Published February 17, 2006
The following is a transcript of the interview Vice President Dick Cheney gave FOX News regarding the accidental shooting of Austin attorney Harry Whittington:
"SPECIAL REPORT" HOST BRIT HUME: Mr. Vice President, how is Mr. Whittington?
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, the good news is he's doing very well today. I talked to him yesterday after they discovered the heart problem, but it appears now to have been pretty well resolved and the reporting today is very good.
HUME: How did you feel when you heard about that?
CHENEY: Well, it's a great relief. But I won't be, obviously, totally at ease until he's home. He's going to be in the hospital, apparently, for a few more days, and the problem, obviously, is that there's always the possibility of complications in somebody who is 78-79 years old. But he's a great man, he's in great shape, good friend, and our thoughts and prayers go out to he and his family.
HUME: How long have you known him?
CHENEY: I first met him in Vale, Colorado, when I worked for Gerry Ford about 30 years ago, and it was the first time I'd ever hunted with him.
HUME: Would you describe him as a close friend, friendly acquaintance, what —
CHENEY: No, an acquaintance.
HUME: Tell me what happened?
CHENEY: Well, basically, we were hunting quail late in the day —
HUME: Describe the setting.
CHENEY: It's in south Texas, wide-open spaces, a lot of brush cover, fairly shallow. But it's wild quail. It's some of the best quail hunting anyplace in the country. I've gone there, to the Armstrong ranch, for years. The Armstrongs have been friends for over 30 years. And a group of us had hunted all day on Saturday —
HUME: How many?
CHENEY: Oh, probably 10 people. We weren't all together, but about 10 guests at the ranch. There were three of us who had gotten out of the vehicle and walked up on a covey of quail that had been pointed by the dogs. Covey is flushed, we've shot, and each of us got a bird. Harry couldn't find his, it had gone down in some deep cover, and so he went off to look for it. The other hunter and I then turned and walked about a hundred yards in another direction —
HUME: Away from him?
CHENEY: Away from him — where another covey had been spotted by an outrider. I was on the far right —
HUME: There was just two of you then?
CHENEY: Just two of us at that point. The guide or outrider between us, and of course, there's this entourage behind us, all the cars and so forth that follow me around when I'm out there — but bird flushed and went to my right, off to the west. I turned and shot at the bird, and at that second, saw Harry standing there. Didn't know he was there —
HUME: You had pulled the trigger and you saw him?
CHENEY: Well, I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast.
HUME: What was he wearing?
CHENEY: He was dressed in orange, he was dressed properly, but he was also — there was a little bit of a gully there, so he was down a little ways before land level, although I could see the upper part of his body when — I didn't see it at the time I shot, until after I'd fired. And the sun was directly behind him — that affected the vision, too, I'm sure.
But the image of him falling is something I'll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life, at that moment.
HUME: Then what?
CHENEY: Well, we went over to him, obviously, right away —
HUME: How far away from you was he?
CHENEY: I'm guessing about 30 yards, which was a good thing. If he'd been closer, obviously, the damage from the shot would have been greater.
HUME: Now, is it clear that — he had caught part of the shot, is that right?
CHENEY: — part of the shot. He was struck in the right side of his face, his neck and his upper torso on the right side of his body.
HUME: And you — and I take it, you missed the bird.
CHENEY: I have no idea. I mean, you focused on the bird, but as soon as I fired and saw Harry there, everything else went out of my mind. I don't know whether the bird went down, or didn't.
HUME: So did you run over to him or —
CHENEY: Ran over to him and —
HUME: And what did you see? He's lying there —
CHENEY: He was laying there on his back, obviously bleeding. You could see where the shot had struck him. And one of the fortunate things was that I've always got a medical team, in effect, covering me wherever I go. I had a physician's assistant with me that day. Within a minute or two he was on the scene administering first-aid. And —
HUME: And Mr. Whittington was conscious, unconscious, what?
CHENEY: He was conscious —
HUME: What did you say?
CHENEY: Well, I said, "Harry, I had no idea you were there." And —
HUME: What did he say?
