be focused on if we were going to avoid a situation which we were going to end up having to deal with a terrorist organization equipped with that deadly capabilities.

Now, Saddam had also provided safe haven to terrorists. He was making $25,000 payments to the families of suicide bombers.

BLITZER: But a lot of other countries were doing that as well.

CHENEY: Well, not making $25,000 payments.

You couldn't go after everybody at once. What we did was we went after the ones, Afghanistan first and then Iraq, that we thought represented the biggest threat to the United States. I think it was the right call.


BLITZER: Let's get more of my interview now with the former Vice President Dick Cheney. We discussed the war in Iraq at length, with Cheney vigorously defending the decision to invade Iraq back in 2003.

But many of you wanted to know more.


BLITZER: We asked our followers on Twitter, on Facebook for questions for you.


BLITZER: And a lot of them, I'm not going to ask you.

I will give you one, though, from Ken Blevins (ph).

"Mr. Vice President, the current fatality count in Iraq is 4,474. The cost to the U.S. is climbing over $800 billion."

I think it's more than that.

"That being said, has it been worth it so far, in your opinion?"


BLITZER: No doubt about it?

CHENEY: No doubt about it.

BLITZER: Even though the current regime in Iraq is moving closer towards Iran, which arguably may be the biggest strategic winner in this whole U.S. involvement in Iraq, than the United States?

CHENEY: Look at what happened here when we went in and we took down Saddam Hussein.

First of all, we got rid of one of the worst dictators in the world when he was tried and convicted and ultimately executed. Secondly, when we went in, we have got the rudiments of a democracy now established in Iraq. It is not perfect by any means. They have got major problems they have got to overcome as they move forward.


BLITZER: This alliance that they're developing with Iran is not concerning to you?

CHENEY: They have got a major amount of work to do, without question.

A third proposition in terms of what happened, Moammar Gadhafi saw what we did. And five days after we captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi became public and coughed up all of his nuclear materials, his uranium centrifuges, his uranium feedstock, the weapons design that had he acquired from A.Q. Khan in Pakistan, who was running a black market nuclear operation to Libya, to Iraq, and to North Korea.


CHENEY: So, there were a lot of things that came out of what we did in Iraq that were very positive, that had to happen.

We're much better off today with Saddam Hussein gone. You got Moammar Gadhafi gone. You have got neither Iraq nor Libya in the nuclear business today. You have got A.Q. Khan, the outfit that was supplying them, out of business. We shut down their operation. So, we got a lot done. We didn't get it all done, but we got a lot done.

BLITZER: But I'm concerned that when all the dust settles in Iraq and the U.S. troops pull out, supposedly by the end of this year, although there may be a residual number of some troops left -- they're negotiating that -- when all the dust settles, the Shiite-led regime in Iraq of Nouri al-Maliki is going to be a partner of Iran and Syria, for that matter.

In recent days, Nouri al-Maliki's government has supported Bashar al-Assad in his crackdown on -- on peaceful protesters in Syria, together with the Iranians, one of the few countries to do that.

Is that why the U.S. went to war, so that Iraq would become a strategic partner...

CHENEY: Well...

BLITZER: ... of Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

CHENEY: First, you're constructing the -- a worst-case scenario there, Wolf. I don't think it's going to happen that way.

BLITZER: You think there's going to be democracy...

CHENEY: I think the...

BLITZER: ... a pro-American...

CHENEY: ... I think the Iraqis...

BLITZER: ... government...

CHENEY: ... I think the Iraqis will, in fact, be somebody we can work with on a regular basis, that they will have a rudimentary democracy, if you will. And I think it will be a success. But we will have to see.

BLITZER: So when they support Bashar al-Assad, what goes through your mind?

CHENEY: Well, you know, I think Bashar al-Assad is not long for this world either. It looks to me like he's -- he's on his way out because of the unrest that's been occasioned by his own people inside Syria.

He's one of the least popular leaders in that part of the world. it's -- it's the Middle East. And stuff happens in the Middle East. You know it. You've covered it for years. But you cannot -- I don't think you can make a case that the world would be better off today if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

BLITZER: So, no regrets about Iraq?

CHENEY: I think we made exactly the right decisions.

BLITZER: Afghanistan, no regrets about Afghanistan, the way it's unfolded? Do you think that is going to have a happy ending when all the dust settles?

CHENEY: Oh, I think so. I think certainly it's worth our doing everything we can to get it to have a positive outcome.

