President Dick Cheney
Interview with Tim Russert on NBC Meet the Press
September 16, 2001
MR. RUSSERT: This is Flight 77, which had left Dulles.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Which turned out to be Flight 77. It left Dulles, flown west
towards Ohio, been captured by the terrorists. They turned off the transponder,
which led to a later report that a plane had gone down in Ohio, but it really
hadnt. Of course, then they turned back and headed back towards Washington.
As best we can tell, they came initially at the White House and...
MR. RUSSERT: The plane actually circled the White House?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Didnt circle it, but was headed on a track into it.
The Secret Service has an arrangement with the F.A.A. They had open lines after
the World Trade Center was...
MR. RUSSERT: Tracking it by radar.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: And when it entered the danger zone and looked like it was
headed for the White House was when they grabbed me and evacuated me to the
basement. The plane obviously didnt hit the White House. It turned away
and, we think, flew a circle and came back in and then hit the Pentagon. And
thats what the radar track looks like. The result of that once
I got down into the shelter, the first thing I did theres a secure
phone there. First thing I did was pick up the telephone and call the president
again, who was still down in Florida, at that point, and strongly urged him
to delay his return.
MR. RUSSERT: You told him to stay away from Washington.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I said, Delay your return. We dont know whats
going on here, but it looks like, you know, weve been targeted.
MR. RUSSERT: Why did you make that judgment?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, it goes to you know, sort of my basic role as
vice president is to worry about presidential succession. And my job, above
all other things, is to be prepared to take over if something happens to the
president. But over the years from my time with President Ford, as secretary
of Defense, on the Intel Committee and so forth, Ive been involved in
a number of programs that were aimed at ensuring presidential succession. We
did a lot of planning during the Cold War, Tim, with respect to the possibility
of a nuclear incident. And one of the key requirements always is to protect
the presidency. Its not about George Bush or Dick Cheney. Its about
the occupant in the office. And one of the things that we did later on that
day were tied directly to guaranteeing presidential succession, and that our
enemies, whoever they might be, could not decapitate the federal government
and leave us leaderless in a moment of crisis. Thats why, for example,
when we have a State of the Union speech and weve got the entire government
assembled the president, vice president, congressional leaders, Cabinet
and so forth we always leave a Cabinet member out. Hes always taken
to a secure location and set up there in case something should happen in the
House chambers so we still have a president.
MR. RUSSERT: Did you have any role in Speaker Hastert...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...speaker of the House being taken away?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We evacuated Speaker Hastert to a secure facility, and later,
the rest of the congressional leadership. I also ordered the evacuation of Cabinet
members. And so we sent Tommy Thompson, Ann Veneman, Gale Norton also up to
a secure facility. And in the days since, weve always
maintained to say Ive spent a good deal of my time up at Camp David
since the president returned to the White House just so we werent both
together in the same place so we could ensure the survival of the government.
The president was on Air Force One. We received a threat to Air Force One
came through the Secret Service...
MR. RUSSERT: A credible threat to Air Force One. Youre convinced of that.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Im convinced of that. Now, you know, it may have been
phoned in by a crank, but in the midst of what was going on, there was no way
to know that. I think it was a credible threat, enough for the Secret Service
to bring it to me. Once I left that immediate shelter, after I talked to the
president, urged him to stay away for now, well, I went down into whats
call a PEOC, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, and there, I had
MR. RUSSERT: Secretary of Transportation.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: ...secretary of Transportation, access to the FAA. I had
Condi Rice with me and several of my key staff people. We had access, secured
communications with Air Force One, with the secretary of Defense over in the
Pentagon. We had also the secure videoconference that ties together the White
House, CIA, State, Justice, Defense a very useful and valuable facility.
We have the counterterrorism task force up on that net. And so I was in a position
to be able to see all the stuff coming in, receive reports and then make decisions
in terms of acting with it. But when I arrived there within a short order, we
had word the Pentagons been hit. We had word the State Department had
been bombed, that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. Turned out
not to be true, but we didnt know that at the time. We had a report that
Norm had provided that there were six airplanes that might have been hijacked,
and thats what we started working off of, was that list of six.
Now we could account for two of them in New York. The third one we didnt
know what had happened to it. It turned out it had hit the Pentagon. But the
first reports on the Pentagon attack suggested a helicopter, and then later,
a private jet, and it was only after we got ahold of some eyewitnesses that
we knew it was an American Airlines flight. So then we had three planes accounted
for, but we still have had three outstanding.
We had reports of planes down in Ohio, turned out not to be true; down in Pennsylvania;
turned out that was true. And all of that excuse me added with
the report of a prospective attack on Air Force One itself, wed have been
absolute fools not to go into button down mode, make sure we had successors
evacuated, make sure the president was safe and secure. Offutt was a good location
for that purpose, and also the president...
MR. RUSSERT: In Nebraska.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: In Nebraska.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you convinced there were only four hijackings, that there were
not other hijacks attempted that we dont know about?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I dont know. We know there were four, of course. I
dont think until weve completed our investigation, looked at all
the ties and relationships, well be able to say that there were no other
plans for additional planes.
MR. RUSSERT: When you made the recommendation to the president, Stay where
you are, go to a secure facility in Nebraska, were you ever concerned,
did it ever enter your thought process that there would be criticism of the
president for not coming back to Washington during a crisis?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I didnt really think about it. I mean, it was such
a clear-cut case, in my estimation, that the most important thing here is to
preserve the presidency. We dont know whats happening. We know Washingtons
under attack. We dont know by who, we dont know how many additional
planes are coming. We dont know what all is planned for us, at this point.
Within about 35 or 40 minutes, wed seen this unfolding of this monstrous
terrorist attack, and it was absolutely the right decision. I have no qualms
about it at all. The president wanted to come back. We talked repeatedly during
the course of the day. He made it clear he wanted him back as soon as we thought
it made sense. The Secret Service did not want him back. They even talked to
me to try to get me to evacuate a couple of times, but I didnt want to
leave the node that wed established there, in terms of having all of this
capability tied together by communications where we could, in fact, make decisions
and act. And if Id have left, gotten on a helicopter and launched out
of the White House, all of that would have been broken down. And we had the
presidential succession pretty well guaranteed, so I thought it was appropriate
for me to stay in the White House.
MR. RUSSERT: Symbolisms are so important to terrorists. The fact that George
Bush stayed at the White House, you came to Camp David. Are you concerned that
that sends a mixed message to the terrorists that they can disrupt our government,
or do you err on the side of caution and safety and keep the two key leaders
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, we erred on the side of, Id say, responsibility.
The when something like this happens, weve got certain obligations
and responsibilities youve got to carry out. And those took priority.
They did for the president. They did for me. Also with modern communications
I mean, the president was in touch with me throughout the day. We talked
repeatedly. He made some key decisions that were very important to the operation.
Once he got to Offutt, he convened a meeting of the National Security Council
again using the secure video conference hookup and...
MR. RUSSERT: Whats the most important decision you think he made during
the course of the day?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, the I suppose the toughest decision was this
question of whether or not we would intercept incoming commercial aircraft.
MR. RUSSERT: And you decided?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We decided to do it. Wed, in effect, put a flying combat
air patrol up over the city; F-16s with an AWACS, which is an airborne radar
system, and tanker support so they could stay up a long time. It doesnt
do any good to put up a combat air patrol if you dont give them instructions
to act, if, in fact, they feel its appropriate.
MR. RUSSERT: So if the United States government became aware that a hijacked
commercial airline was destined for the White House or the Capitol, we would
take the plane down?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yes. The president made the decision, on my recommendation
as well, wholeheartedly concurred in the decision he made, that if the plane
would not divert, if they wouldnt pay any attention to instructions to
move away from the city, as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take
them out. Now, people say, you know, thats a horrendous decision to make.
Well, it is. Youve got an airplane full of American citizens, civilians,
captured by hostages, captured by terrorists, headed and are you going to, in
fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board? And you
have to ask yourself, If we had had combat air patrol up over New York
and wed had the opportunity to take out the two aircraft that hit the
World Trade Center, would we have been justified in doing that? I think
absolutely we would have. Now, it turned out we did not have to execute on that
authorization. But there were some a few moments when we thought we might,
when planes were incoming and we didnt know whether or not they were a
problem aircraft until theyd diverted and gone elsewhere and been able
to resolve it.
MR. RUSSERT: And that will be the policy of the United States in the future?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, the president will, Im sure, make a decision,
if those circumstances arise again. Its a presidential-level decision,
and the president made, I think, exactly the right call in this case, to say,
I wished wed had combat air patrol up over New York.
