Interview of the Vice President By Jim Lehrer

For Immediate Release
Office of the Vice President
January 14, 2009

Interview of the Vice President By Jim Lehrer, The News Hour With Jim Lehrer
Vice President’s Ceremonial Office
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building

11:22 A.M. EST

Q Mr. Vice President, welcome.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s good to be back, Jim.

Q Thank you, sir. Yesterday President Bush said that he will leave Washington next week with a great sense of accomplishment. Do you feel the same way?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do.

Q Why? Explain.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there are a number of areas where we’ve had a significant impact on the events, or on the course of history, if you will. The one that stands out in my mind that I think is most important is something that didn’t happen. And that’s the fact that we were able to interrupt, block, defeat all further attempts by al Qaeda to launch mass casualty attacks against the United States after 9/11. That has taken some very tough decisions by the President, some great work by a lot of folks in the intelligence services, in the military and so forth. I look at that and the lives that were saved, and the threats that were defeated as probably our greatest achievement.

Q And you feel it’s actions that you took, the President took, the administration took, resulted in this happening — in other words, prevented these further attacks? There would have been further attacks had you not been there and you had not taken action?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir. I can go back — and a lot of the details are still obviously classified. What we did, in effect, was, in the aftermath of 9/11, ’02/’03 time frame, when we first began to capture high-value detainees, senior members of al Qaeda like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah, we then were able to interrogate them and collect intelligence from them, both about the al Qaeda organization generally — how they functioned, who they were, where they came from, how they were financed — but then also to get specific intelligence on prospective attacks. And it allowed us to go out and wrap up, capture, arrest others. And that list is very impressive.

Q And if that had not happened, do you think there would have been further attacks?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: There’s no doubt in my mind there would have been.

Q Serious attacks of the level like 9/11?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Serious attacks — well, plans, for example, to fly an airliner into the tallest building on the West Coast, plans to develop a so-called “dirty device” to be detonated someplace in the United States, plans to highjack aircraft that were all headed for Heathrow, and then to capture and blow them up over Heathrow, and plans to launch aircraft that they’d captured in Europe and destroy them as they came into the United States. I mean, it was a robust set of programs.

There were others, other regions of the world that were involved, as well as the United States. We got a wealth of information from those programs that are the source of some of the controversy obviously. But we did not have a lot of information on al Qaeda on 9/11, and it was very important that we develop it in the aftermath of 9/11, and we did.

Q The President has also said that mistakes — he made some mistakes in the last eight years. Did you make any?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, make mistakes — I can think of places where I underestimated things. For example, when you talk about Iraq, the extent of which the Iraqi population had been beaten down by Saddam Hussein was greater than I anticipated. That is, we thought that the Iraqis would be able to bounce back fairly quickly, once Saddam was gone and their new government established, and step up to take major responsibilities for governing Iraq, building a military and so forth. And that took longer than I expected.

I think that what happened in Saddam’s reign, as well as what happened back in ’91, when after the Gulf War there was an uprising in Iraq that was brutally crushed by Saddam — I think that eliminated a lot of the people that were potential leaders. If they had stuck their heads out they would have been chopped off. And if I were to look for one where there was a miscalculation on my part, I think I underestimated the difficult of getting an Iraqi government stood up.

Q When you look back on that, why? How did that miscalculation come about?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we didn’t have that good of intelligence I don’t think, with respect to sort of a state of affairs inside Iraq. A lot of that had been wiped out over the years. Saddam Hussein was so brutal, killed so many people, slaughtered so many innocents, that it had a lasting effect on Iraqi society that was greater than I expected.

Q Is it fair to say then that the miscalculation resulted in the chaotic situation that existed immediately after for a while, then got — immediately after the invasion and all that sort of stuff?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I can’t say that. I don’t — I can’t link the particular points. What I can say is I think if we had been able to move more rapidly to stand up a government that was capable, I think we might have avoided some of that. But I don’t want to blame all that on the Iraqi government. It was a difficult situation, but it was successful.

We now find ourselves in the situation where we’re five years later; we’ve achieved most of the objectives that you would have set out in the spring of ’03 when we launched into Iraq. We’ve got the violence level down to its lowest level since ’03. We’ve had three national elections, a constitution written, a new government stood up, new army recruited and trained, the Iraqis increasingly able to take on responsibility for themselves. And we’ve now entered into a strategic framework agreement with the new Iraqi government that will provide for the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

You could not have asked for much more than that in terms of the policies that we started on in ’03.

Q But Mr. Vice President, getting from there to here, 4,500 Americans have died, at least 100,000 Iraqis have died. Has it been worth that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think so.

