CBS’s Schieffer to Cheney: ‘Is Anything President Does Legal?’

Bob Schieffer and Dick Cheney, CBS On Sunday’s Face the Nation on CBS, host Bob Schieffer seemed to be acting out a scene from Frost/Nixon as he questioned Vice Presdient Dick Cheney about the terrorist surveillance program: "Do you feel you went too far, Mr. Vice President, in your surveillance?...Do you -- do you believe that the president, in time of war, that anything he does is legal?"

Cheney shot back with some historical context: "I can't say that anything he does is legal. I think we do, and we have, a historic precedent of taking action that you wouldn't take in peacetime...If you hark back in our history you can look at Abraham Lincoln, who suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus in the middle of the Civil War...or FDR in World War II...when he provided for internment camps for Japanese-American citizens. Most people now look back and say that was wrong. But what we did was modest by those comparisons."

Later in the interview, Schieffer again questioned the legality of Bush Administration policies: "Let me talk to you a little bit about torture. You have said that you do not believe that waterboarding, for example, was torture...Would you do it again if you had to make those same decisions again? Because a lot of people now say that some of the things that happened here may be the reason that some of our casualties happened...because people saw the publicity of these things, the kinds of things that happened at Abu Ghraib." In fact, it was CBS News that broke the Abu Ghraib story, so by Schieffer’s logic, CBS caused American casualties by showing the pictures.

Schieffer also asked about Guantanamo Bay: "Guantanamo. You've said it should remain open, but for how long, Mr. Vice President?" Cheney replied: "Well, Guantanamo's there to hold people we believe are unlawful combatants that we captured in the war on terror, many of them members of al-Qaeda...Now, if you bring them onshore into the United States, they immediately fall heir to certain legal rights and privileges that'll create problems. And there also, I don't know many congressional districts that are eager to have 200 al-Qaeda terrorists deposited on their soil."

On December 2, Schieffer talked to four liberal authors about the incoming Obama Administration. One author, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who wrote "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," said of the Bush Administration: "They were not constitutional scholars and they enacted policies that – including legalizing torture for all purposes – that really were not constitutional." Apparently Schieffer holds a similar view.

Here is a transcript of the relevant portion of the January 4 interview:

SCHIEFFER: And we're back again with the vice president. Mr. Vice President, in an interview last month with Chris Wallace over at Fox, you said that starting in 2001 the administration -- and in many cases, you personally -- kept congressional leaders fully briefed on the program to monitor America's international phone calls without a warrant. You said that the Republican and Democratic leaders were unanimous, when you briefed them, that the programs were essential and did not require further congressional action. But The New York Times has noted that Senator Rockefeller wrote you a letter in 2003 reiterating concerns that he said he had expressed at those meetings, that the programs raised profound issues and created concern regarding the direction the administration was taking. So were congressional leaders kept fully informed or were they not?

CHENEY: They were kept fully informed.

SCHIEFFER: Well, why would he have written that letter?

CHENEY: I have no idea. I know when -- what happened was the -- everybody who was in the room that day, for example, when I got the leadership down, chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committees, including Senator Rockefeller, and asked them if we thought they should continue -- if they thought we should continue the program, they said yes. Do we need to come to Congress to get authorization for it? They said no. And he was there. He never objected or opposed that in any way. Later on, when this became public, when The New York Times broke the story -- which, frankly, I think was an outrageous decision on their part; they were asked by the President of the United States not to on the grounds it would damage national security -- then Senator Rockefeller decided he wanted to hark back to this letter. But the fact was he couldn't even find it. He had to call my office for a copy of the letter that he allegedly had written some years before raising some questions that he had about the program. But I always-

SCHIEFFER: Well, I mean, do you-

CHENEY: I always felt it was a bit if a CYA letter. And in those crucial meetings when we sat down to debate the program and tell them about it, in fact, everybody in the room signed up to it. Nobody objected.

SCHIEFFER: Do you feel you went too far, Mr. Vice President, in your surveillance?

CHENEY: Absolutely not. I think what we did was one of the great success stories of the intelligence business in the last century. I think what the National Security Agency under General Mike Hayden, working with the CIA and at the direction of the president, was masterfully done. I think it provided crucial intelligence for us. It's one of the main reasons we've been successful in defending the country against further attacks, and I don't believe we violated anybody's civil liberties. This was all done in accordance with the president's constitutional authority under Article II of the Constitution as commander in chief, with the resolution that was passed by the Congress immediately after 9/11. And subsequently, we have gotten legislative authority signed up to last year when we passed a modified FISA statute.

SCHIEFFER: Do you -- do you believe that the president, in time of war, that anything he does is legal?

CHENEY: I can't say that anything he does is legal. I think we do, and we have, a historic precedent of taking action that you wouldn't take in peacetime but that you will take sometimes in wartime in order to do the basic job that you sign up to when you take the oath of office, to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. If you hark back in our history you can look at Abraham Lincoln, who suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus in the middle of the Civil War.

SCHIEFFER: But nobody thinks that that was legal.

