Vice President Dick Cheney
Interview with Tim Russert on NBC Meet the Press
Camp David
Thurmont, Maryland
September 16, 2001
9:00 A.M. EDT

MR. TIM RUSSERT: And we are Greentop in the shadows of the presidential retreat at Camp David. Mr. Vice President, good morning and welcome.

VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY: Good morning, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: This is the first television program to originate from here, which underscores the seriousness of our discussion this morning. The president, the vice president, the national security team have been meeting for the last 36 hours. What can you share with the American people this morning?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, Tim, this is the first chance we’ve had really since the events this week to sit down and really focus on various plans and propositions, things we ought to be doing going forward. Up till now it’s been focused very much on trying to manage the crisis and to deal with the problems of the immediate situation. But yesterday we’ve been able to come up and get everybody together, a lot of work done, staff work done in preparation for it and sit down and really spend some time looking at what our strategy ought to be and how we ought to proceed.

MR. RUSSERT: When the president went to the World Trade Center on Friday he said, “The people who did this will hear from all of us soon.” There’s an expectation in the country that we’re about to pay back big time, quickly. What should the American people think or feel about that?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think the important thing here, Tim, is for people to understand that, you know, things have changed since last Tuesday. The world shifted in some respects. Clearly, what we’re faced with here is a situation where terrorism is struck home in the United States. We’ve been subject to targets of terrorist attacks before, especially overseas with our forces and American personnel overseas, but this time because of what happened in New York and what happened in Washington, it’s a qualitatively different set of circumstances.

It’s also important for people to understand that this is a long-term proposition. It’s not like, well, even Desert Storm where we had a buildup for a few months, four days of combat, and it was over with. This is going to be the kind of work that will probably take years because the focus has to be not just on any one individual, the problem here is terrorism. And even in this particular instance, it looks as though the responsible organization was a group called al-Qaida. It’s Arabic for “The Base.”

MR. RUSSERT: That’s Osama bin Laden.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: He headed it up and organized it, but it’s a very broad, kind of loose coalition of groupings that includes not only his forces but it also includes, for example, Islamic Jihad from Egypt. It includes a movement from is Uzbekistan. The groups that are terrorist organizations, people that oftentimes move around them, sometimes share common ideologies that operate on a worldwide basis. And what we have to do is take down those networks of terrorist organizations, and as say I think this is going to be a struggle that the United States is going to be involved in for the foreseeable future. There’s not going to be an end date that we say, “There, it’s all over with.” It’s going to require constant vigilance on our part to avoid problems in the future, but it’s also going to require a major effort and, obviously, quite possibly use of military force.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that anyone who participated in the events on Tuesday or, in fact, even in a support role, or on a plane that wasn’t successfully hijacked, are they still at large in the United States?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don’t know. The possibility clearly exists that there could be additional terrorists out there that were part of this operation that maybe got cold feet and didn’t get on the airplane, or for one reason or another were thwarted in their efforts. We have to assume that possibility exists. We had these 19 individuals in the United States, some of them for several years, training, preparing, getting ready for this operation and we can by no means assume now that that’s all there is. There may well be other operations that have been planned and are, in fact, in the works.

MR. RUSSERT: When the president said, “Everyone in uniform get ready,” did that — does that suggest a massive call-up of reserves?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We’ve had some reserve call-up. We called up, of course, 35,000 reservists. We felt that was important to do here. I think the way to think about it, Tim, is to think about the target and what our objectives are here. Obviously, we’re interested in individuals who were directly involved in planning, coordinating, ordering the attack. And-but those tend to be individuals or small groupings of individuals, cells, perhaps, various places around the world. We need to go find them and root them out. And — but we also — that’s different here, what’s changed in terms of U.S. policy, is the president’s determination to also go after those nations and organizations and people that lend support to these terrorist operators.

If you’ve got a nation out there now that has provided a base, training facilities, a sanctuary, as has been true, for example, in this case, probably with Afghanistan, then they have to understand, and others like them around the world have to understand, that if you provide sanctuary to terrorists, you face the full wrath of the United States of America. And that we will, in fact, aggressively go after these nations to make certain that they cease and desist from providing support for these kinds of organizations.