Q Why?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Because I believed at the time what Saddam Hussein represented was, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, was a terror-sponsoring state so designated by the State Department. He was making payments to the families of suicide bombers. He provided a safe haven and sanctuary for Abu Nidal and other terrorist operations. He had produced and used weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological agents. He’d had a nuclear program in the past. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. And he did have a relationship with al Qaeda.

We’ve had this debate that keeps people trying to conflate those arguments. That’s not to say that Saddam was responsible for 9/11. It is to say as George Tenet, the CIA Director, testified in open session in the Senate, that there was a relationship there that went back 10 years. This was a terror-sponsoring state with access to weapons of mass destruction. And that’s the greatest threat we faced in the aftermath of 9/11, that the next time we found terrorists in the middle of one of our cities, it wouldn’t be 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters, it would be terrorists armed with a biological agent, or maybe even a nuclear device.

And so I think given the track record of Saddam Hussein, I think we did exactly the right thing. I think the country is better off for it today. I think it’s been part of the effort, alongside Afghanistan, to liberate 50 million people and establish a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I think those are major, major accomplishments.

Q Speaking of Afghanistan and miscalculations, do you consider it a miscalculation to have gone into Iraq before Osama bin Laden had been found, arrested, killed, before al Qaeda had been completely destroyed, before the Taliban had been routed in Afghanistan?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t. We had pretty well routed the Taliban and al Qaeda, and closed the training camps, and captured and killed a great many of al Qaeda members, as well as the Taliban, when we originally went in.

The situation now obviously is that we’ve got to continue to be engaged in Afghanistan. It’s one of the most difficult places to work in because of the territory, the geography, the terrain, but also because it’s one of the poorest countries in the world. They don’t have a lot of resources. And we’ve now got the added problem that’s totally unrelated to Iraq, that in Pakistan, next door to Afghanistan, you’ve got a sanctuary, for example, for some al Qaeda that are still there, as well as the Taliban, to move back and forth across the border. We’ll be involved there for a long time. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have taken out Saddam Hussein. I think we were capable of doing both. I think, in fact, we’ve done both.

Q But you didn’t do both simultaneously, right?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, pretty much simultaneously. I mean, there’s been —

Q Osama bin Laden is still out there. I mean, al Qaeda is still functioning.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Osama bin Laden is — wherever he is, he’s in a deep hole. He does not have much impact on the organization as best we can tell. The important thing was to go after the organization, after al Qaeda. Even if you got Osama bin Laden tomorrow, you’d still have a problem in terms of whatever residue of al Qaeda is out there.

We have had a big impact on al Qaeda. This was a significantly diminished organization I think compared to what it was four or five years ago. When we killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, in June of ’06, major accomplishment — and over the last — I don’t want to get into the classified area obviously, but within the last year or so we’ve had a very significant impact on senior al Qaeda leadership.

Q On a more general scope here, Mr. Vice President, what do you make of a current suggestion that you have been, in fact, the most powerful Vice President in history, but in one of the most failed presidencies in history?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t buy that.

Q You don’t buy that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No. I think the argument that this is a failed presidency is just dead wrong. I think we’ll hear that from some of our critics, but when I look back at what we’ve been able to do, we dealt with big issues, we didn’t deal with school uniforms. We dealt with the fact that we brought down two of the worst regimes in the 20th century, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

We were forced — when we arrived, shortly after we arrived — to have to deal with the global war on terror, which had not been managed properly before that. We ended up inheriting this situation, which has been very challenging, but we’ve been very successful at it. And when you look at what we’ve been able to do, both in terms of our activities overseas, as well as our operations that allowed us to block any further attack against the United States here at home, I think those are great successes. And I think there aren’t very many administrations that can point to successes on that scale.

Q And what about in domestic areas? What of the economy? The economic downturn is on scope, or on par with the Great Depression. Why — was it not a miscalculation, or a failure to see that coming?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t think it was a miscalculation. I think we had good economic policies, especially in the early years. I think the tax packages we passed in ’03, for example, produced 52 months — uninterrupted months — in job growth. We’ve run into trouble recently, obviously, in the beginning of ’08, because of the financial crisis, as well as the recession. But those are not U.S. problems alone; those are global problems. Those are problems that have affected nations and economies all over the world. That’s not something that is just a U.S. problem. And I think — as I look at it, I think we’ve been successful at intervening —

Q On the economy you’ve been successful?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: We’ve been successful at intervening economically with respect to the financial crisis, and what we did with respect to TARP, by moving as aggressively as we did, that there is, in fact, positive progress. We’ve stabilized, if you will, the financial system out there. There’s still a lot of work to be done yet, but the interbank lending rate is back down where it belongs, interest rates are low. All of these things are moves in the right direction.