CHENEY: He didn't respond. He was — he was breathing, conscious at that point, but he didn't — he was, I'm sure, stunned, obviously, still trying to figure out what had happened to him. The doc was fantastic —
HUME: What did you think when you saw the injuries? How serious did they appear to you to be?
CHENEY: I had no idea how serious it was going to be. I mean, it could have been extraordinarily serious. You just don't know at that moment. You know he's been struck, that there's a lot of shot that had hit him. But you don't know — you think about his eyes. Fortunately, he was wearing hunting glasses, and that protected his eyes. You, you just don't know. And the key thing, as I say, initially, was that the physician's assistant was right there. We also had an ambulance at the ranch, because one always follows me around wherever I go. And they were able to get the ambulance there, and within about 30 minutes we had him on his way to the hospital.
HUME: And what did you do then? Did you get up and did you go with him, or did you go to the hospital?
CHENEY: No, I had — I told my physician's assistant to go with him, but the ambulance is crowded and they didn't need another body in there. And so we loaded up and went back to ranch headquarters, basically. By then, it's about 7:00 p.m. at night. And Harry —
HUME: Did you have a sense then of how he was doing?
CHENEY: Well, we're getting reports, but they were confusing. Early reports are always wrong. The initial reports that came back from the ambulance were that he was doing well, his eyes were open. They got him into the emergency room at Kingsville —
HUME: His eyes were open when you found him, then, right?
CHENEY: Yes. One eye was open. But they got him in the emergency room in the small hospital at Kingsville, checked him out further there, then lifted him by helicopter from there into Corpus Christi, which has a big city hospital and all of the equipment.
HUME: So by now what time is it?
CHENEY: I don't have an exact time line, although he got there sometime that evening, 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m.
HUME: So this is several hours after the incident?
CHENEY: Well, I would say he was in Kingsville in the emergency room probably within, oh, less than an hour after they left the ranch.
HUME: Now, you're a seasoned hunter —
CHENEY: I am, well, for the last 12, 15 years.
HUME: Right, and so you know all the procedures and how to maintain the proper line and distance between you and other hunters, and all that. So how, in your judgment, did this happen? Who — what caused this? What was the responsibility here?
CHENEY: Well, ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line. And there's no — it was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. And I say that is something I'll never forget.
HUME: Now, what about this — it was said you were hunting out of vehicles. Was that because you have to have the vehicles, or was that because that's your — the way you chose to hunt that day?
CHENEY: No, the way — this is a big ranch, about 50,000 acres. You cover a lot of territory on a quail hunt. Birds are oftentimes — you're looking for coveys. And these are wild quail, they're not pen-raised. And you hunt them
— basically, you have people out on horseback, what we call outriders, who are looking for the quail. And when they spot them, they've got radios, you'll go over, and say, get down and flush the quail. So you need —
HUME: So you could be a distance of a miles from where you spot quail until the next place you may find them?
CHENEY: Well, usually you'll be, you know, maybe a few hundred yards. Might be farther than that; could be a quarter of a mile.
HUME: Does that kind of hunting only go forward on foot, or is it mostly —
CHENEY: No, you always — in that part of the country, you always are on vehicles, until you get up to where the covey is. Then you get off — there will be dogs down, put down; the dogs will point to covey. And then you walk up on the covey. And as the covey flushes, that's when you shoot.
HUME: Was anybody drinking in this party?
CHENEY: No. You don't hunt with people who drink. That's not a good idea. We had —
HUME: So he wasn't, and you weren't?
CHENEY: Correct. We'd taken a break at lunch — go down under an old — ancient oak tree there on the place, and have a barbecue. I had a beer at lunch. After lunch we take a break, go back to ranch headquarters. Then we took about an hour-long tour of ranch, with a ranch hand driving the vehicle, looking at game. We didn't go back into the field to hunt quail until about, oh, sometime after 3:00 p.m.
The five of us who were in that party were together all afternoon. Nobody was drinking, nobody was under the influence.