MR. RUSSERT: Full wrath. That’s a very strong statement to the Afghans this morning.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: It is, indeed. It is, indeed.

MR. RUSSERT: The president said that Osama bin Laden was the prime suspect. Why?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: There is just a lot of evidence to link his organization, the al-Qaida organization, and he is the head of al-Qaida, to this operation. There are some ties, for example, to some of the people involved here back to the U.S.S. Cole bombing in Yemen. We’re able to tell — going back now looking at relationships and the way they’ve operated in the past, we’re quite confident that, in fact, as the president said, he is the prime suspect. That doesn’t mean we know all there is to know yet. That doesn’t mean there weren’t others involved. As I mentioned, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad has a very close working relationship with this organization. So there may well be others. We want to continue to investigate aggressively to make sure we’ve wrapped up and understand fully all who were involved. But clearly, the evidence at this point takes us very much in that direction.

MR. RUSSERT: You have no doubt that Osama bin Laden played some role in this.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I have no doubt that he and his organization played a significant role in this.

MR. RUSSERT: Were you surprised by the precision and sophistication of the operation?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, certainly, we were surprised in the sense that, you know, there had been information coming in that a big operation was planned, but that’s sort of a trend that you see all the time in these kinds of reports. But we didn’t...

MR. RUSSERT: No specific threat?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No specific threat involving really a domestic operation or involving what happened, obviously, the cities, airliner and so forth. We did go on alert with our overseas forces a number of times during the course of the summer when we thought the threat level had risen significantly. So clearly, we were surprised by what happened here. On the other hand, in terms of the sophistication of it, it’s interesting to look at, because clearly what happened is you got some people committed to die in the course of the operation, you got them visas, you got them entered into the United States. They came here. Some of them enrolled in our commercial aviation schools and learned to fly, courtesy of our own capabilities here in the United States. Then what they needed in order to execute was some degree of coordination, obviously, in terms of timing. But they needed knives, cardboard cutters, razor blades, whatever it was, and an airline ticket. And that’s it. They then were able to take over the aircraft and use our own, you know, heavily loaded with fuel large aircraft to take over and use it.

MR. RUSSERT: Intentionally choosing planes that had lots of fuel and a few passengers?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: It certainly looks that way. And the — so the sophisticated — on the one hand it’s very simple. It doesn’t involve a lot of hardware or complex devices that they have to bring into the United States. They, in effect, turned some of our own system against us, but its simplicity does, in fact, also speak volumes in terms of planning, creativity, ingenuity in terms of how they go about these kinds of operations.

MR. RUSSERT: We clearly will have to revisit our visa procedures.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We ought to look at all aspects of the operation here in terms of what happened. Clearly there are going to be a lot of lessons to be learned from it. But it’s important for us, too, not to get trapped into thinking if we just guard against another situation where terrorists can hijack airplanes and use them to hit vital targets in the U.S. that we’ve dealt with the problem. I’m sure they’re out there right now thinking about new, creative ways to come after us that don’t involve any of those techniques at all, but something totally new.

MR. RUSSERT: Osama bin Laden released a training video, 100 minutes long, which was obtained by the Western media this summer, and I want to show a portion of that to you and give you a chance to respond to it, and we’ll play it right now. These are followers of his chanting, “We have to fight every day, even to the shedding of blood in God’s righteous path.” There he is himself with his own rifle. They go on to say, “We thank God for granting us victory the day we destroyed the Cole in the sea.” That’s the U.S.S. destroyer that was hit last year. Those are his supporters marching. There you are as secretary of Defense visiting Saudi Arabia, used in this video to rally support for Osama bin Laden. And bin Laden himself, “We have to practice the way of the suicidal commandos of faith and the heroism of the resistance fighter and we refuse their culture and we will take advantage of their misfortunes and the blood of their wounded.” He goes on to say, Mr. Secretary, that, “With small capabilities we can defeat the U.S. America is much weaker than it appears.” What’s your message this morning to Osama bin Laden?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I think he seriously misreads the American people. I think the — I mean, you have to ask yourself, why somebody would do what he does. Why is someone so motivated? Obviously he’s filled with hate for the United States and for everything we stand for...