I think if we had not intervened as aggressively as we did, the situation would be worse. But I don’t think you could blame the financial crisis on George Bush. I just don’t think that’s a valid judgment.

Q What about — going back to the original question about seeing this coming — isn’t that part of the stewardship of the President and the Vice President and his administration, to see these things coming and try to prevent them from coming, rather than to act after they’ve happened?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Did you see it coming, Jim? You’re an expert.

Q I’m not the President or the Vice President of the United States. (Laughter.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s — I think we did see some elements in terms of our concerns about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And a couple of years ago, we went forward with proposed recommendations to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We couldn’t get them through the Democrat-controlled Congress. That might have helped forestall what one of the key triggers was of the financial crisis.

But I think — no, I think that some of the best financial minds in the country didn’t see it coming. We saw — five key investments banks in New York are no more, or have been transformed in a major way. They’re folks that deal in this area all day, every day, and they didn’t foresee it coming.

Q So you don’t accept any responsibility for the economic —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we caused the economic downturn.

Q Okay. Why do you believe that the public approval of, at least measured by the polls and other things, is so low? In your case, almost historically low.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Have you checked it recently?

Q I have. I have. In terms of history of polling — it goes on 70 years — the only Vice President who has ever had a lower approval rating was Dan Quayle.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: How does that fit with the other —

Q Well, the question is: Why is that happening? What’s your reading of that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: In terms of — let’s talk generally —

Q Sure, okay.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: We’ve tried very hard not to govern based on polls. That is to say we haven’t tailored our policies in order to appeal to polls. We did start out — I think one of the things that contributed to the amount of hostility that’s out there in the body politic was what happened in the 2000 election, that it was as close as it was. And I think there were some people out there who questioned the legitimacy of our administration, given the way the Florida recount ultimately turned out. I think that contributed to it.

I think the decisions we’ve had to make on things like terrorist surveillance, like on interrogation of detainees, Patriot Act and so forth, the steps we’ve had to take to guard against another attack have been controversial and have been attacked robustly by our critics and our opponents.

But that’s not why we came to office, Jim. We did win reelection, I think comfortably; not a landslide obviously. But we went out there and put what we were doing on the line in the way historically it’s been tested in a democracy, and we got reelected. And we have been able, I think, again to achieve those objectives we set for ourselves. Now, over time, I expect that history will judge this administration with a fairly favorable eye.

I served in the Ford administration. I was there and remember what it was like when Jerry Ford made a very controversial decision to pardon Richard Nixon and fell 30 points in the polls in a week. I also know that 30 years later he was much revered and much respected for that decision because he made it without regard to what it would do to him politically.

Q But, Mr. Vice President, people would say back to you, wait a minute, you govern in the present, not by what some historian is going to say 50 years from now. The idea in a democratic society of having the disapproval of an overwhelming majority of the American people, does that work?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s what elections are for, Jim. And as I say, we went out and stood for election and were reelected comfortably.

But you cannot, in these circumstances, especially, start worrying about the polls in terms of whether or not you’re going to make these tough decisions. The easy thing to do is — oh, let’s not do terrorist surveillance, let’s not have a robust interrogation program of these al Qaeda folks when we capture them, let’s not take aggressive action to defend the nation — because then The New York Times will love and we’ll get editorials written about us all over the country and our numbers will go up in the polls.

That’s not what we came to town to do. We came to town to make those tough decisions. I think the President of the United States is the only one who can make those kinds of decisions. This President did it, and I think he did it very well. I think he’s been tough and aggressive when he needed to be, and been willing to take the political heat, which is more important, in my opinion, than being loved.

Q More important than having the approval of the people who elected you?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, how are you going to measure that? Do you want to go out and poll and say, well —

Q No.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: — gee, we aren’t up to 70 percent yet, we better not make any tough decisions here? I mean, you cannot be driven by the polls. The polls change all the time. They’re easily manipulated by whoever wants to ask those poll questions. They go up, they go down. You’ve got to steer a more steady course than that if you’re going to be President of the United States in these circumstances. And that’s what we did. And you guys get to go on the tube every night and comment on it. There’s a lot of debate out there about it. The public gets to decide whether or not they want to continue us in office. Now, obviously we weren’t up in ’08, but they certainly did in ’04.

