WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday defended his lightning-rod role as a leading advocate for invading Iraq, for a warrantless surveillance program and for harsh treatment of suspected terrorists.
"Part of my job is to think about the unthinkable, to focus what in fact the terrorists may have in store for us," Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press" when asked about his "dark side."
Cheney said he now recognizes that the insurgency in Iraq was not "in its last throes," as he said in May 2005. "I think there is no question but that we did not anticipate an insurgency that would last this long," the vice president said.
"It's still difficult. Obviously, major, major work to do is ahead of us. But the fact is, the world is better off today with Saddam Hussein out of power. Think where we'd be if he was still there," Cheney said.
Cheney shrugged off news reports that his influence was waning, partly as a result of foreign policy miscalculations and partly as other advisers, especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, were getting more attention from President Bush.
The vice president said the reports were about as valid "as the ones that said I was in charge of everything."
Rice told "FOX News Sunday" that "these stories float around Washington — who's up, who's down. The vice president remains a crucial adviser to the president. His role is different than my role. ... These stories are simply ridiculous."
Cheney challenged polls suggesting that a majority of people in the United States do not believe the Bush administration's claim that the war in Iraq is the central front in the fight against terrorism.
"I think we've done a pretty good job of securing the nation against terrorists. You know, we're here on the fifth anniversary (of the 9/11 attacks). And there has not been another attack on the United States. And that's not an accident, because we've done a hell of a job here at home," Cheney said in the broadcast interview. "I don't know how much better you can do than no, no attacks for the past five years."
He said the U.S. had done a good job on "homeland security, in terms of the terrorist surveillance program we put in place, the financial tracking we put in place, and because of our detainee policy."
Cheney disputed that he ever directly said Saddam had any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
He defended his past statements both on links between Iraq and the Al Qaeda network, and on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, saying the pronouncements were based on the best intelligence he had at the time. No such weapons were found, nor is there clear evidence of links between Saddam's government and Usama bin Laden's organization.
Cheney cited various statements by former CIA Director George Tenet, both on Iraqi links to al-Qaida and weapons programs, including Tenet's often-quoted comment to Bush that it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq had such weapons
The vice president was asked on NBC whether there more terrorists in the world now than there were before the Sept. 11 attacks. "It's hard to say. Hard to put a precise number on it," Cheney said.
Asked if the U.S. still would have invaded Iraq had the CIA told Bush and him that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction in 2003, Cheney answered yes. He said Iraq had the capability of obtaining such weapons and would have done so once U.N. penalties were eased.
Democratic senatorial campaign chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said Cheney "represents what's wrong with this country." Schumer told CBS' "Face the Nation" that said because of policies championed by Cheney, "Things in Iraq are getting worse. ... We seem to be policing a civil war."
In an hourlong interview, Cheney also:
— Acknowledged the recent rise of violence in Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban, saying the U.S. military would be in the country "for some considerable" time. He said the hunt for bin Laden remains a priority for the administration.
—Said he still disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision in June that the administration overstepped its authority in holding suspected terrorists without trials or Geneva Conventions protections. He declined to discuss specific treatment of detainees, but said information gleaned from interrogations "helped us prevent attacks against the United States."
—Declined to criticize plans by Republicans to spend millions on negative campaign ads against Democrats. "I hope our guys have good hard-hitting advertisements. Certainly, the opposition does," he said. He predicted Republicans would keep control of both House and Senate.
—Called his former aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby "a good man ... entitled to a presumption of innocence." Libby is awaiting trial in the CIA-leak case. Cheney declined comment on what his own role in that case may have been.
—Said he has not been hunting since a Feb. 11 hunting trip in Texas when he accidentally shot lawyer Harry Whittington in the torso, neck and face, but that he intended to go hunting again. "I don't know that you ever get over it. Fortunately, Harry is doing very well."
Host Tim Russert asked Cheney if he should be relieved that the vice president did not show up for the interview with a shotgun. "I wouldn't worry about it. You're not in season," Cheney said.