EXCLUSIVE: Dick Cheney on the Political Hot Topics of 2009

Human Events Editors Tom Winter and Jed Babbin interviewed former Vice President Dick Cheney, HUMAN EVENTS’ 2009 Conservative of the Year, at his home on December 1. Here, edited, are highlights from the interview:

Q: A young man, growing up in Wyoming — how did Richard Cheney become a conservative?

CHENEY: I suppose it didn’t have to happen that way. I grew up in a family that was basically Democrats…My political experience really began … when I got an internship in the Wyoming state legislature…

In the spring of ’69, [Donald] Rumsfeld took over the Office of Economic Opportunity… They’d never seen a Republican in the anti-poverty program…I went to work for Don and worked for him for the first Nixon term for four years. We spent about two years at OEO and then a brief stint in the White House and then about a year and a half on wage-price controls…

But it was an experience in both cases — the anti-poverty program. I was working with Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America, community action agencies, funding community organizers. We used to sit around and say, “What the hell is a community organizer?”…

Q: One of the things that struck us this year is the Obama spending spree…But the good result of it was the Tea Party movement.

CHENEY: I have been intrigued with the movement, too. I think it’s been fascinating to watch and I think it’s basically working. I think it owes its success in part — I’m guessing — to the fact that it is somewhat divorced from the Republican Party….The people I’ve talked with, as I get out around the country, really care very, very deeply about it and felt like this is an opportunity to express themselves. After all, that’s what democracy is about, and I think it’s basically a very healthy movement. I’m a fan of the folks who want to go participate in a Tea Party.

Q: You going to do it yourself any time?

CHENEY: Well I don’t know.

Q: As part of your presidential campaign?


CHENEY: No, I’m not mounting a presidential campaign.

Q: What pushed you into giving that speech [at AEI in May] and making the points you made on interrogations and gathering of intelligence?

When I left government, I did not plan to be active in any political sense of the word. I didn’t have a plan to go out and engage in controversy or make political speeches. What got me here was the notion that they were going to do two things: One was to investigate and possibly prosecute the CIA personnel who carried out our policies. And the other was to go after the attorneys in the Justice Department…who had done yeoman’s work and responded when we needed to have someone sit down and say, “Look, where’s the red line here, how far can you go, what are the limitations and prohibitions on what we can do.”…

And I thought it was just plain wrong not to stand up and defend them as well as to defend what we’d done. And it didn’t look to me like anybody was going to do it if I didn’t do it. And I was perfectly happy to do it.

One of the things that influenced my thinking on it was that I served on the Iran Contra committee back in the Reagan Administration, the late ’80s.

Q: Ollie North and Lawrence Walsh.

CHENEY: I’d been the ranking Republican on the committee and gone through that whole process for two years and saw some very good men very badly treated in the sense that none of the senior leadership stood up and said, “Look, they were carrying out our policy. You got a problem with policy, you got a problem with me.”

But I told myself…that if this ever happened again, I didn’t want to see a situation where people in responsibility stood back and didn’t say anything, and the folks down below who’d carried out the policy that had been decided upon in appropriate fashion took all the hits.…

Q: One of the things you also talked about in your AEI speech was the fact that [9/11 operational mastermind] KSM — Kahlid Sheik Muhammed — was very eager to get to New York.… One of the things that we’re struggling with is to get a senior view of whether or not this actually puts people in danger in New York.

CHENEY: My concern has been especially focused on the fact that we are giving these guys one hell of a platform. KSM said that he would be happy to be tried before a military commission and plead guilty and to be executed. And what we are saying of course is, “No, no, no, we are going to take you up to New York, get you a lawyer, and plead not guilty, and you can get all the air time you want.” …

Q: One of the things that has struck us ever since Obama started committing acts of foreign policy:  he seems uncomfortable with the idea that the United States is a superpower. Is that your perception?