Q So it doesn’t trouble you at all to be leaving office next week with the overwhelming disapproval of a majority of the people as measured by the polls? That doesn’t bother you personally?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t buy that. No, I don’t —

Q You don’t buy that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t buy that. And I find, when I get out and talk to people, that that’s not the unanimous view as you would have — the things that count for me in terms of the people I want to make certain are with us are, for example, the American military — the young men and women who serve, the folks who go out and put their lives on the line to carry out the policies we’ve decided upon.

The President and I had the opportunity, for example, last Saturday. We went down to Norfolk for the commissioning of a brand new aircraft carrier named after his father. Then we went over and spent the afternoon with about 650 Navy SEALs. These are guys that have been in the battle in Iraq, in Afghanistan; deployed many, many times; have done all the heavy lifting in connection with our policies that we pursued in that part of the world. And they are a magnificent group of people.

They also are very, very supportive of what we did. And they’re the ones who went out and, as I say, put their lives on the line for the rest of us. It’s not just cocktail party talk for them; this is the world they live in. And having their respect and their approval counts for an enormous amount.

Q On a more personal level, Mr. Vice President, there’s one thesis that the Dick Cheney who has been the Vice President for the last eight years is a different Dick Cheney who had been a member of Congress, who had been in the previous administrations of Bush One, as well as the Ford administration; that somehow you changed dramatically, significantly. Is that correct?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m older. (Laughter.) Got less hair.

Q Okay. (Laughter.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don’t think I’ve changed in terms of sort of my basic fundamental philosophy or personality. My family doesn’t think that I’ve changed — as I say, to get older and have more grandkids now than I used to have.

Q Yes.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think what was significant for me was 9/11. And I think it’s easy if you didn’t experience that or worry about it now because it was seven years ago — easy to forget what that entailed or what that involved. But that was a devastating attack on the United States, killed nearly 3,000 Americans, worst attack ever on the history of — on the homeland. And when you contemplate the consequences of what it meant with respect to the possibility of terrorists in the middle of our cities with a nuclear weapon, which is now the threat we’re faced with, then it seems to me you’re justified in, and even obligated to focus on that threat and do everything you can to defeat it.

The President and I took an oath when we were sworn in on January of ’01 to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And when you sit there every day and read the intelligence every morning, six days a week, and look at what we’re faced with on a global basis, and look at the threat and the determination, if you will, of our enemies to come kill more Americans, that’s our problem, that’s our job to deal with that. We’re the ones who have got to sit down every day and figure out how to cope with that. And that’s what we did.

Now, some people can say, gee, Cheney changed. No, I think circumstances changed. I think the United States was no longer safe and secure behind its oceans. I think we found ourselves in a situation where, because of modern technology and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, we’re faced with a threat, the likes of which we’ve never had to deal with before.

Q So, in this same context, people say you hardened — you were — became less willing to compromise, less interested in a bipartisan approach to things as a result — if that happened, that came as a result of 9/11 then, the new attitude that you just explained?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think in terms of partisanship, or lack of partisanship, that’s — Joe Lieberman is my favorite Democrat. Joe is a great guy, and he agrees with us on these issues. I think the significant thing is that the American people need to realize and need to be aware that the threat does exist and that we still have to continue those policies.

And the interesting thing to watch now is how President-Elect Obama is going to adjust to these concerns. He’s reading the morning intelligence reports now on a daily basis. He’s finding out what the nature of the threat is out there, and they’re wrestling with this question of what are they going to do with Guantanamo, what are they going to do with the Terrorist Surveillance Program, with the interrogation program for high-value detainees. And it will be interesting to see how he resolves those. It would be my personal view, if they don’t continue those policies they will, in fact, put the nation at risk. We’ll see.

Q A specific question related to that. A lead story in The Washington Post this morning is about a Bush administration official, Susan Crawford, who said on the record that she had recommended against charging one of the detainees at Guantanamo, a native of Saudi Arabia, because he had, in fact, been tortured at Guantanamo. And she made this comment here — let me find it — here it is. She said — this is Susan Crawford, who used to work for you, I understand, right?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Worked in the department when I was there for —

Q When you were at the Pentagon. She said, “I think someone should acknowledge that mistakes were made, and that they hurt the effort,” meaning the whole effort in Guantanamo in dealing with the terrorists, and “take responsibility for it.” Do you agree with her?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t know the specifics of what —

Q So you had not heard about this Saudi Arabia situation?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I heard about this individual — this is Mr. Qahtani, who was the 20th hijacker. He tried to get into the United States so he could get on one of the airplanes on 9/11 and fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. He was stopped by an alert customs agent in Florida, I believe.

And also, as I recall — I read the article this morning — that she said all of the techniques that were utilized were authorized. None of them were in violation of the basic fundamental tenets that were used out there. She was, as I understand it, complaining about the way in which, or the — well, specifically the way in which they were administered. I don’t have any way to judge that. I’m sure that the Defense Department has, or will thoroughly investigate it and get to the bottom of it. They’re very good at those sort of things.

