EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Dick Cheney (Full)

Human Events Editors Tom Winter and Jed Babbin interviewed former Vice President Dick Cheney at his home on December 1. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: We’re very pleased that you decided to sit for this interview and we’re honored to be giving you our Conservative of the Year award. It’s something that could be a lifetime achievement award in your case, but, we’ll hold off on that for later, since this award is for what you’ve done in 2009, and we sincerely believe you have done more for conservative values and quite frankly for the security of our country than anybody else. 

CHENEY: Well, I appreciate that.

Q: Let’s start with the easy stuff. 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 — William Jennings Bryan kind of Democrats. My grandfather in Nebraska had been a small-town banker and had been supportive of that wing of the Democratic Party. But he wasn’t all that active. Dad was a career civil servant. Family had lost everything in the Depression, and he’d gone to work for the Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s. Spent 37 years working for the federal government in Washington, two years in the Navy during World War II…. Partisan politics wasn’t something that my family spent a lot of time on. My political experience really began … when I got an internship in the Wyoming state legislature. This would have been for the 1965 session and I was 24 years old, newly married and living in Laramie, so I had to drive 50 miles each way to Cheyenne during the session.… This was right after the ’64 election and it was one of the few times in the history the Democrats controlled the Wyoming statehouse, but the Republicans still controlled the Senate.… So I went and worked for them for one session of the legislature — 40 days — made $300. Probably was overpaid, but that was my first experience.… I went to Wisconsin, got hooked up with the governor of Wisconsin on another fellowship. This was a year-long fellowship — another Republican, Warren Knowles. I worked on my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, which was a place where a lot of people were radicalized in the late ’60s. It had the opposite effect on me. We tried to start a family — Liz was born in Madison. Tried to complete our PhDs — I was working political science, Lynn in literature — and it was hard because there was so much chaos and turmoil on campus. It just created a lot of havoc. When I left there, I passed my exams for PhD (had the dissertation left to do), went to Washington and ended up working for Bill Steiger, the congressman from Wisconsin.… He was famous in those days for the Steiger-Hanson cut in the capital gains tax rate and was a new man on the Ways and Means Committee.… And then in the spring of ’69, [Donald] Rumsfeld took over the Office of Economic Opportunity. I had been asked to go help out in the transition, and I had written a memo before basically advising him on how he ought to handle himself in his confirmation hearings and what he ought to do with the agency. This was the period — right after Sargent Shriver left — they’d never seen a Republican in the anti-poverty program. It was all brand new. So Rumsfeld ended up hiring me. 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. Those two experiences….

Q: OEO and wage price controls.

I don’t put either one of them on my resume.


CHENEY: 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: So you were one before it became cool.

CHENEY:  We were funding them. We were writing the checks. But it was one of those situations where no matter how good the intentions of the government, they were doing some really dumb things. We had a situation develop, for example, where they had set up a program to convert migrant farm workers to azalea growers down in South Carolina. And they were going to round up these migrants as they finished picking crops in Florida, bring them into South Carolina, put together a school, come up with the funding, to train azalea growers. We looked at that and we said, “How many azalea growers are there in South Carolina? How many azalea growers do you need in South Carolina? What’s going to happen to the guys that are already there if the government comes in and dramatically expands the number of azalea growers?” Obviously, it was a dumb idea and it was totally unrelated to the way the private sector worked. In the wage-price-control program, Don got asked to take over. You may remember in August of ’71, Nixon froze wages and prices and took the dollar off the gold standard. In some respects, I felt that was a more serious problem policy error, because it was a conscious decision, than Watergate was, because of the implications of what was involved. And again, the effort — supported by [Fed Chairman] Arthur Burns, [Treasury Secretary] John Connally, people like that — was to try to set up a mechanism that would control wages and prices, and control inflation. This was in 1971, and the freeze he put on was good for 90 days. But then Rumsfeld, and those of us working for Rumsfeld, had the assignment of coming up with some flexible controls to govern the economy thereafter. And it was tough. And the fact of the matter is, the economy is big, it’s complex, it’s complicated, there is nobody out there who’s smart enough to sit down and write a set of regulations for running the economy and wages and prices. We had a situation where we had to get the regulations issued and to do that, we had to get them published in the Federal Register by a certain date. And as we got close to that date — and there’d been all this work done by the pay board and the price commission — we didn’t have any regulations. So we pulled an all-nighter, sat down and wrote out 14 pages of regulations. I typed them — we didn’t have any secretaries with us. We had an economist there, a couple lawyers. We produced the first 14-page set of regulations to run the economy. And of course, within about a year, that 14 pages has spread into rooms the size of this house … thousands and thousands of pages.

