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

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."

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.

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: Absolutely.

SPIEGEL: Why?

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?

Cheney: Sure.

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.

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