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Dick Cheney on Fox News Sunday

Following is a transcripted excerpt from Fox News Sunday, May 19, 2002.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS: Good morning, and welcome to Washington.

Partisan fisticuffs broke out this week in the nation's capital, marking the end of bipartisanship in the war on terror. The question: Did bureaucratic bungling prevent intelligence officials from predicting and foiling the September 11 attacks? And what about reports that Al Qaeda is planning further mayhem? We'll get answers from Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Vice President, welcome.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning.

SNOW: Is Al Qaeda planning to strike American targets?

CHENEY: We assume they are. There is certainly a level of noise out there in the system that would indicate that those efforts are continuing.

There's a great temptation, Tony, for people to look back at September 11 and say, well, we haven't been hit in eight months, therefore the threats have ceded or gone away. I don't think that's the case at all. I think that the prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it could happen next year, but they will keep trying. And we have to be prepared.

SNOW: Do we have any sense of potential targets? Will they be, for instance, modes of conveyance, transportation, trains, planes?

CHENEY: No, you can't, if you look back over the reporting over the last several months, all of the above plus. I mean, at one time or another, there is information collected or that comes to our attention that suggests every imaginable conveyance, type of facility, building, geographic location. A lot of it turns out to be false reporting. A lot of it, I think, may be attributed to efforts to deliberately off obfuscate. In other cases, it's nuts. It's, you know, people who want, for some reason, to engage in that kind of activity.

When we think about Al Qaeda and their operations, probably only a handful of people who actually know what's going to happen. Even in the September 11 attack, there is some suggestion that some of the people who were actually on the planes, some of the hijackers, did not know it was a suicide mission. One of the bin Laden tapes, for example, hinted at this possibility.

So if they can keep the people who actually are carrying out the attack in the dark, then obviously the extent to which you can get access to find out the details of the operation is very limited and it's very hard. We don't get — you know, nobody mails in a plan that says, you know, "12 noon on August 14, we're going to do X." It's bits and pieces. It's a little bit here, little bit there. Sometimes communication, sometimes walk-in traffic. It's just — it's a very tough task to sort it all out.

SNOW: If you were giving advice to Americans right now about what they should be on the lookout for, what should they look for?

CHENEY: Stay vigilant. Watch for things that are out of the ordinary or unusual. Go on about your lives. We've got to do that. We can't shut down the country because of the possibility of another attack. The terrorists win if they shut down our country and don't even attack; just simply do it based on the threat.

We're doing everything we can with the Homeland Security Office and the efforts that are under way to make us a tougher target. And I think we've, in fact, had significant success there.

But the important thing for people to remember, from a strategic standpoint, if you will, it's almost impossible to erect a 100 percent perfect defense. The Israelis have got maybe the best intelligence service in the world. They've got a very narrow target to focus on, geographically and in terms of who their adversaries are. And yet, suicide bombers get through. So after you've done everything you can, you can still have to assume you may get hit.

And the ultimate answer, of course, here is to go destroy the terrorists, to go on offense as well as defense. And we're doing that too.

SNOW: Are we planning to ratchet up the level of our military offensive so that we can try, once and for all, to get Osama bin Laden.

CHENEY: Well, it's not, in my opinion, so much ratcheting up. I mean, it's a sustained effort over time. We're doing everything we can right now in Afghanistan and working other potential locales around the world. We're working throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia, various places where the organization has cells. But getting Osama bin Laden, which obviously we'd love to do, nonetheless doesn't solve our problem.

SNOW: We haven't gotten him, have we?

CHENEY: We don't know. At this point, we don't have any evidence that we have.

CHENEY: We don't know. At this point, we don't have any evidence that we have.

SNOW: Last August 6, the president got a briefing, and among the other items discussed was the possibility that Al Qaeda would hijack jets. It's now known that for years people had been assuming that Al Qaeda might be hijacking jets and flying them into buildings someplace.

Why didn't we connect the dots?

CHENEY: Well, I think if you go back — first of all, put the briefing in context. Every day the president and I and our other senior...

SNOW: So you were in this meeting, correct?

CHENEY: I was actually in Wyoming at the time, but I got the same briefing. It's a written — written briefing. It covers the world. It deals with all kinds of issues. A portion of which, from time to time, deals with threats against the United States.

And I've gone back and looked at that particular issue of August 6, and even after the fact, it didn't give us any actionable intelligence. It basically was based on earlier reporting. There wasn't anything really knew in it. The idea of hijacking by terrorists, that goes back 30 years. The PLO was doing that in the 1970s. The idea that Al Qaeda was after us wasn't new. We'd seen the USS Cole attack, East Africa bombings.

So there was — it sort of pulled things together in the sense that it reviewed the bidding, but it didn't really give us anything knew or anything precise or specific. It did not talk about hitting buildings. It did not talk about time, location or anything like that. It was one more sort of rehash, if you will, of the material that was out there.

SNOW: So...

CHENEY: From that standpoint, it doesn't give you anything you could have acted on.

SNOW: So when Senator Richard Shelby said that, based on information we had available plus that particular briefing, we might have been able to prevent September 11, he was wrong?

CHENEY: My assessment — and it's only an assessment at this point, obviously — is that there wasn't anything out there that would have allowed us to predict what was going to happen. We found out since September 11 that the FBI had Moussaoui in custody in Minnesota. We didn't know that before the 11th. That didn't trickle up to the presidential level.

We've since heard about the so-called Phoenix memo that dates back to sometime in July, but again that didn't come up.

You had — what the PDB is, is it's sort of the tip of the iceberg.

SNOW: Presidential daily brief?

CHENEY: President's daily brief. And it will deal with everything from the outlook for an election in Latin America to the Russian negotiating position on an important treaty — assessments trying to give the president information he needs to do his job.

In terms of getting down into the nitty gritty, into the weeds of this kind of intelligence reporting, you know, we're not in the habit of reading the raw intelligence reports from the FBI. There are 56 bureaus around the country, and that stuff — there aren't enough hours in the day for us to do all of that, so you need a system that deals with it.

SNOW: Senator Arlen Specter wants to see that presidential daily brief. You going to turn it over?

CHENEY: My strong feeling is that we should not.

SNOW: Why?

CHENEY: Because it comes from the most sensitive sources and methods that we have as a government. It's the family jewels, from that perspective. And the thing we need more than anything else to defeat terror is intelligence. We need to be able to know what the bad guys are doing, and we acquire that information from a variety of sources and techniques.

I know with absolute certainty that our target is tougher today. It's more difficult to penetrate those organizations today. It's more difficult to know what they're doing because of previous leaks, previous disclosures, with respect to...

SNOW: Such as?

CHENEY: ... sources and methods. If I talk about them, then I validate a specific piece of action. One in particular that I'm familiar with of a story that was published in one of our major newspapers, it subsequently led to the death of an individual who had provided us access to one of the terrorist organizations.

SNOW: So...

CHENEY: It's a very real concern that if we're going to deal with the next attack — and we started this morning talking about the prospects of another attack — the last thing we want to do is to go out and lay out on the record now our capabilities in terms of how we collect information.

We got to work with the intelligence committees. They can safeguard classified intelligence. We're doing that. We're spending a lot of time now working with the joint committees to help them understand.

We want an investigation. We want to know what happened in the run-up to August 6. It's a valuable lesson to the future. But it's absolutely essential that we do it in a way that protects and preserves our capabilities to deal with security in classified information.

SNOW: Let me back up, I also want to go over some of the things you just mentioned.

From an intelligence standpoint, are we better off today than we were on September 10?

CHENEY: Yes.

SNOW: We are. How about a year ago?

CHENEY: I think so. I think we made a number of improvements that mean that we're better able to deal with this problem today than we were previously.

SNOW: How about in terms of our ability, however, to penetrate the very organizations we are trying at this point to penetrate?

CHENEY: Well, let me see, I'm not trying to think of how to describe this without crossing over the line and not violating my own deeply held convictions that you shouldn't talk about classified information.

CHENEY: Since September 11, in terms of our ability to collect overseas, I think we have strengthened our relationships with a number of liaison services and that, because of the cooperative venture that's under way, that we're getting more now, more valuable stuff.

I think we're much better here at home now. Director Mueller is doing an excellent job of reforming the FBI and getting it focused more on prevention of the next attack, rather than prosecution of the last one.

We meet every morning in the Oval Office. The president and I sit down with the director of the FBI and the director of Central Intelligence, so everything gets tied together at that level.

So we're doing better in those respects.

By the same token, when we get a lot of disclosures, if you will, there is no question but what our adversary learns how to change their operations so that they're more secure, so that it's a difficult target for us to track. And we have not had good, hard data on Osama bin Laden now for several months.

SNOW: All right. If Congress then does ask for this presidential daily brief, your strong recommendation is to say "We won't do it" and cite executive privilege?

CHENEY: It's not my decision to make...

SNOW: That's right, but your recommendation?

CHENEY: ... but my recommendation would be no. I think we ought to be prepared to discuss it maybe with the chairman and ranking members. Maybe there's some way we can work out an arrangement there, so they can know what they think they need to know with respect to their investigation.

But the idea that we're now going to bundle up the PDB and ship it up to the committees, that's never been done, it sets a terrible precedent.