CHENEY: Well, no. Well, it was -- certainly was in the sense he wasn't impeached. And it was a wartime measure that he took that I think today history says, yeah, that was probably a good thing to do. There have been other examples. Lyndon -- or FDR in World War II-

SCHIEFFER: Mm-hmm.

CHENEY: -when he provided for internment camps for Japanese-American citizens. Most people now look back and say that was wrong. But what we did was modest by those comparisons. And I would also emphasize that what we did, we did with the support and involvement, for example, of the Justice Department. Every single time the president reauthorized the terrorist surveillance program, which he did every 30 or 45 days, it was only after the secretary-

SCHIEFFER: Would have -- is it not true that the courts and others have now said that some of those orders that the Justice Department was putting out proved to be-

CHENEY: That was -- that was the -- those were the rules-

SCHIEFFER: -not correct?

CHENEY: -that we had to operate by. And the Attorney General of the United States signed off on every single one of those exceptions. The president would not extend the program without the attorney general's authorization and approval on there. In terms of all of our actions, we worked to stay close to the Office of Legal Counsel. We followed the guidance we got, which is what you're suppose to do and where you're suppose to do it.

SCHIEFFER: The-

CHENEY: There've subsequently been some controversies that -- the Supreme Court's s made some decisions that didn't agree with what we did at the time, but what we did was authorized by legal authorities that were to be the source of that kind of advice.

SCHIEFFER: Let me talk to you a little bit about torture. You have said that you do not believe that waterboarding, for example, was torture.

CHENEY: Right.

SCHIEFFER: You and members of the Cabinet sat in the White House and approved the methods of interrogation that were used by the CIA. Why would something like that reach your level, Mr. Vice President?

CHENEY: Well, because the CIA did not want to proceed without having a very clear understanding of what was authorized and what was appropriate. And they'd seen situations, I'd seen situations before, where the CIA would get out and undertake an assignment or a mission and then find that the politicians would all run for the hills, like Iran-Contra. In fact, what we had here was a situation in where the CIA was being very careful and very cautious. They had prisoners like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind of 9/11, in custody.

SCHIEFFER: Mm-hmm.

CHENEY: They wanted to know what kind of techniques they could use going forward and still maintain consistency with the statutes and the international agreements that we're party to.

SCHIEFFER: Would you do it again if you had to make those same decisions again? Because a lot of people now say that some of the things that happened here may be the reason that some of our casualties happened-

CHENEY: Yeah.

SCHIEFFER: -because people saw the publicity of these things, the kinds of things that happened at Abu Ghraib.

CHENEY: I would absolutely do it again, Bob. I think the loss of life if there had been further mass casualty attacks against the United States over the last seven and a half years fully justifies it. Think of what would happen if there had been an attack and we hadn't taken any of these measures? Then you'd be sitting here today, you know, grilling me, saying, `Why didn't you guys do everything you could to stop it? Why didn't you find out what the enemy was planning to do? Why didn't you interfere with the attacks?'

SCHIEFFER: So you would suggest that Barack Obama continue those things?

CHENEY: I would. If he were to seek my advice -- he hasn't -- but if he were to seek my advice, I'd say, look, before you go out and start to make policy based on the campaign rhetoric we heard last year, what you need to do is to sit down and find out what we've done, find out how we did it, what the justification was for it, what kind of results it's produced, and then make a informed judgment about whether or not you want to keep these things. But I would hope he would avoid doing what others have done in the past, which is letting the campaign rhetoric guide his judgment in this absolutely crucial area. We were very careful, we did everything by the book and, in fact, we produced very significant results. And I would hope that, for the sake of the nation, that this administration and future administrations will continue those policies.

SCHIEFFER: Guantanamo. You've said it should remain open, but for how long, Mr. Vice President?

CHENEY: Well, Guantanamo's there to hold people we believe are unlawful combatants that we captured in the war on terror, many of them members of al-Qaeda. They're well treated. Their cases are reviewed annually by military commissions to see whether or not they should stay or go. We've released more than we've held. There've been hundreds who have been sent back to their home country. But the problem you've got is what do you do with the prisoners that are there? Now, if you bring them onshore into the United States, they immediately fall heir to certain legal rights and privileges that'll create problems. And there also, I don't know many congressional districts that are eager to have 200 al-Qaeda terrorists deposited on their soil.

SCHIEFFER: About 30 seconds left.

CHENEY: Yeah.

SCHIEFFER: What's next, Mr. Vice President? You're leaving government for what, about the fifth time-

CHENEY: Something like that.

SCHIEFFER: -in the last 40 years?

CHENEY: Yeah.

SCHIEFFER: Will you -- what now?

CHENEY: Well, I don't know yet. I'm looking forward to spending time with the family, obviously. We've got six grandchildren now, and I always enjoy that. We'll split our time between Washington and Wyoming. Maybe I'll write a book. I haven't made any final, firm commitments yet.

SCHIEFFER: Alright. Thank you so much, and I hope we'll have you back again.

CHENEY: I'd like to come back, Bob.

SCHIEFFER: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC