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Cheney: We're keeping papers secret on principle

Cheney: "There's nothing secret about what we did with respect to our energy group."  

(CNN) -- President Bush goes before Congress and the American people Tuesday to deliver his first State of the Union address. He is the commander in chief of a nation at war, and the president of a country in a deep recession. At the president's side through all of this is his vice president, Dick Cheney. He sat down with CNN's John King on Monday for a one-on-one interview. Following is an edited transcript covering several topics addressed.

KING: Mr. Vice President, first and foremost, thank you for joining us. I know you're quite busy.

CHENEY: Thank you, John. Good to be here.

KING: Let's start on the issue that's making a lot of headlines in town. [There is] a great deal of debate about the task force you headed on energy policy, whether you should turn [documents] over to the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- all the papers about who you met with them, when you met with them, what was discussed at those meetings.


KING: You say, No, that there's a principle here that you should be able to have candid discussions about making policy. Some Democrats in Congress, even a few Republicans, say you should release those documents. What's the fight about? Why not?

CHENEY: Well, there is an important principle involved in here, John. We have given the GAO a lot of information. They have jurisdiction over statutory agencies, agencies created by acts of Congress. We've given them information on the amount of money that was spent and how it was spent.

Vice President Dick Cheney defends position on keeping energy task force papers secret in an exclusive interview with CNN's John King (January 28)

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What they're asking for that we refuse to give them is information about my meetings as vice president, where I sat down with labor leaders, energy industry reps, public officials, governors, congressmen, senators. And their demand has been based on something Henry Waxman wanted them to do -- the Democratic congressman from California -- a list of everybody I met with, what we talked about, what kind of advice I received, notes and minutes of any of those meetings.

Now, it's my judgment, and the president shares this view, that if we start down that road, we're setting a terrible precedent. We're saying the vice president cannot have confidential meetings, that I can't meet with anybody without telling Henry Waxman I met with him or what was discussed.

Now there's nothing secret about what we did with respect to our energy group. We came in, the first week we were here, the president asked me to pull together a comprehensive national energy policy. We did that, using government officials, [and] produced a good report that was very public. We printed thousands of copies of it, put it out all over town, 105 separate recommendations. That's what the debate ought to be on is the substance of the report, not how we got to the report or who told us what as we put the report together.

KING: But the fight predates the collapse of Enron.

CHENEY: Nothing to do with that.

KING: But you understand the new politics. You say it had nothing to do with Enron. The Democrats on Capitol Hill say maybe it does. We want to see. We don't know. Did these guys do anything to help Enron? Were you privy to any information that could have indicated their finances were in trouble? Did you do anything from a policy standpoint to help Enron? Obviously, it has gotten extra political juice because of Enron.

CHENEY: Yes, but it's a classic sort of feeding frenzy in Washington. Nobody's got a charge to make. Nobody did anything wrong. Enron didn't receive any special treatments. They were treated and dealt with just like a lot of other energy companies were that we talked to during this process. But the suggestion that somehow something improper occurred here simply isn't valid.

Now, setting Enron aside for a minute, we went through this debate with Henry Waxman and the GAO last summer. We said, "No, we're not going to give it to you." And the GAO at that point sort of went quiet. They kind of backed off, because I think they know they have got a weak case. All of the attorneys that have reviewed this, and the Justice Department, White House counsel's office and so forth, have concluded that the GAO doesn't have the authority they're seeking to exercise here.

What's happened now since Enron collapsed is the suggestion that somehow now the GAO ought to come back and get that information. But the collapse of Enron in no way, shape or form affects the basic principle we're trying to protect here. This is about the ability of future presidents and vice presidents to do their job. And they've always had the capacity in the past to get honest, unvarnished advice, to have people come in and speak the truth without fear that what they say is going to appear in the front page of the newspapers the next morning, and we need to preserve that principle.

KING: May not affect the principle, in your words, but it could affect the politics. You have the president's support unequivocally on this issue, but there are some Republicans on the Hill who [don't] agree with you 100 percent on the principle.

They're a little worried in a congressional election year, with the control of Congress so closely contested, that the Democrats will say the Bush administration is trying to protect its buddies, big business buddies, big oil business buddies, big Enron buddies. You do understand the politics of this?

CHENEY: Well, but I beg to differ. I think it's bad politics to do something you believe is fundamentally wrong. I have been in town now off-and-on for 34 years. And during that period of time, there's been a constant, steady erosion of the prerogatives and the power in the Oval Office, a continual encroachment by Congress, War Powers Act, Anti-Impoundment and Budget Control Act, previous instances where presidents have given up, if you will, important principles. So the office is weaker today than it was 30, 35 years ago.

What we're committed to is to make sure we preserve the office at least as strong as we found it for our successors. And it makes, again, absolutely no sense for us to say, well, there's some political unrest, therefore we ought to compromise on a basic fundamental principle.

The fact of the matter is, you know, if you're looking for [an] example [of] who likes our report -- or are there places where there's concurrence, if you will, between what somebody recommended --look at the Sierra Club. They had an energy policy that had 12 recommendations in it; 11 found their way into our report. So the point is, let's go debate the policy. It's a good policy. Our rationale is laid out there for it. Nobody got any special treatment. Everybody was free to come in and tell us what they thought.

Enron, I'm sure, got some things they agreed with that are in the report, but there were things they didn't get. They wanted us to support the Kyoto Treaty. We didn't support the Kyoto Treaty. We said no. They wanted mandatory carbon dioxide emissions. We said no; bad policy. If we thought it was bad policy for the country, we didn't do it.