Q: So lesson learned, and you’re a conservative pretty solidly.

CHENEY: I had 3,000 IRS agents who worked for me. I was the director of operations and my mission was to enforce wage-price controls. And it just wasn’t possible. I remember sending different teams out to grocery stores, retail grocery stores, with the same price rule — this is how you calculate your prices. And they’d come back with five totally different responses. Different stores did it different ways, and all of them were legal. It was a fundamentally bad idea. And one of my heroes became George Shultz, because the morning after he was sworn in as Secretary of the Treasury — the Treasury secretary was the chairman of the Cost of Living Council — George called us over to his office at Treasury and closed the door, and half a dozen of the senior leaders there, and he said, “Okay, gentlemen. How are we going to get out of those damn controls?” And that was his first mission and first assignment. But those kinds of experiences moved me very much in a conservative direction in terms of the power of government, the ability of government to do good things. The government can do some things well, other things it really ought to stay the hell out of. You never should lose sight of the enormous strength and vitality of our system based on the private sector and free-market economy. And that’s one of the reasons I have so much trouble with Obama because I don’t think he understands that.  

Q: One of the things that cemented your importance to us this year was your AEI [American Enterprise Institute] speech in May, and some of the things that resulted from it, in particular the release of some of the summaries of the results from the enhanced-interrogation methods. You made your beliefs clear that you were a strong supporter of the enhanced-interrogation program, they were used on hardened terrorists after other things failed, they were legal, essential, justified, and successful.… What pushed you into giving that speech 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 — like John Yoo and Judge [Jay] Bibey — 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 they wrote those opinions. I wasn’t pleased with the way the Obama crew handled it during the campaign, but after the campaign and during the transition and after the inauguration, there was all of this talk and speculation encouraged by the administration, specially over at the Justice Department, that they were going to try to punish the guys that had followed our policies that we’d established. These were policies established under the guidance of the President and the National Security Council. The lawyers had been properly consulted and we’d followed their advice. 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.” So people like Alan Fiers, for example, out at the CIA who had Latin America for the agency, pretty much had his career ended as a result of that. People like Elliott Abrams — Elliott recovered. We were able to get him back in the Bush Administration, but Elliott became a prime target. Cap Weinberger — Walsh indicted Cap Weinberger shortly before the ’92 election … in an effort to try to create some kind of political issue at the time. I felt very good about what George Bush 41 did in terms of when he issued those pardons. But I told myself at the time 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: We have [Atty. Gen.] Holder announcing his opening the prosecution against the interrogators, we have Ms. Pelosi out there calling the CIA a bunch of liars, and it appears that the Obama Administration is at war with the whole intelligence community.… 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 guess this question of the relationship between the administration, or the policy makers of the White House, and the intelligence community — it varies from administration to administration. Some people use intelligence effectively, some don’t.… Sometimes the intelligence community gets it wrong.…  I thought what was at stake, and still do to this day, is this notion of whether or not we’re at war. And that we had, in the run-up to 9/11, we had a lot of terrorist attacks — World Trade Center in ’93, Khobar Towers in ’96, East Africa embassy bombings in ’98. The standard approach was to treat those as criminal acts and as a law-enforcement problem. The FBI goes to the rubble down in Oklahoma City and plows through it, finds the serial number on the rental truck, and tracks down McVeigh, and punishes him. That’s great, that’s fine, that’s good law enforcement — doesn’t do anything to prevent the next attack. And 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. That’s a strategic threat to the United States, especially when you contemplate the possibility of a 9/11 with deadlier weapons. All these guys had airline tickets and box-cutters. If they had a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind, then it would have been far more difficult, obviously, and the cost and casualties and loss of life would have been horrendous. It was bad enough anyway. 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. And that includes such things as military force, when that becomes necessary. It includes going after the terrorists wherever you can find them. It includes going after sponsors of terror — those states that over the years have gotten away with providing safe harbor and sanctuary for terrorists. It includes going after those who might be able to provide these deadlier technologies to the terrorists to use in the next attack. And to do all of that sort of thing, the common ingredient there that you’ve got to have is good intelligence. You’ve got to know where these guys are, you’ve got to know what their plans are, you’ve got to know who they are, who’s in the organization. And so that all led back to that basic judgment that we were at war, not a criminal problem. 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. You’ve got to know where they’re operating, where they’re training. And to do that, we came up with two basic programs. One was what we call the Terror Surveillance Program. We got NSA [National Security Agency] authorized to intercept transmissions coming from overseas into the United States from what we believed to be dirty numbers, numbers that were affiliated with al Qaeda. And the other piece of it was to develop the interrogation program of high-value detainees. There weren’t very many of them, but they obviously had a wealth of information that we needed. We went down those two tracks. On the Terror Surveillance Program, there was a source of considerable controversy for awhile. What we did 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: This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re doing it, and etc. 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. We asked them, “Do you want us to come up there and get more authorization from you?” And they were uniform, unanimous in their view that we should continue the program and we didn’t need any more authority from Congress…