VICE PRES. CHENEY: ...freedom and democracy.

MR. RUSSERT: Why does he hate us so much?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: It must have something to do with his background, his own upbringing. He’s the son of a prominent Saudi family, successful business group with significant wealth. He went and served in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen during the war against the Russians, and he has, for whatever reason, developed this intense hatred of everything that relates to the United States. And his objective, obviously, is to try to influence our behavior to force us to withdraw from that part of the world, and clearly he’s not going to be successful. And...

MR. RUSSERT: He has stated unequivocally that he wants the United States out of the Middle East. He no longer wants the United States to be the ally of Israel. Will our relationship with Israel change in any way, shape or form because of this event?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. The fact of the matter is that the-we’ll not allow him to achieve his aims. We’re not about to change our policies or change our basic fundamental beliefs. What we are going to do is aggressively go after Mr. bin Laden, obviously, and all of his associates, and even if it takes a long time, I’m convinced eventually we’ll prevail.

MR. RUSSERT: There is an FBI wanted poster, and there he is himself, wanted for the murder of US nationals outside the United States. He’s under indictment for his involvement in blowing up embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Could we say to the Afghanistan government, “You are harboring a fugitive from justice. Give him over in 48 hours or we’re coming in and taking him”?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We could say such a thing.

MR. RUSSERT: Legally?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, legally certainly. I’ll simply restate again, Tim, I don’t want to get into the business of predicting what specific steps we will take. But without question, the president has been very, very clear that to harbor terrorists is to, in effect, accept a certain degree of guilt for the acts that they commit. And the government of Afghanistan has to understand that we believe they have, indeed, been harboring a man who committed, and whose organization committed, this most recent egregious act.

MR. RUSSERT: You’re convinced he’s still in Afghanistan?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don’t know.

MR. RUSSERT: Is there any international law or United States law which would prohibit us from killing him if we found him?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Not in my estimation, Tim. But I’d have to check with the lawyers on that, obviously. Lawyers always have a role to play, but one of the intriguing things here is the way in which people have rallied around, other governments have rallied around this notion that, in fact, this is a war. We’ve seen our NATO allies for the first time in history invoke Article 5, an attack against one is an attack against all. It’s never before been done. They unanimously agreed to that proposition earlier this week in Brussels.

I think the world increasingly will understand what we have here are a group of barbarians, that they threaten all of us, that the U.S. is the target at the moment, but one of the things to remember is if you look at the roster of countries who lost people in the bombing in New York, over 40 countries have had someone killed or have significant numbers missing. The British, for example, have an estimated 100 dead and 500 to 700 still missing. So it’s an attack not just upon the United States but upon, you know, civilized society.

MR. RUSSERT: A very important country in all this is Pakistan, on the border of Afghanistan. Pakistan — there are reports on the wires today-has sent a delegation to the Taliban government in Afghanistan saying it’s time to turn Osama bin Laden over. The Pakistan government is also saying to its people this morning, “We will get more aid from the United States. The United States will lift economic sanctions against us. And we’ve been given assurances that the Indian government and the Israeli government will not be part of any military operation based in Pakistan.” Can you confirm that?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I’ve seen some communication back and forth at this point. Let me simply say we have had discussions with the Paks. President Bush called President Musharraf just yesterday afternoon from Camp David. They’ve had a good conversation. We have made certain requests of the Pakistanis. They have agreed to work with us in this endeavor, and some of that’s covered in the statement they’ve made there.

MR. RUSSERT: They will get more assistance from us.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, we’d like to be able to work with them. You’ve got to remember, Pakistan’s been a close friend and ally of the United States in the past. The relationship’s been somewhat strained in recent years primarily because congressionally imposed sanctions have had an adverse effect, clearly, on the relationship, and the sanctions were imposed as the Pakistanis developed nuclear weapons. But we’re clearly in a situation here where that relationship is important. It’s important to us. It’s important to Pakistan. Pakistan borders Afghanistan; they one of only three countries that have diplomatic relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can be very helpful in this case, and we expect they will be.