HUME: Now, what thought did you give, then, to how — you must have known that this was — whether it was a matter of state, or not, was news. What thought did you give that evening to how this news should be transmitted?
CHENEY: Well, my first reaction, Brit, was not to think: I need to call the press. My first reaction is: My friend, Harry, has been shot and we've got to take care of him. That evening there were other considerations. We wanted to make sure his family was taken care of. His wife was on the ranch. She wasn't with us when it happened, but we got her hooked up with the ambulance on the way to the hospital with Harry. He has grown children; we wanted to make sure they were notified, so they didn't hear on television that their father had been shot. And that was important, too.
But we also didn't know what the outcome here was going to be. We didn't know for sure what kind of shape Harry was in. We had preliminary reports, but they wanted to do a CAT scan, for example, to see how — whether or not there was any internal damage, whether or not any vital organ had been penetrated by any of the shot. We did not know until Sunday morning that we could be confident that everything was probably going to be okay.
HUME: When did the family — when had the family been informed? About what time?
CHENEY: Well, his wife — his wife knew as he was leaving the ranch —
HUME: Right, what about his children?
CHENEY: I didn't make the calls to his children, so I don't know exactly when those contacts were made. One of his daughters had made it to the hospital by the next day when I visited. But one of the things I'd learned over the years was first reports are often wrong and you need to really wait and nail it down. And there was enough variation in the reports we were getting from the hospital, and so forth — a couple of people who had been guests at the ranch went up to the hospital that evening; one of them was a doctor, so he obviously had some professional capabilities in terms of being able to relay messages. But we really didn't know until Sunday morning that Harry was probably going to be okay, that it looked like there hadn't been any serious damage to any vital organ. And that's when we began the process of notifying the press.
HUME: Well, what — you must have recognized, though, with all your experience in Washington, that this was going to be a big story.
CHENEY: Well, true, it was unprecedented. I've been in the business for a long time and never seen a situation HUME:uite like this. We've had experiences where the President has been shot; we've never had a situation where the Vice President shot somebody.
HUME: Not since Aaron Burr.
CHENEY: Not since Aaron Burr —
HUME: Different circumstances.
CHENEY: Different circumstances.
HUME: Well, did it occur to you that sooner was — I mean, the one thing that we've all kind of learned over the last several decades is that if something like this happens, as a rule sooner is better.
CHENEY: Well, if it's accurate. If it's accurate. And this is a complicated story.
HUME: But there were some things you knew. I mean, you knew the man had been shot, you knew he was injured, you knew he was in the hospital, and you knew you'd shot him.
HUME: And you knew certainly by sometime that evening that the relevant members of his family had been called. I realize you didn't know the outcome, and you could argue that you don't know the outcome today, really, finally.
CHENEY: As we saw, if we'd put out a report Saturday night on what we heard then — one report came in that said, superficial injuries. If we'd gone with a statement at that point, we'd have been wrong. And it was also important, I thought, to get the story out as accurately as possible, and this is a complicated story that, frankly, most reporters would never have dealt with before, so —
HUME: Had you discussed this with colleagues in the White House, with the President, and so on?
CHENEY: I did not. The White House was notified, but I did not discuss it directly, myself. I talked to Andy Card, I guess it was Sunday morning.
HUME: Not until Sunday morning? Was that the first conversation you'd had with anybody in the — at the White House?
HUME: And did you discuss this with Karl Rove at any time, as has been reported?
CHENEY: No, Karl talks to — I don't recall talking to Karl. Karl did talk with Katherine Armstrong, who is a good mutual friend to both of us. Karl hunts at the Armstrong, as well —
HUME: Say that again?
CHENEY: I said Karl has hunted at the Armstrong, as well, and we're both good friends of the Armstrongs and of Katherine Armstrong. And Katherine suggested, and I agreed, that she would go make the announcement, that is that she'd put the story out. And I thought that made good sense for several reasons. First of all, she was an eye-witness. She'd seen the whole thing. Secondly, she'd grown up on the ranch, she'd hunted there all of her life. Third, she was the immediate past head of the Texas Wildlife and Parks Department, the game control commission in the state of Texas, an acknowledged expert in all of this.
And she wanted to go to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which is the local newspaper, covers that area, to reporters she knew. And I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting. And then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the website, which is the way it went out. And I thought that was the right call.
HUME: What do you think now?
CHENEY: Well, I still do. I still think that the accuracy was enormously important. I had no press person with me, I didn't have any press people with me. I was there on a private weekend with friends on a private ranch. In terms of who I would contact to have somebody who would understand what we're even talking about, the first person that we talked with at one point, when Katherine first called the desk to get hold of a reporter didn't know the difference between a bullet and a shotgun — a rifle bullet and a shotgun. And there are a lot of basic important parts of the story that required some degree of understanding. And so we were confident that Katherine was the right one, especially because she was an eye-witness and she could speak authoritatively on it. She probably knew better than I did what had happened since I'd only seen one piece of it.
HUME: By the next morning, had you spoken again to Mr. Whittington?
CHENEY: The next morning I talked to his wife. And then I went to the hospital in Corpus Christi and visited with him.
HUME: When was that?
CHENEY: Oh, it was shortly after noon on Sunday.
HUME: Now, by that time had the word gone out to the newspaper?
CHENEY: I believe it had. I can't remember what time Katherine actually talked to the reporter. She had trouble that morning actually finding a reporter. But they finally got connected with the reporter, and that's when the story then went out.
HUME: Now, it strikes me that you must have known that this was going to be a national story —
CHENEY: Oh, sure.
HUME: — and it does raise the question of whether you couldn't have headed off this beltway firestorm if you had put out the word to the national media, as well as to the local newspaper so that it could post it on its website. I mean, in retrospect, wouldn't that have been the wise course —
CHENEY: Well, who is going to do that? Are they going to take my word for what happened? There is obviously —
HUME: Well, obviously, you could have put the statement out in the name of whoever you wanted. You could put it out in the name of Mrs. Armstrong, if you wanted to. Obviously, that's — she's the one who made the statement.
CHENEY: Exactly. That's what we did. We went with Mrs. Armstrong. We had — she's the one who put out the statement. And she was the most credible one to do it because she was a witness. It wasn't me in terms of saying, here's what happened, it was —
HUME: Right, understood. Now, the suspicion grows in some quarters that you — that this was an attempt to minimize it, by having it first appear in a little paper and appear like a little hunting incident down in a remote corner of Texas.
CHENEY: There wasn't any way this was going to be minimized, Brit; but it was important that it be accurate. I do think what I've experienced over the years here in Washington is as the media outlets have proliferated, speed has become sort of a driving force, lots of time at the expense of accuracy. And I wanted to make sure we got it as accurate as possible, and I think Katherine was an excellent choice. I don't know who you could get better as the basic source for the story than the witness who saw the whole thing.
HUME: When did you first speak to — if you spoke to Andy Card at, what, mid-day, you said, on Sunday?
CHENEY: Sometime Sunday morning.
HUME: And what about — when did you first — when, if ever, have you discussed it with the President?
CHENEY: I talked to him about it yesterday, or Monday — first on Monday, and then on Tuesday, too.
HUME: There is reporting to the effect that some in the White House feel you kind of — well, look at what Scott McClellan went through the last couple days. There's some sense — and perhaps not unfairly so — that you kind of hung him out to dry. How do you feel about that?
CHENEY: Well, Scott does a great job and it's a tough job. It's especially a tough job under these conditions and circumstances. I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them — they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times. But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas.
HUME: Well, perhaps so, but isn't there an institution here present at the White House that has long-established itself as the vehicle through which White House news gets out, and that's the pool?
CHENEY: I had no press person with me, no coverage with me, no White House reporters with me. I'm comfortable with the way we did it, obviously. You can disagree with that, and some of the White House press corps clearly do. But, no, I've got nothing but good things to say about Scott McClellan and Dan Bartlett. They've got a tough job to do and they do it well. They urged us to get the story out. The decision about how it got out, basically, was my responsibility.
