SPIEGEL Interview with Dick Cheney: 'I Think There Will Be Further Terror Attacks'

Part 2: 'My Biggest Regret? My Misspent Youth'

Vice President Dick Cheney together with President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 2004. Zoom
AFP

Vice President Dick Cheney together with President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 2004.

Cheney: The wars you're talking about obviously contributed in terms of overall spending levels, but that's not what is driving our debt problem. What's driving our debt problem are entitlement programs. The place where there's been significant growth in the budget has to do with entitlements, with Social Security, with Medicare, and so forth. That's the prime source of our spending just as it is with yours. If you look at the percentage of the budget that goes to defense, it's lower now than it's been at just about any time since the end of World War II.

SPIEGEL: The questions to be answered now, in 2011, are entirely different than the set of questions that faced the Bush administration in 2001. In this financial crisis, it looks often as though the US and Europe are blaming each other for endangering the stability of the West. Do you think that Chancellor Angela Merkel can adequately manage the crisis?

Cheney: Chancellor Merkel is playing a leading role in trying to come to grips with the problems that Europe has encountered. I've always been impressed with her. It may not help her to have me say nice things about her, but I think she's been an effective leader through a difficult period of time.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any advice for her and for Europe?

Cheney: I don't know enough about the particulars of their circumstances. I think what we need here in the United States is a period focused on long-term economic growth, and I don't see that coming out of the administration. They seem to be focused much more on short-term job creation.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Vice President, in January you turned 70. What were your greatest successes? Your greatest regrets?

Cheney: My regret? My misspent youth.

SPIEGEL: You were twice in jail due to drunkenness and were twice kicked out of university for bad grades. Do you also have any political regrets?

Cheney: I think the wage and price control during the Nixon years was a serious policy mistake that the administration put in place. (Eds. Note: For 90 days, price and wage increases were forbidden in order to halt inflation.) I was one of the people who worked on it. I would cite that as an example of misguided policy.

SPIEGEL: What about the war in Iraq? Your government started that conflict based on false intelligence. The weapons of mass destruction, the main reason cited for the invasion, were never found.

Cheney: Clearly there was an intelligence failure that all of us received. Germany had the same problem. You guys actually contributed to some of the bad information to our intelligence people, if I recall the stories correctly. It's hard to sort out the truth when you're dealing with a leader as authoritarian as Saddam Hussein was. He did a masterful job of fooling even his own people.

SPIEGEL: Looking back though, was it not wrong to start the war?

Cheney: It is important to look at the results of the Iraq Survey Group. They concluded that Iraq had the personnel, had the technology, had the raw materials, had the experience, and they believe Saddam Hussein fully expected to resume production once the sanctions had been lifted and the inspectors departed. So the threat was definitely there.

SPIEGEL: And your greatest successes?

Cheney: I think what we did in Desert Storm in 1991 was a significant success. We organized and put together the coalition and expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. I also think the success we had in the Bush administration in preventing any follow-on attack after 9/11 was a significant success.

SPIEGEL: The journalist Bob Woodward has accused you of having not learned your lesson. You were convinced in 2007 that Syria was building a nuclear weapons program and you wanted to bomb. But when Bush asked, "Who agrees with Dick?" no one raised their hand.

Cheney: What did you think the Syrians had?

SPIEGEL: The intelligence was questionable at the time.

Cheney: No, it was pretty clear. Intelligence showed conclusively that there was a nuclear reactor there. Nobody disputed that. But there was also no evidence that it was intended to produce electricity. There was no power grid. My view was that, because it was a duplicate of the reactor that the North Koreans had built years before and used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons -- and that that's what they had built in the Syrian desert. I was an advocate of a military strike by the United States to take it out. The President decided he didn't want to go that route. He wanted to pursue diplomacy. The Israelis obviously weren't much interested in diplomacy. They solved the problem themselves and took it out. I think that was a good outcome.

SPIEGEL: Would you bomb Syria today?

Cheney: Why? If they got a new reactor?

SPIEGEL: Because of Bashar Assad's assault on human rights?

Cheney: You guys would go after them if they're violating human rights but not if they have a nuclear reactor?

SPIEGEL: No, we would not. We would be interested in your opinion though.

Cheney: I'd like to see Bashar alAssad gone. But I don't advocate bombing Syria now. The biggest threat we face from a national security standpoint is still the possibility of terrorists. The next time they launch an attack against the United States, they will have deadlier weapons than they did on 9/11, a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind, and the cost in lives will perhaps be hundreds of thousands. We can sit around all we want and worry about being nice to al-Qaida. But some of the world's worst regimes have ties to terror and have the capacity to develop weapons that are potentially devastating to Europe and the US.

SPIEGEL: In your memoirs you were pretty tough on some of the members of the Bush administration, particularly on Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Cheney: (grins). No.

SPIEGEL: Then there is a misunderstanding. Rice was furious because she was portrayed as a crybaby.

Cheney: I never said she was crying.

SPIEGEL: You described how she tearfully came into your office and admitted you were right.

Cheney: I wanted to put down my recollections of my time in office. The description of the encounter I had with Secretary Rice is accurate.

SPIEGEL: There are moving passages in your book. As a boy you were witness to your great grandfather Richard dying of a heart attack ...

Cheney: …I was 14…

SPIEGEL: …and at 37 you had your first heart attack, followed by 4 more and 4 bypasses. How has this affected you? Do you live in constant fear?

Cheney: (points to the battery of his heart pump that sits in his jacket pocket) I'm now wandering around with this. The most difficult was that first heart attack. I was a heavy smoker. I smoked for 20 years, three packs a day. I was in the middle of my first campaign for Congress and I woke up in the middle of the night. I had this tingling sensation in these two fingers, I didn't have any chest pain or anything like that. I was staying with friends and they took me to the hospital. I walked into the emergency room and passed out.

SPIEGEL: Given the state of your health, was it not crazy to get into politics?

Cheney: I faced the prospect then of giving up my hope for a political career and cancel the campaign. But my doctor said, "hard work never killed anybody." I haven't had a cigarette since the first heart attack. You watch what you eat, try to exercise on a regular basis. I've lived with it for a long time, and it's like any other problem.

SPIEGEL: You don't think about it constantly?

Cheney: No. The time it became a really serious problem again was after I left office. At the end of 2009, I had an episode of ventricular fibrillation. That is when the heart beats very fast but very irregularly. After that, a couple of months later, I had my fifth heart attack. It was another mild occurrence, but by then I had reached the point where I started into what we call "end stage heart failure," with my heart so weak that it was no longer moving enough blood to be able to service my kidneys, my liver, my other vital organs. That's when we went in and installed this heart pump. It's miracle stuff. I've had it for about 14 months now. I have batteries that power on a regular basis, and these go into a charger. (Cheney takes the battery out of his jacket pocket, the apparatus beeps. Cheney laughs.) It's all right. It's not going to blow up.

SPIEGEL: No constant thoughts about mortality?

Cheney: No. I wrestled with those kinds of issues when I had that first heart attack, some 30 years ago. Technology has stayed ahead of my disease. My time is going to be limited, same as anybody else's, but I've been extraordinarily fortunate.

SPIEGEL: Sometimes at appearances, people call you a "mass murderer" or a "war criminal." Do such things bother you?

Cheney: When you're the Vice President of the United States, you can count on being laughed at so many times a week. But you still do your job.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Marc Hujer

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