MR. RUSSERT: And there’s nothing wrong with providing economic rewards for helpful behavior.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I think you’re going to want both the carrot and the stick approach.

MR. RUSSERT: Pakistan also has a nuclear capability. How dangerous is it for that government to come out against Osama bin Laden or be helpful to the United States? Are we concerned about destabilizing Pakistan with nuclear capability, a capability that could fall in the hands of the Taliban or Osama bin Laden?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, we’re clearly very sensitive to those kinds of problems. Any time you’re dealing in that part of the world in the Middle East, the potential for instability always exists. You could have a change in government in relatively short notice, and we’re well aware of all that. But it also — it’s one of the reasons, frankly, you’ll see the al-Qaida organization, Osama bin Laden, choosing to locate in that part of the world because it is an area of instability, because there are places that nobody really controls. And those are the areas we’re going to have to operate in if we’re going to be successful. And again, the key here to keep in mind is that what we’re asking nations to do, and which the Paks have clearly made a decision to do, is we’re asking nations to step up and be counted. They’re going to have to decide. Are they going to stand with the United States and believe in freedom and democracy and civilization, or are they going to stand with the terrorists and the barbarians, if you will? And it’s a fairly clear-cut choice. And I’m delighted to see that Pakistan has, in fact, stepped up to the task.

MR. RUSSERT: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan — three critical countries in the Middle East, who have been somewhat supportive of the United States. They also have segments of their population that look at Osama bin Laden as a hero. If we demand that they support us, do we risk destabilizing those governments?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No, I think you’ve got to recognize from the standpoint of the Saudis, for example, they’re a prime target for this organization of terrorists, Osama bin Laden. He adamantly opposes the Saudi royal family. Probably second only to the United States would be his hatred for the current government in Saudi Arabia. With respect to Egypt, for example, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, these are groups and organizations that have threatened the government of Egypt in the past. President Mubarak’s been the target of several assassination attempts during the course of his career; some of them promulgated by these kinds of groups and organizations. So I think governments, friends of the United States, the governments you mentioned, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., they understand very clearly that it’s as much in their interest as it is in ours that we end these kinds of activities and that we put a stop to this kind of international terrorism. And I think they’ll be prepared to help us.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Vice President, how difficult and delicate is it to send this message that we’re going to uproot terrorism and Osama bin Laden and some other cells, but that this is not a war against Islam and not a war against all Arab people?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We have to continually remind folks of that. The president has been very clear, and it would be a huge mistake for we as Americans to assume that this represents some kind of — or should lead us to some kind of condemnation of Islam. It’s clearly not the case. This is a perversion, if you will, of some of these religious beliefs by an extremist group. We have extremists associated with, you know, every imaginable religion in the world. But this is by no means a war against Islam. We’ve got a great many Arab Americans, for example, who are first class, loyal American citizens. We need to make certain that we don’t make the mistake of assuming that everybody who comes from a certain ethnic group or certain religious background is somehow to be blamed for this. Clearly, that’s not the case. They are as appalled by it as we are.

MR. RUSSERT: When Osama bin Laden took responsibility for blowing up the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. embassies, several hundred died, the United States launched 60 tomahawk missiles into his training sites in Afghanistan. It only emboldened him. It only inspired him and seemed even to increase his recruitment. Is it safe to say that that kind of response is not something we’re considering, in that kind of minute magnitude?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I’m going to be careful here, Tim, because I — clearly it would be inappropriate for me to talk about operational matters, specific options or the kinds of activities we might undertake going forward. We do, indeed, though, have, obviously, the world’s finest military. They’ve got a broad range of capabilities. And they may well be given missions in connection with this overall task and strategy.

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

MR. RUSSERT: There have been restrictions placed on the United States intelligence gathering, reluctance to use unsavory characters, those who violated human rights, to assist in intelligence gathering. Will we lift some of those restrictions?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Oh, I think so. I think the — one of the by-products, if you will, of this tragic set of circumstances is that we’ll see a very thorough sort of reassessment of how we operate and the kinds of people we deal with. There’s — if you’re going to deal only with sort of officially approved, certified good guys, you’re not going to find out what the bad guys are doing. You need to be able to penetrate these organizations. You need to have on the payroll some very unsavory characters if, in fact, you’re going to be able to learn all that needs to be learned in order to forestall these kinds of activities. It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I’m convinced we can do it; we can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.