So it’s entirely possible that it was a problem in terms of how one specific prisoner was handled. I can’t claim perfection. What I can say is that in terms of what the policies of the administration were, both at the White House level and then at the Defense Department, was that enhanced interrogation was okay. We had specific techniques that were approved by the Justice Department. But we don’t torture, and that we would not support torture from this standpoint. It was not the policy of this administration.

Q Well, just for a general premise here, looking back, you don’t — nothing happened that you feel was over the line or that you feel was a miscalculation, a mistake of some kind?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, in terms of the treatment of a specific individual, I can’t say that. With Abu Ghraib, for example, in that case, I believe, based on what I’ve seen, that that was the result of some military personnel who were improperly supervised, weren’t given the right kind of guidance, weren’t managed properly.

As we dig in and look at hundreds of cases, we may well find a few people who were not properly treated. I ran the Pentagon. I know that you can’t absolutely guarantee at all times everybody is doing it the way they’re supposed to do it. I can tell you what the policy was. I can tell you that we had all the legal authorization we needed to do it, including the sign-off of the Justice Department. I can tell you it produced phenomenal results for us and a great many Americans are alive today because we did all that. And I think those are the important considerations.

Q And you’re personally very comfortable with that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I am.

Q At what happened and the reasons it happened and the end result?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: In terms of the interrogations generally?

Q Yes, absolutely.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: General policy?

Q General policy.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.

Q Another personal — your heart troubles. Obviously you’ve had many of them — we’ve discussed them on all kinds of —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Common problem.

Q Common problem. Some people have suggested back to you — that changed Dick Cheney thing — was that the four heart attacks, the bypasses, et cetera, also had an effect on you personally. Do you buy that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: No.

Q No.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Jim, I had my first heart attack before I ever ran for office. I was 37 years old, a 1978 candidate for Congress, as a matter of fact. And my entire time in elected office over the last, what, 30 years now has been after the onset of coronary heart disease. Whatever effect it was going to have, it had before that first election. So I just don’t buy that. I mean, people that — want to go out and analyze and — you live with it.

Q Oh, sure.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And you have had a very active career since the onset of coronary artery disease. The technology is amazing. The doctors are fantastic. They’ve stayed ahead of the disease, from my standpoint. I’m now 68 — soon to be 68 years old. And I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that I’ve been able to go live a very active, though stressful life. And I don’t believe that my heart disease changed me for the worst.

Q Well, of course, that was the other piece of the conventional wisdom — oh, my goodness, eight years, the stress and strain of being Vice President — he’ll never make it. You made it.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Still here.

Q Yes, yes. And the state of your health at this point is what?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s good. As I say, I’m going to be 68 here at the end of this month. And I’ve got a few aches and pains, and knees that don’t work as well as they used to, and so forth. But I’ve been very, very fortunate to have the kind of good medical care I’ve had.

Q Finally, did you enjoy being Vice President of the United States?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I loved it. It’s been a great job. It’s been obviously a tremendous challenge. I’d spent 25 years in government when I left the Defense Department back in 1993; decided I’d go spend the rest of my career in the private sector, and then the President tapped me to come be his running mate. And it’s been a remarkable experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Q Did you ever, during the course of these last eight years, have a case of, oh, my goodness, maybe I should be President? Or did you have the desire to be President at any time? No?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I looked back at that in the ’94 election cycle. I thought seriously about running for President in ’96. So in ’94, I put together a political action committee; I did 160 campaigns around the country, raised over a million dollars, and then sat down at the end of that campaign with my family and asked the basic question, do I want to run for President? And I concluded then I did not, that I did not want to do all those things I’d have to do if I were to mount an effective campaign.

So I decided at that point I’m not going to be a candidate for President, went off to private life. I’ve never regretted that or looked back. I think that was the right decision. And I also think my effectiveness with the President has been directly related to the fact that I’ve not been a candidate. When I get involved with issues in the White House or on Capitol Hill, they’re because I’m representing the President, we’re working on his agenda. I don’t have my own separate agenda. I’m not looking over my shoulder to see how popular I am in the polls or how I’m going to do in the Iowa caucuses. I’m focused specifically on his agenda. And I think that’s been one of the reasons we’ve worked so well together.

Q Do you think you would have been a good President?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I wouldn’t want to speculate on that. We’ll never find out.

Q Mr. Vice President, thank you very much. Good luck to you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Enjoyed it.

END 11:53 A.M. EST