It'll have another effect as well, too. If we're going to take the PDB that goes to the president and now it's going to be made available to Congress — they get a different version that covers some of the same ground, but it's somewhat sanitized — it's going to go to the Congress, and it's going to end up in the press, it will have a chilling effect on the people who prepare the PDB. They'll spend more time worried about how the report's going to look on the front page of The Washington Post or on Fox News than they will making their best judgment and taking risk and giving us the best advice they can, in terms of what they think's going on. Because they're always having to fill in holes. You never have a complete picture.

SNOW: Do you also, therefore, oppose a proposal by Senators McCain and Lieberman that there be a special commission empaneled, an independent commission, to take a look at intelligence failures prior to September 11?

CHENEY: I do. I think it's the wrong way to go. We've got an ongoing investigation now. We've got the House and Senate intelligence committees working jointly, it's bipartisan, one's chaired by a Republican, one by a Democrat, made up of members of both bodies. They've got the staff to deal with these kinds of matters. They've got the processes and procedures to safeguard classified information. We've given them over 180,000 pages of documents so far in their investigation. They've already interviewed 184 individuals.

So there is a robust investigation under way, but it's being done by an organization that we have confidence in has some possibility of safeguarding the information...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: Should Congress also investigate its performance prior to September 11?

CHENEY: That's another whole proposition. I wouldn't couch it in those terms. I think we have a need to improve our institutional performance in many areas, and that's one of the key lessons out of this. And Congress obviously bears some responsibility for the current state of the bureaucracy.

But we want to work with them, we want to improve the performance of the executive branch. But it's got to be done in a careful way that safeguards our ability to prevent the next attack, not sacrifice that capability to the political desires of people who are looking for headlines.

SNOW: Speaking of political desires, Thursday night you were speaking at a fundraiser before the Conservative Party of New York, and you made a statement that has generated a lot of publicity. Let's show people that statement. I want to get your reaction in a moment.

I'm sorry. This is Richard Gephardt. I was going to — we'll play your tape in a moment.

Richard Gephardt said Thursday, "We need to know what the White House knew, when they knew it, what did they know about, and why this didn't come to light until now."

Thursday night you said the following:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY: What I want to say to my Democratic friends in the Congress is that they need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Who made such comments?

CHENEY: Cynthia McKinney comes immediately to mind, congresswoman from Georgia.

SNOW: You seriously don't believe that Cynthia McKinney's a leader of Congress?

CHENEY: No, but I think the — it was sort of the tenor and the tone that was established.

SNOW: Would you include Richard Gephardt in that group?

CHENEY: I'm trying to be respectful and restrained this morning, Tony.

SNOW: But I'm trying to understand the comment.

CHENEY: No. My comment was a cautionary note, and I was very careful up front to say we want an investigation. It's got to be conducted in a responsible fashion. We have to safeguard secrets, et cetera. I said all those things.

I also cautioned the Congress against incendiary statements designed to achieve some political advantage. Because, in fact, there is the very real possibility of additional attacks. We need to have our intelligence agencies focused on preventing those attacks. We need to avoid the kinds of unauthorized disclosures that have damaged our capacity in the past to deal with these problems.

And that was the sum and substance of my comments. I didn't mention Congressman Gephardt. He and I have had our differences, obviously. But we've very hard and we'll continue to work hard to see to it that it's conducted in a responsible fashion.

SNOW: You have been described as being on the political defensive since this story appeared. Let me first ask a slightly different question. Do you think it was leaked by... a members of the Congress?

CHENEY: It was leaked by somebody.

SNOW: ... members of the Congress?

CHENEY: I have no idea. I don't know who leaked it.

SNOW: Do you feel that you're on the defensive? Or was the speech Thursday night designed as a preemptive strike, on your part, to silence Democratic critics?

CHENEY: I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies, et cetera. I've got a real problem with the suggestion that somehow my president had information and failed to act upon it to prevent the attack of September 11. That strikes me — as long as I've been in this town and as many years as I've been involved at the national level in politics, that strikes me as beyond the pale. That is an allegation that is without merit and falls into the category of outrageous. And I was expressing my own personal strong views about that on Thursday night.

SNOW: Final question: Saddam Hussein has said he'd let weapons inspectors back. Is it the administration's position that he would never accept an inspection regime that would be acceptable to us and, therefore, the military option is alive even if he lets inspectors back in?

CHENEY: Well, inspectors aren't the issue. They're a means. The issue, though, is that Saddam Hussein has violated, continues to violate the U.N. Resolution 687 that specifically requires him to get rid of all of his weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical and nuclear capabilities, and that he allow international inspection to verify that. The inspectors are just a means.

He'll probably want to have a big debate about inspectors. But the real issue over here is getting rid of those materials that he must get rid of in order to come into compliance with the U.N. resolution.

SNOW: And changing his regime.

CHENEY: And we think the region would be much more secure and the people of Iraq would be much freer if they had somebody else at the helm.

SNOW: Vice President Dick Cheney, thanks for joining us.

CHENEY: Thank you.