Former US Vice President Dick Cheney was a major supporter of the wars launched by the US under President George W. Bush. He spoke with SPIEGEL about why he thinks he was right even in hindsight, the future of terrorism after Osama bin Laden and why Guantanamo is an "excellent facility."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vice President, you are one of the most outspoken critics of President Barack Obama. But are you not in fact pleased that he has continued many policies introduced under the administration of President George W. Bush: such as the war in Afghanistan, the detention camp in Guantanamo and tax cuts for millionaires?
Cheney: I think the policies they have adopted are better than what they campaigned on, but I'm still a critic, obviously. I'm not a big supporter of the Obama administration.
SPIEGEL: What about him bothers you?
Cheney: I thought it was a mistake for them that they campaigned all across the country in 2008 against our counterterrorism policies. In fact, those counterterrorism policies worked and kept us safe for the last seven years of the Bush administration. The thing I found most objectionable shortly after they came into office was they threatened to investigate and prosecute our intelligence personnel that carried out our counterterrorism policies, especially things like the Enhanced Interrogation Program. That was a terrible precedent to set.
SPIEGEL: This program involved waterboarding, simulated drowning. This kind of torture was forbidden by Obama.
Cheney: That was a program that was very carefully put together. We used only techniques that we had used on our own people in training and that had been approved by the president, by the National Security Council and by the Justice Department as being totally consistent with our international obligations and treaties. And yet, they talked about possibly prosecuting the people who had carried out those instructions. I found that really objectionable.
SPIEGEL: But what exactly is the problem? In the end no one was prosecuted.
Cheney: I spoke up in May of 2009 and they eventually backed off, which was a good thing.
SPIEGEL: Your support for waterboarding and its use did significant damage to America's image abroad. Was it worth it?
Cheney: Because we collected intelligence that was absolutely vital to protecting the nation. It wasn't about our reputation; it was about protecting the lives of Americans. And we did that very successfully.
SPIEGEL: The value of the information obtained through torture is debatable.
Cheney: There was a lot of hurrah about waterboarding. But it was applied to very few people and only under the most carefully controlled circumstances. I'd do it again in a minute. The techniques worked. Abu Zubaydah, a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, gave up information about Ramzi Binalshibh, who had assisted the 9/11 hijackers. At the time of his apprehension, he was plotting to use commercial airliners in suicide attacks on Heathrow airport and other structures in London. Information from Abu Zubaydah and Binalshibh led in turn to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had beheaded a Wall Street Journal reporter and confessed that he was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 people.
SPIEGEL: In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the US had the support of the entire Western world. But it vanished as a result of America's violation of human rights.
Cheney: If you're going to say you can't use those techniques or you shouldn't have used those techniques, then you've got to be willing to say what attacks you would have been willing to accept. How many casualties would you have been willing to accept ... to be able to say: "Well, we've made the Europeans happy because we didn't take this step"?
SPIEGEL: How can you be so sure that everything you did was the correct strategic move? Obama has said that the existence of Guantanamo has turned more angry people to terrorism than have been interned there.
Cheney: There were a lot of critics.... But Guantanamo is an excellent facility. It's very well run by the US military. It is a better facility probably than most of those people could have found in their own home countries, had they been imprisoned there.
SPIEGEL: In an interview with CNN you described the life of a prisoner in Guantanamo as: "They're living in the tropics. They're well fed. They've got everything they could possibly want." It sounds as though as you were talking about a resort.
Cheney: It was a very nice prison facility, where people had good medical care, had their dietary needs looked after, their ability to worship as they saw fit. At one point, there was a story that somebody was flushing the Koran down the toilet. That was a lie, and you guys bought it in a minute. It wasn't true. I don't have a lot of patience for our friends who are quick to say, "Gee, you shouldn't have done that. You ought to be nicer to those al-Qaida terrorists." I don't buy that for a minute.
SPIEGEL: Recently, Obama managed to achieve something that the Bush administration was unable to in seven years of trying: He found Osama bin Laden and killed him. You said that it was enhanced interrogation techniques which produced the initial leads which ultimately resulted in bin Laden's death. But doesn't Obama deserve some credit?
SPIEGEL: Does bin Laden's death put an end to the war on terror?
Cheney: I don't think so. I believe there's still a threat out there that exists, that there are still people like Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now, nominally at least, in charge of al-Qaida. And I think there will be further attacks. I don't think you can say it's all over with now.
SPIEGEL: Was Obama right to intervene in Libya?
Cheney: It's not clear to me exactly what we did in Libya.
SPIEGEL: What about it isn't clear? He sent bombers to support the rebels in their fight against Moammar Gadhafi. He was part of the international coalition.
Cheney: He wanted to have Gadhafi gone, and I think that's a good thing. But if you're going to state that as an objective of national policy, but then you don't follow through or you leave it up to others, I think that's not necessarily a good way to do business. We don't know yet what's going to emerge in Libya.
SPIEGEL: You are critical that Obama no longer wants the US to decide everything unilaterally. International partners are more involved in military interventions and share the costs. One Obama advisor has called it "leading from behind."
Cheney: That strikes me as a totally incongruous and contradictory thing to say.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps it is time to change priorities. In the last decade, the US has waged two expensive wars almost single-handedly and heavily burdened the country financially. Even in your book, there is very little about the economy or the rise of China. Have you not simply become obsessed with your war against terror?
Cheney: Listen. I made speeches when I was secretary of defense to our NATO friends and allies. This was back in the early 1990s. I had the strong feeling then, and I think the evidence was overwhelming over the years, that our European friends have relied upon the United States to take the lead in providing for security in the West, to be prepared to confront the Soviet Union, to deploy forces, to spend a significant portion of our national budget on the military. And it's not as though if we hadn't done it, somebody else would have. My view is we've learned by experience that over time, somebody has to provide leadership, and that's usually the United States.
SPIEGEL: That sounds as though you don't think much of your partners.
Cheney: Germany doesn't spend very much on the military. If we had to rely on you guys to spend enough to perform the role the United States has over the last several years, it wouldn't have happened. I love my German friends and allies, but the bottom line is, with few exceptions, most of our NATO allies don't meet the standard that you would expect out of somebody who is seriously trying to be a successful partner.
SPIEGEL: There is however the question of whether the US can still afford large military interventions. You write that your country is living beyond its means.
Cheney: I am concerned about our debt situation. I think most Americans are.
SPIEGEL: The Bush administration added considerably to this debt with two expensive wars, tax cuts for the wealthy and the war on terror.
'My Biggest Regret? My Misspent Youth'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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