CHENEY: …One of the things that I thought was surprising and I don’t really understand, was that he [Obama] took a pass on celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Angela Merkel is one of the world leaders I like, and she’s been good for us to work with. This was a very big deal for her, but it was a huge deal for those of us who remember what it was like when the wall went up and divided Germany and all that that entailed…Obama has time to go to Copenhagen to push Chicago for the Olympics but he doesn’t have time to go to Berlin to put in an appearance and celebrate with important U.S. allies one of the most significant historic events of the last couple of centuries. 

He comes across to me as naïve, inexperienced and he doesn’t have the sense of history of the American role in the world that I like to see an American President pay homage to occasionally. I think most of our Presidents over the years have. Whether they are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, agree or disagree, they go out of their way to make the case to preserve and protect that perception that the United States is a unique place….

Q: I assume you are still defending the Bush tax cut that the Democrats are constantly saying should be ended?

CHENEY: …The worst thing you can do if you are really interested in reestablishing a growing economy and creating jobs and creating wealth and expanding business and generating more revenue for the federal government is to have a strong viable private sector and in my mind that calls for tax cuts, not tax increases.

Q: And that’s how you would create more jobs?

CHENEY:  I would. But you have to work the spending side in terms of trying to wrap up some of the spending that’s going on out there….

Q: Do conservatives in Congress still think health care can be stopped?

CHENEY: There are few I think that believe that, but I think there is also a strong argument to be made that Obama and Harry Reid will do anything to get that piece of paper on their desk signed that declares health reform. What they have to give away to get that, I guess they are ready to do that.  

Q: Can we operate successfully against the terrorist enemies without settling the disputes between Congress and the administration and engaging the intelligence community on a workable basis?

CHENEY: That’s an interesting question….. I thought what was at stake, and still do to this day, is this notion of whether or not we’re at war….

What happened on 9/11, I felt … really changed everything. Here you’ve got a situation in which you had the World Trade Center destroyed in New York, 16 acres of downtown Manhattan devastated, laid waste, big hole in the Pentagon — if it hadn’t been for the folks on flight 93 who took over the plane and crashed it in Pennsylvania, they would have hit, my guess is, either the White House or the Capitol, some evidence to support both of those — and 2,000 dead Americans. You can’t call that a law-enforcement problem. That’s a war….

So, if you begin to think in those terms, then you get into the situation where you need to use all national means to be able to defend and protect the country….It leads you back to the notion that first and foremost you’ve got to get really great intelligence on al Qaeda, because we didn’t know that much about them, frankly, at 9/11. ….

What we did [on the Terror Surveillance Program] was to get the Congress involved, and specifically the chairman and ranking member of the intelligence committees, House and Senate. And about every three months, we used to have them down, and I’d have [NSA Director] Mike Hayden and [CIA Director] George Tenet come to my office. And we did this in my office in the West Wing. And we would brief the chairman and ranking member of the committees on how the program was working, specific case histories of how it had been applied, just to keep them up to speed.

We then had a situation arise where there was a legal dispute over our authority to do what we were doing, so then we brought in not only the four chairmen — the committee chairmen and the ranking members — we also brought in the speaker, the majority and minority leader of the House, and the majority and minority leader of the Senate, plus those other four — nine altogether — and had them in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House. And I presided over the meeting. Again we did the whole brief…Then I went around the table, and I asked, “Do you think we should continue the program?” They were unanimous. “Absolutely.” There wasn’t a single voice in opposition to continuing the program. So then I said, “Do you think we ought to come to Capitol Hill and get more explicit legislative authorization than we’ve got now?” And they were unanimous again, “No,” because if we did, that’d tell the bad guys how we were reading their mail.… The point was we played it by the book. We briefed the Congress, we briefed the congressional leadership.

Q: Is there more out there that you feel should be released beyond what’s already been released here?

CHENEY: I thought these two documents basically answered the mail…I’m not ordinarily the person who’s out there pushing to declassify, declassify, declassify — it sort of goes against my basic character.  

Click here read the complete transcript of HUMAN EVENTS’ interview with Dick Cheney.