Q: Is there more out there that you feel should be released beyond what’s already been released here?… Is there more that you believe should be released to prove the point, or does this provide enough proof to suit you?

CHENEY: I thought these two documents basically answered the mail, this is what we were able to get. Now, there are a lot of studies and lots of analysis done by the agency on these materials. I’m not ordinarily the person who’s out there pushing to declassify, declassify, declassify — it sort of goes against my basic character. But in this case, especially with these two I asked for, there are others that are similar. But they are very clear, very explicit, in demonstrating the enormous value we gained out of the enhanced interrogation program. This is what we learned from these people.

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. Is that something you can comment on, even in the most general terms?

CHENEY: The way I think about it is that there’s been a lot of debate already in this country about whether or not we ought to bring the Guantanamo detainees to the states. The Senate voted overwhelmingly, what was it, 90 to 6 against such a proposal. The concerns have been cast in a number of different ways—the possibilities of unleashing people like this in our own prison system and their ability to recruit inside prisons. 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: And all the things in discovery that your lawyers can think of and expose sources, etc.

CHENEY: I don’t understand why Holder did it unless he is trying to generate a show trial, or he believes there is some element out there in the body of politics that he has to appease and one way to do that is to put KSM on trial in New York.  

Q: One of the things that struck us this year is the Obama spending spree that has been a tsunami and has pretty much buried any hope of economic recovery in the foreseeable future. But the good result of it was the Tea Party movement.… What would you say Republicans and conservatives might want to do to reach out to these people and capture their energy and turn it into votes?

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. This isn’t just a campaign by a bunch of political operators who went out and raised some money and generated a cause of some kind. 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: 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: The way I think of it and it parallels your thought, but I really do believe and I think an awful lot of Americans believe that United States, based on our history and values, is an exceptional nation. We have never seen anything like it in the history of the world. We have been the prime defenders of the freedom of democracy when we brought freedom to millions all over the world at considerable cost to ourselves. When you look at WWII, for example, or our action during the Cold War with the Soviets decade after decade, where the United States has helped create a better world because of what we believe in and because of the willingness of our people, especially our military, to step up and take on really difficult assignments. The problem with Obama is that I’m not sure he believes that. He comes across lots of times as feeling the need to go travel around the world and apologize for the United States. One of the things that I thought was surprising and I don’t really understand, was that he 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. And in the late ’80s and early ’90s all of that started to come apart and the demise of the Soviet empire is one of the great events of modern history and it’s captured in that event of the fall of the wall and the re-unification of Germany and the liberation of Eastern Europe. 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 and that we have undertaken some phenomenally difficult assignments that no other nation could have handled. There is no need for us to go anyplace and bow to anyone and apologize. It’s just totally alien to what I think an American President ought to do, and yet he does it all the time.

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

CHENEY: I think that when we look at the economy, there are still signs out there that we aren’t out of the woods yet. 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. When you start talking about another ‘stimulus two’ of hundreds of billions of dollars and we haven’t seen any results to speak of, of stimulus one, we can anticipate that the Bush tax cuts that we put in place in ’03 that are going to expire in the end of next year. That is a real tax increase. That is going to happen without Congress having to do anything. It’s going to automatically kick in when those cuts expire. And that affects capital gains and investment income and those are measures that you would clearly not take if you were seriously interested in growing the economy.

Q: Do conservatives in Congress still think healthcare 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.

Mr. Vice President thanks so much for your time.