After September 11, the United States awoke to a series of unpleasant realities: an enemy was at war with us, and had been for some years; that enemy was not a traditional nation-state, but a loose confederation of non-state-actors – with safe havens and support provided by foreign states, to be sure, but united by a common political/religious ideology rather than by a geographic base; the enemy worked both within and without our borders, and depended on stealth; and our government was institutionally unprepared to deal with an enemy of that nature and methods. The Bush Administration, from that day to this, has faced a long series of hard choices in prosecuting a war unlike the major wars of the past: how to conduct surveillance on the enemy, how to detain and interrogate captured enemies, how to get boots on the ground overseas, and how to remake our intelligence and law enforcement systems to handle the information gained by doing all these things.
One of the signal failures of the Bush second term, in particular, has been an undue timidity in defending the hard and difficult choices made – choices, in many cases, that Barack Obama will have little realistic option but to ratify if he’s going to be serious about defending the country. Attorney General Muskasey has been one rare exception to this trend, but the Administration’s last and strongest voice on national security remains Vice President Cheney. Kudos to the VP for standing up for the Administration’s security policies in a recent interview with ABC News:
KARL: But you’ve heard leaders, the incoming Congress, saying that this policy has basically been torture and illegal wiretapping, and that they want to undo, basically, the central tenets of your anti-terrorism policy.
CHENEY: They’re wrong. On the question of terrorist surveillance, this was always a policy to intercept communications between terrorists or known terrorists, or so-called “dirty numbers,” and folks inside the United States to capture those international communications.
It’s worked. It’s been successful. It’s now embodied in the FISA statute that we passed last year — and that Barack Obama voted for, which I think was a good decision on his part. It’s a very, very important capability. It is legal. It was legal from the very beginning. It is constitutional. To claim that it isn’t, I think is just wrong.
The Administration was right all along on surveillance, although it’s good to have clearer statutory authorization to put an end to that controversy once and for all. Obama had to grow up and accept that reality, even if he wasn’t able to admit that to his supporters.
On Guantanamo and detention policy:
KARL: More than two years ago, President Bush said that he was — wanted to close down Guantanamo Bay. Why has that not happened?
CHENEY: It’s very hard to do. Guantanamo has been the repository, if you will, of hundreds of terrorists, or suspected terrorists, that we’ve captured since 9/11. They — many of them, hundreds — have been released back to their home countries. What we have left is the hard core.
Their cases are reviewed on an annual basis to see whether or not they’re still a threat, whether or not they’re still intelligence value in terms of continuing to hold them.
But — and we’re down now to some 200 being held at Guantanamo. But that includes the core group, the really high-value targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Now, the question: If you’re going to close Guantanamo, what are you going to do with those prisoners?
One suggestion is, well, we bring them to the United States. Well, I don’t know very many congressmen, for example, who are eager to have 200 al Qaeda terrorists deposited in their district….
…I don’t know any other nation in the world that would do what we’ve done in terms of taking care of people who are avowed enemies, and many of whom still swear up and down that their only objective is to kill more Americans.
KARL: So, when do you think we’ll be at a point where Guantanamo could be responsibly shut down?
CHENEY: Well, I think that that would come with the end of the war on terror.
KARL: When’s that going to be?
CHENEY: Well, nobody knows. Nobody can specify that. Now, in previous wars, we’ve always exercised the right to capture the enemy and then hold them till the end of the conflict. That’s what we did in World War II with, you know, thousands, hundreds of thousands of German prisoners. The same basic principle ought to apply here in terms of our right to capture the enemy and hold them.
As I say, the other option is to turn them over to somebody else. A lot of them, nobody wants. I mean, there’s a great resistance sometimes in the home countries to taking these people back into their own territory.
I think everybody can say we wished there were no necessity for Guantanamo. But you have to be able to answer these other questions before you can do that responsibly. And that includes, what are you going to do with the prisoners held in Guantanamo? And nobody yet has solved that problem.
KARL: What’s the danger in doing this too soon, you know, just make this symbolic gesture to shut the place down?
CHENEY: Well, if you release people that shouldn’t have been released — and that’s happened in some cases already — you end up with them back on the battlefield.
And we’ve had, as I recall now — and these are rough numbers, I’d want to check them — but, say, approximately 30 of these folks have been held in Guantanamo, then released, and ended up back on the battlefield again, and we’ve encountered them a second time around. But they’ve either been killed or captured in further conflicts with our forces.
On interrogation techniques:
The professionals involved in that program were very, very cautious, very careful — wouldn’t do anything without making certain it was authorized and that it was legal. And any suggestion to the contrary is just wrong. Did it produce the desired results? I think it did.
I think, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the number three man in al Qaeda, the man who planned the attacks of 9/11, provided us with a wealth of information. There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al Qaeda came from that one source. So, it’s been a remarkably successful effort. I think the results speak for themselves.
And I think those who allege that we’ve been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
KARL: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
CHENEY: I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.
KARL: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?
CHENEY: I don’t.
KARL: And on KSM, one of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?
CHENEY: I do.
The use of aggressive interrogation techniques should, for a variety of reasons I’ve discussed before, be sparing. Most of us agree that the U.S. should not conduct torture, period – but there remains fair debate about where you draw that line. Certainly, as with detainees, we need and still don’t have a genuine legal framework to cover questioning of detainees who are neither soldiers of a nation nor common criminals, and who we need to question to get the time-sensitive intelligence that is the lifeblood of anti-terror policy.
But of course the Administration’s critics have always been more interested in conducting a campaign of hyperbole designed to inflame the nation’s critics at home and abroad than in having a serious debate on the issue. The early indications have been that the Obama Administration will try to return to the Clinton-era policy of rendition of more high-value detainees for questioning by foreign governments, while claiming to maintain total purity on the treatment of detainees. Rendition has pros and cons of its own, but it’s fundamentally dishonest to use it solely because we can’t admit that we need to get information out of hard-boiled terrorists.
And finally, on Iraq:
KARL: You probably saw Karl Rove last week said that if the intelligence had been correct we probably would not have gone to war.
CHENEY: I disagree with that. I think as I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq, what they got wrong was that there weren’t any stockpiles. What we found in the after action reports, after the intelligence report was done and then various special groups went and looked at the intelligence and what its validity was. What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stocks.
They also found that he had every intention of resuming production once the international sanctions were lifted. He had a long reputation and record of having started two wars. Of having brutalized and killed hundreds of thousands of people, some of them with weapons of mass destruction in his own country. He had violated 16 National Security Council resolutions. He had established a relationship as a terror sponsoring state according to the State Department. He was making $25,000 payments to the families of suicide bombers.
This was a bad actor and the country’s better off, the world’s better off with Saddam gone and I think we made the right decision in spite of the fact that the original NIE was off in some of its major judgments.
There’s much more in the interview, from the folly of poll-tested policy to his thoughts on Obama’s national security team. This much is clear: Dick Cheney is one guy who will be leaving office with his head held high for the Bush Administration’s accomplishments in 8 hard and difficult years to be managing national security.