KING: Chairman Karzai, the head of the Afghan interim government is here today. One of his issues is he thinks this international security force should not be about 4,500 to 5,000 troops, but should be perhaps as many as 25,000 or 30,000 troops and include a significant contingent of U.S. troops. Any chance he'll get his way, and should there be troops in Afghanistan?

CHENEY: We still have a lot to do in Afghanistan to root out the last of al Qaeda, wrap up the Taliban and hopefully find Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

The role of the international security force is different. It's really peacekeep[ing]. They're there to provide help and assistance to the new Afghan government. I think there are -- and the president believes -- there are a couple of major ways we can help here. We're not advocating putting U.S. troops in as peacekeepers, as part of that international peacekeeping force.

We can be available to come to their assistance should they get in trouble. But we really think one of the keys here is to stand up an Afghan national army, so that [there is a] reconstituted national army in Afghanistan. There's a great deal we can do in terms of training, joint exercises and the kind of the military to military relationships that we have had many other places around the world.

I think the ultimate answer here for the Afghans is to have their own force that can maintain security in their country, and we'll focus on that. In the meantime, we appreciate all the efforts of those who are participating in the international force. But we don't see a large contingent of U.S. troops as part of that international force. But we'll be in Afghanistan for some time to come. There's a lot of work to do yet.

KING: A controversy, sometimes in the media, human rights groups and a debate within the National Security Council and others about what to call these detainees being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some say they should be designated as prisoners of war and therefore they should get some additional rights than they have right now as to how they are treated. I understand this came up again at the National Security Council meeting. Any sense that the administration is going to change how it designates these people?

CHENEY: You're not supposed to know what comes up ... at National Security Counsel Meetings, John, but you frequently find out. No, there's really no disagreement of the administration on a couple of key points. We agree that these are not prisoners of war. These are terrorists. These are people who, some of whom may in fact have been involved in planning or supporting the attack on the United States on September 11. Many of them may have been involved in planning future attacks. But these are bad guys. They have been screened, prescreened, if you will, in Afghanistan and those that end up in Guantanamo we have reason to believe are, in fact, very dangerous fellows.

The second thing that we all agree with, that the president established, is that they are being treated humanely. No matter how bad they are, we are taking care of them the in accordance with the basic standards, if you will, core values that are established in the Geneva Accords. But we don't believe they ought to be prisoners of war. They are unlawful combatants.

In order to be a lawful combatant, entitled to prisoner of war status, ordinarily you've got to be representing the army of a sovereign state, wearing a uniform, conducting yourself in certain ways with respect to the conduct of the war, not attacking civilians. These people don't qualify in any of those grounds. They don't wear uniforms, they do attack civilians, they come in the dark of flight and violate the rules of law and therefore aren't entitled to POW status.

There is an issue as to exactly what their legal status ought to be, whether they ought to be treated as unlawful combatants under the Geneva Convention, or whether the convention was written for other types of conflicts and doesn't apply here. And that's an interesting debate among the lawyers, but it doesn't really affect how they'll be treated in Guantanamo. The will be treated humanely.

KING: Somewhat unrelated issue, but it could become more and more related in the weeks ahead. You say Yasser Arafat knew about that shipment coming out of Iran, heading toward the Palestinian territories, the weapons shipment that [was] obviously in violation of the Oslo Accords [in the] spirit, if you will, of having a peace agreement. You say [Arafat] knew about it. How did he know about it? What's the evidence? And is it an intercepted communication?

CHENEY: No, but I would say, first of all, I wouldn't talk about intelligence. I can't do that, obviously. Wouldn't want to do that.

But we do know that people very close to Mr. Arafat, people high up in the Palestinian Authority, were in fact involved in this operation. We've all seen the television interviews and the ship captain saying that he was working for the Palestinian Authority. So there's little doubt that this operation proceeded [without] the knowledge, if you will, and acquiescence of the senior people in the Palestinian Authority.

KING: So then how do you do business with him? And should you do business with him? And how do you then go to President [Pervez] Musharraf of Pakistan when India complains and say, "Crack down, sir, on extremist groups, terrorist groups in your country?" President [Gloria] Arroyo of the Philippines, who has some U.S. Special Forces there helping her crack down on terrorist groups. ... How can you do that and ask them to ... take on risky operations and still do business with Yasser Arafat, if you believe he is supporting terrorism?

CHENEY: That's why there's been as much of a stir as there has over this. There are several reasons why Arafat is of concern at this point. He knows what he has to do. He needs to control the violence emanating from Palestine, Gaza, the West Bank against Israeli civilians. We had another attack just yesterday, over 100 civilians wounded by a suicide bomber. He has an obligation to try to stamp out those terrorist attacks.

KING: You say he has an obligation, but [you] keep saying that he hasn't met it. At what point do you say, we can't keep saying that? Our words have to mean something.

CHENEY: He has not met it yet. The next problem that has arisen is the ... shipment that you mentioned, 50 tons of weapons, a lot of C-4 explosives -- the only use of which is presumably to make the suicide bombers even more deadly than they already are. Some extended range rockets that would allow them to hit parts of Israel they haven't been able to hit up till now.

What's most disturbing isn't just the shipment of arms, it's the fact that it came from Iran, apparently in conjunction with some activities of Hezbollah as well. So what we have here is Yasser Arafat -- who is committed under the Oslo Accords and a number of other agreements ... to represent the Palestinian people in negotiations with the Israelis to find peace and arrive at a settlement -- doing business with Hezbollah and Iran ... that are absolutely dedicated to ending the peace process. And it's difficult to take him seriously as an interlocutor in that peace process if he's going to conduct himself in that fashion.




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