HUME: That was your call.
CHENEY: That was my call.
HUME: All the way.
CHENEY: All the way. It was recommended to me — Katherine Armstrong wanted to do it, as she said, and I concurred in that; I thought it made good sense.
HUME: Now, you're talking to me today — this is, what, Wednesday?
HUME: What about just coming out yourself Monday/Tuesday — how come?
CHENEY: Well, part of it obviously has to do with the status of Harry Whittington. And it's a difficult subject to talk about, frankly, Brit. But most especially I've been very concerned about him and focused on him and feel more comfortable coming out today because of the fact that his circumstances have improved, he's gotten by what was a potential crisis yesterday, with respect to the developments concerning his heart. I think this decision we made, that this was the right way to do it.
HUME: Describe if you can your conversations with him, what you've said to him and the attitude he's shown toward you in the aftermath of this.
CHENEY: He's been fantastic. He's a gentleman in every respect. He oftentimes expressed more concern about me than about himself. He's been in good spirits, unfailingly cheerful —
HUME: What did he say about that? You said, "expressed concern" about you — what did he say?
CHENEY: Well, when I first saw him in the hospital, for example, he said, look, he said, I don't want this to create problems for you. He literally was more concerned about me and the impact on me than he was on the fact that he'd been shot. He's a — I guess I'd describe him as a true Texas gentleman, a very successful attorney, successful businessman in Austin; a gentleman in every respect of the word. And he's been superb.
HUME: For you, personally, how would you — you said this was one of the worst days of your life. How so?
CHENEY: What happened to my friend as a result of my actions, it's part of this sudden, you know, in less than a second, less time than it takes to tell, going from what is a very happy, pleasant day with great friends in a beautiful part of the country, doing something I love — to, my gosh, I've shot my friend. I've never experienced anything quite like that before.
HUME: Will it affect your attitude toward this pastime you so love in the future?
CHENEY: I can't say that. You know, we canceled the Sunday hunt. I said, look I'm not — we were scheduled to go out again on Sunday and I said I'm not going to go on Sunday, I want to focus on Harry. I'll have to think about it.
HUME: Some organizations have said they hoped you would find a less violent pastime.
CHENEY: Well, it's brought me great pleasure over the years. I love the people that I've hunted with and do hunt with; love the outdoors, it's part of my heritage, growing up in Wyoming. It's part of who I am. But as I say, the season is ending, I'm going to let some time pass over it and think about the future.
HUME: On another subject, court filings have indicated that Scooter Libby has suggested that is superiors — unidentified — authorized the release of some classified information. What do you know about that?
CHENEY: It's nothing I can talk about, Brit. This is an issue that's been under investigation for a couple of years. I've cooperated fully, including being interviewed, as well, by a special prosecutor. All of it is now going to trial. Scooter is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He's a great guy. I've worked with him for a long time, have enormous regard for him. I may well be called as a witness at some point in the case and it's, therefore, inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case.
HUME: Let me ask you another question. Is it your view that a vice president has the authority to declassify information?
CHENEY: There is an executive order to that effect.
HUME: There is.
HUME: Have you done it?
CHENEY: Well, I've certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions. The executive order —
HUME: You ever done it unilaterally?
CHENEY: I don't want to get into that. There is an executive order that specifies who has classification authority, and obviously focuses first and foremost on the president, but also includes the vice president.
HUME: There have been two leaks, one that pertained to possible facilities in Europe; and another that pertained to this NSA matter. There are officials who have had various characterizations of the degree of damage done by those. How would you characterize the damage done by those two reports?
CHENEY: There clearly has been damage done.
HUME: Which has been the more harmful, in your view?
CHENEY: I don't want to get into just sort of ranking them, then you get into why is one more damaging than the other. One of the problems we have as a government is our inability to keep secrets. And it costs us, in terms of our relationship with other governments, in terms of the willingness of other intelligence services to work with us, in terms of revealing sources and methods. And all of those elements enter into some of these leaks.
HUME: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for doing this.
CHENEY: Thank you, Brit.