EXCLUSIVE: Cheney defends war on terror’s morality

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EXCLUSIVE:

Vice President Dick Cheney offered a sweeping defense Wednesday of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism and its use of aggressive interrogation techniques, declaring “it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation.”

In an interview with The Washington Times inside his West Wing office, Mr. Cheney also acknowledged the unusually powerful role he has played as vice president on everything from the war in Iraq to helping approve interrogation methods — that some regarded as torture and that ultimately would be used for 33 high-value detainees.

“I do believe that the vice presidency has been a consequential office, if I can put it in those terms, in this administration. But that’s first and foremost because that’s what the president wanted,” he said.

During a wide-ranging, 38-minute conversation — his first with print reporters since September — the vice president suggested that President Bush’s popularity and place in history likely would grow during the next 20 to 30 years, much like that of one of Mr. Cheney’s earlier bosses, Gerald R. Ford.

And on a day when Chrysler Corp. dramatically shuttered its plants for a month to stave off bankruptcy, Mr. Cheney cautioned against the government becoming too involved in solving automakers’ problems, even if the administration provides some short-term loans to keep them financially afloat.

“There may well be some steps that need to be taken with respect to improving the industry, but at the same time that I look at that, I’m reluctant to see. Well, let me restate that, I’m cautious about suggesting that government somehow has all the answers here,” he said.

“In the end, it really depends upon the board of directors and the management of the company. They’re really the only ones who can guarantee long-term viability.”

The often-reserved Mr. Cheney, who will end four decades of public service in Washington when he leaves office Jan. 20, appeared relaxed as he reflected on his career and offered a few personal insights:

• He acknowledged his relationship with the news media “didn’t flourish” over the past eight years but said it was because his job was to provide private advice to the president and that as a result he was unable to discuss most of what he did. “It’s not out of any lack of respect” for journalists, he said.

• Though leaving government for the fourth time in his career, Mr. Cheney, 67, said, “I’m not at the stage, of a mind, to retire,” but added that he hadn’t decided what to do next.

• He identified James Madison as his favorite Founding Father, and noted that his wife, Lynne, had just signed a contract to write a biography about the fourth president. “I think Madison’s an intriguing figure who had an enormous impact and doesn’t get the kind of attention that some of the others do,” said the vice president, who has a reputation of wielding power behind the scenes without calling attention to himself. “Not a very flashy guy — small man, but huge impact.”

On one of the most controversial issues of the Bush presidency, Mr. Cheney squarely addressed the question of whether morality, and not simply pragmatism, was considered when deciding how far to go in pressuring suspected terrorists to divulge coveted intelligence.

“In my mind, the foremost obligation we had from a moral or an ethical standpoint was to the oath of office we took when we were sworn in, on January 20 of 2001, to protect and defend against all enemies foreign and domestic. And that’s what we’ve done,” he said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which killed almost 3,000 people in New York, suburban Washington and Pennsylvania, Mr. Cheney said that he, the president and others “made the judgment … that wasn’t going to happen again on our watch.”

“And I feel very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do. If I was faced with those circumstances again I’d do exactly the same thing,” Mr. Cheney said.

“Was it torture? I don’t believe it was torture,” the vice president said. “We spent a great deal of time and effort getting legal advice, legal opinion out of the [Justice Department’s] office of legal counsel.

“I thought the legal opinions that were rendered were sound. I thought the techniques were reasonable in terms of what [the CIA was] asking to be able to do. And I think it produced the desired result. I think it’s directly responsible for the fact that we’ve been able to avoid or defeat further attacks against the homeland for 7 1/2 years.”

He said only 33 high-value detainees in the war on terror were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques to extract information that the government lacked about al Qaeda’s operational capability and future attack plans, and only three were “waterboarded,” a technique that simulates drowning. He identified the three subjected to waterboarding as Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

“I think it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation against further attacks like what happened on 9/11,” Mr. Cheney said.

He also called the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many of the key al Qaeda suspected were detained, as “a first-rate facility.”

Mr. Cheney said that critics of detainee policy often conflate all controversial issues, instead of taking them one at a time within their contexts, and “characterize it as torture policy.”

“You’ve got to, I think, back off and recognize that something like Abu Ghraib was not policy,” he said, referring to the mistreatment of prisoners at a U.S.-run prison in Iraq that caused an uproar around the world. In fact, Mr. Cheney said, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib did not possess any critical information that warranted aggressive tactics, and that the abuse was the result of wayward individuals who may not have been supervised properly.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with policy, as I understand it,” Mr. Cheney said. “And the people … that were subjected to abusive practices there, I don’t think had any special intelligence understandings, if you will, or special intelligence information that we needed.”

Mr. Cheney said this past spring that the vice president’s role has expanded since the Carter administration in the late 1970s. But on Wednesday he told The Times that he has been a “consequential” vice president, using an adjective that the White House has often applied.

“Everybody’s familiar with the history that it has not been a consequential office in the past,” said Mr. Cheney, adding that during previous stints at the White House and in Congress over the past four decades, he had observed the job as “terribly frustrating” to other vice presidents.

Mr. Bush, he said, “wanted somebody who would be another member of the team, who had a certain set of experiences and so forth, who could be an active participant in the process.”

“He’s been true to his word for eight years.”

As for the president’s legacy, Mr. Cheney compared Mr. Bush to Mr. Ford, whose decision to pardon former President Richard M. Nixon after his resignation during the Watergate scandal caused an uproar.

“President Ford made a decision that was extraordinarily unpopular at the time,” said Mr. Cheney, who served as Mr. Ford’s chief of staff.

“By the time of his passing a couple of years ago, opinion had totally turned on that,” Mr. Cheney said. “In fact, most people by then, even many who had been very critical 30 years before, were in agreement that in fact it was a good decision, it was the right thing to do from the standpoint of the country.

“I’m personally persuaded that this president and this administration will look very good 20 or 30 years down the road in light of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

The reliably conservative and old-fashioned vice president stood by the huge growth of spending and size of government during the Bush years.

“Given your druthers, you’d rather not have a growing government, … but there are exceptions,” said Mr. Cheney, who was not a big supporter of the president’s large expenditures on reforming education and Medicare prescription drugs.

Most of the growth, Mr. Cheney said, came from the government’s increases in defense and homeland security spending after Sept. 11.

“I fully support the spending we did because I think it was essential,” he said. “It obviously has, as a byproduct, the fact that it increases the deficit and the overall size of government, but I think this is one of those occasions like World War II when that was appropriate.”

As for President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Cheney said, “He’s got obviously some very difficult issues that are soon to be on his platter, just because of the time we live in.”

“No president gets to choose what issues he has to deal with on his watch. You don’t come having run on a platform of, ‘Well we’re going to respond to 9/11,’ ” he said. “You don’t get to choose the time in which you govern. and that will be true for President Obama as well.”

Mr. Cheney, as he did earlier this week, praised Mr. Obama’s choices for his Cabinet so far, and said the Bush administration is pulling for him to do well.

“We’re doing everything we can to help on the transition. In the end, when you put away the banners and the bullhorns of the campaign, he’s now our president, about to be, as of January 20. And it’s important for all of us that he succeed.”

The man whom the Secret Service calls “Angler,” in part because he is a huge fan of fly-fishing, said he did not know what he’ll do after he leaves office but would bring the same intensity and focus that is his trademark to whatever he does next.

“Will I be focused on what I do? Yeah, I suppose I’m focused when I’m fly-fishing,” he said, laughing.

• See Cheney unplugged: Excerpts from the interview.

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