MR. RUSSERT: These terrorists play by a whole set of different rules. It’s going to force us, in your words, to get mean, dirty and nasty in order to take them on, right? And they should realize there will be more than simply a pinprick bombing.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah, the — I think it’s — the thing that I sense — and, of course, that’s only been a few days, but I have never seen such determination on the part of — well, my colleagues in government, on the part of the American people, on the part of our friends and allies overseas, and even on the part of some who are not ordinarily deemed friends of the United States, determined in this particular instance to shift and not be tolerant any longer of these kinds of actions or activities.

MR. RUSSERT: Even if we take out Osama bin Laden, that will not stop terrorism.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. No. He’s the target at the moment. But I don’t want to convey the impression that somehow, you know, if we had his head on a platter today, that that would solve the problem. It won’t. You’ve got this organization, as I say, called al-Qaida. It’s — somebody described it the other day as — it’s like an Internet chat room, that people who come and participate in it, for one reason or another, engage in terrorism, have sometimes different motives and ideologies, but the tactics they use, the way they operate, their targets, that will continue until we go out, basically, and make the world unsafe for terrorists. And that’s a key part of the strategy, in terms of working aggressively with those nations that have previously provided support and sustenance and sanctuary, to see to it that they no longer do that.

MR. RUSSERT: You wouldn’t mind having his head on a platter.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I would take it today.

MR. RUSSERT: Saddam Hussein, your old friend, his government had this to say: “The American cowboy is rearing the fruits of crime against humanity.” If we determine that Saddam Hussein is also harboring terrorists, and there’s a track record there, would we have any reluctance of going after Saddam Hussein?


MR. RUSSERT: Do we have evidence that he’s harboring terrorists?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: There is — in the past, there have been some activities related to terrorism by Saddam Hussein. But at this stage, you know, the focus is over here on al-Qaida and the most recent events in New York. Saddam Hussein’s bottled up, at this point, but clearly, we continue to have a fairly tough policy where the Iraqis are concerned.

MR. RUSSERT: Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation?


MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the events of Tuesday. Where were you when you first learned a plane had struck the World Trade Center?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I was in my office Tuesday morning. Monday, I had been in Kentucky, and the president had been in the White House. Tuesday, our roles were sort of reversed. He was in Florida, and I was in the White House Tuesday morning. And a little before 9, my speechwriter came in. We were going to go over some speeches coming up. And my secretary called in just as we were starting to meet just before 9:00 and said an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, and that was the first one that went in. So we turned on the television and watched for a few minutes, and then actually saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. And the — as soon as that second plane showed up, that’s what triggered the thought: terrorism, that this was an attack...

MR. RUSSERT: You sensed it immediately, “This is deliberate”?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah. Then I convened in my office. Condi Rice came down. Her office is right near mine there in the West Wing.

MR. RUSSERT: The national security adviser.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: National security adviser, my chief of staff, Scooter Libby, Mary Matalin, who works for me, convened in my office, and we started talking about getting the Counterterrorism Task Force up and operating. I talked with the president. I’d given word to Andy Card’s staff, who is right next door, to get hold of Andy and/or the president and that I wanted to talk to him as soon as they could hook it up. This call came in, and the president knew at this point about that. We discussed a statement that he might make, and the first statement he made describing this as an act of apparent terrorism flowed out of those conversations. While I was there, over the next several minutes, watching developments on the television and as we started to get organized to figure out what to do, my Secret Service agents came in and, under these circumstances, they just move. They don’t say “sir” or ask politely. They came in and said, “Sir, we have to leave immediately,” and grabbed me and...

MR. RUSSERT: Literally grabbed you and moved you?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah. And, you know, your feet touch the floor periodically. But they’re bigger than I am, and they hoisted me up and moved me very rapidly down the hallway, down some stairs, through some doors and down some more stairs into an underground facility under the White House, and, as a matter of fact, it’s a corridor, locked at both ends, and they did that because they had received a report that an airplane was headed for the White House.