BLITZER: What did you think when you heard that President Obama succeeded in killing bin Laden? After all the years that you and President Bush and your administration tried unsuccessfully to kill him, he finally succeeded in killing him.

CHENEY: I thought it was great. I went out and made a public statement to that effect, congratulated him on it.

I also am convinced based in part on some of the folks I still talk with in the government that a lot of the work we did through the intelligence community and with our special operations forces in that period of time during the Bush administration laid the groundwork ultimately for the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.

I think it was an effort that our career people in intelligence and the military deserve a lot of credit for. I gave President Obama credit for sending in SEAL Team Six. He had to make the decision at the last minute.


BLITZER: It was a gutsy decision on his part.

CHENEY: It would not have happened if it hadn't been all that work that had been done for years by the CIA, by our intelligence community, by our special-ops forces.

BLITZER: The criticism of the Bush administration was that you had bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, took your eye off the ball, started focusing in on Iraq and let bin Laden escape.

CHENEY: I don't buy that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Did you have him cornered in Tora Bora?

CHENEY: I think we've got -- we've got a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on now.

BLITZER: There were a lot...

CHENEY: This is what happened.

BLITZER: A lot of people...

CHENEY: I don't -- I don't believe it.

BLITZER: Did you know that he was cornered in Tora Bora at the time? Were you getting those daily reports?


BLITZER: Nobody told you about that?

CHENEY: No. We had a major effort under way to take down the Taliban, which we did. We were successful. Bin Laden obviously was high on our list of people we wanted to get our hands on. We weren't able to capture him, and he survived for several more years.

But the steps we took, including I think, things like enhanced interrogation techniques, made it possible for us ultimately to provide the intelligence that was required to take down bin Laden. And I think our guys who worked hard on that in both administrations deserve the credit.



BLITZER: Dick Cheney relies on a special machine to help keep him alive right now. He showed us during the interview how it works.


BLITZER: Let me talk a little bit about your health right now. You've got some heart issues, as all of our viewers know. Explain what's going on with this battery, if you don't mind.

CHENEY: Well, I've got -- had a series of heart attacks. Five heart attacks over more than 30 years. I had my first heart attack when I was 37 years old back in 1978, my first campaign for Congress.

And I reached a point a little over a year ago after my fifth heart attack, where I went into end-stage heart failure. That's when your heart isn't pumping enough blood to provide adequate supply of blood and oxygen to your kidneys and your liver and so forth. And at that time what we did was go in and install something that's called a Heart Mate 2. It's not an artificial heart. We don't have those yet. But what it does do is it supplements the beating of the heart, and it's tied into the ventricle and takes the blood out of the ventricle, puts it through a pump that's implanted in my chest, a small one. It runs about 8,000 rpms. It's at a very high rate of speed. Pumps blood then into the aorta and then throughout your body.

And as a result of that, it's restored normal blood flow to my vital organs. And for the last year plus now, I've been living with this device implanted in my chest. It's battery operated and I wear a vest all the time. And two batteries here.

BLITZER: Which is the battery? That's the battery?

CHENEY: There's two batteries. Here's one. I've got another one just like this. It comes apart. And it will bleep in a moment.

BLITZER: And that means you better put it back?

CHENEY: That's means that you're disconnected.

BLITZER: And that lasts for how long? CHENEY: Several hours.

BLITZER: And then you have a spare? The other side is the spare?

CHENEY: I carry. Well, the other side is automatically wired. And you always have two batteries going. And then I carry a bag that's got spares for all of this external equipment, in case something happens to it.

BLITZER: Can you live many years with that? Or at some point, someone suggested you need a heart transplant.

CHENEY: So far, so good, Wolf. The concept itself came about as a result of trying to build a transitional device that would take people from -- who needed a transplant but couldn't get a heart yet, put them on this system and allowed them to survive long enough until they could get a heart.

Now, I haven't made a decision yet, whether or not I want to go for a transplant. What's happened over time is this technology has gotten better and better, the device has gotten smaller, more efficient, more reliable. And so you've got more people living on it for a matter of years. And I'll have to make a decision at some point whether or not I'll go for a transplant or whether I want to stay with this.

BLITZER: You're 70 years old now.

CHENEY: Seventy.

BLITZER: And are your cardiologist saying you're strong enough for a heart transplant? You are?

CHENEY: Yes. I' m back doing everything I wanted to do before. I had to have the pump implanted, but again, I haven't made a decision yet with respect to going forward with the transplant. It depends a lot on how -- how I do with this and what my doctors recommend.