MR. RUSSERT: More and more, Mr. Vice President, were finding out, it appears,
that the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania crashed because of some real
heroism by Americans. Jeremy Glick had received a called his wife to
say hed been hijacked. She informed him that two planes had struck the
World Trade Center. And he said, I think we have to do something.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Its true. I think the Washington part of the attack
was significantly interfered with. Im speculating. Some of this is informed
speculation; some of its based on some evidence. But clearly, we know
the plane that crashed outside Pittsburgh was headed for Washington. We know
it was part of the scheme. Mr. Glick and others Mr. Burnett were
very courageous when they made that decision, knowing that they were doomed.
MR. RUSSERT: And youve told his wife that, havent you?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I called Mrs. Glick yesterday, as a matter of fact. Havent
been able to reach Mrs. Burnett yet, but Im going to call her, too. And
Im sure there were probably others on the aircraft who helped, but what
they did was to foil, I think, the attack on Washington. My guess is, speculation,
that target probably would have been the Capitol building. Its big; its
easy to hit. I think one of the reasons that the White House did not get hit,
I think it turned out to be tougher to see than they had anticipated. When you
come in from the west, as American 77 did, unless you get up altitude a ways,
you cant see the White House because the Executive Office Building is
MR. RUSSERT: And Treasury on the other side.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Treasury on the other side. And Im speculating that
the lack of ability to be able to acquire it visually may, in fact, have led
them to go back.
MR. RUSSERT: Gave it up as a target...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and went to the Pentagon, which is clearly visible?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: And went to the Pentagon instead. And speculation on my part.
Well never know for sure. But without question, the attack would have
been much worse if it hadnt been for the courageous acts of those individuals
on United 93.
MR. RUSSERT: Two important symbols. Should the World Trade Center be rebuilt?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think we clearly want to redevelop that area. Exactly what
it ought to what it ought to look like and what will go in there, those
are decisions that are going to have to be made by New York officials. But the
presidents very interested in supporting those efforts, and Im absolutely
convinced that thats the right thing to do. We dont let terrorists
prevail in this day and age.
MR. RUSSERT: Should Ronald Reagan National Airport be re-opened?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Weve got to find ways to deal with that problem. Its
been controversial from time to time over the years. But, of course, weve
always kept Ronald Reagan open because of its location. Its very convenient
for people living in Washington. The problem we have is, of course, that on
the approach or takeoff from Reagan, you fly right up the Potomac and youre
within seconds or a minute or two of being able to hit the White House, the
Congress, important facilities in Washington. And finding the way to deal with
those circumstances is going to have to precede, I think, a re-opening of the
MR. RUSSERT: So it may be closed for some time.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We dont know yet. I mean, Norm Mineta is working aggressively
on this and but we did especially this week, we wanted to be supercautious.
As long as there was the possibility there might be other teams out there that,
in fact, planned the same kind of operation that the terrorists undertook on
Tuesday. We thought it was prudent to keep it closed for now.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Vice President, we have to take a quick break. Well be
right back with more of our discussion with Vice President Dick Cheney. Were
at Greentop in the shadows of Camp David. Be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: A lot more questions for the vice president of the United States,
Dick Cheney, right after this.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back talking to Vice President Dick Cheney. Hes
been here at Camp David speaking with the president and the national security
team for the last 36 hours at least. Mr. Vice President, a lot of discussion
as to our preparedness. The first hijacking was confirmed at 8:20, the Pentagon
was struck at 9:40, and yet, it seems we were not able to scramble fighter jets
in time to protect the Pentagon and perhaps even more than that. There have
been at least five serious reports on domestic terrorism, how to cope with it,
one given to you in May, Cheney to Lead Anti-Terrorism Plan. Were we ready for
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Were we ready for it? I think the agencies responded very
well once it happened. I think the courage and the bravery of the men and women
of New York, for example, the first responders, if you will, fire and rescue
teams, many of whom gave their lives when the towers collapsed, was superb.
I dont think you can take anything away from them. But the problem you
have here I mean, if you think about it from the standpoint of aircraft
do we train our pilots to shoot down commercial airliners filled with
American civilians? No. Thats not a mission theyve ever been given
before. Now weve got to think about that. With respect to the intelligence
area, therell be, Im sure, a lot of sort of Monday morning quarterbacking,
second-guessing, if you will, about whether or not there was an intelligence
failure. Clearly, we did not learn of this operation or we would have stopped
it if we had. But I think its important to remember that our men and women
in the intelligence business out there all over the world 365 days a year, defending
and protecting us, oftentimes very successful, oftentimes in ways we can never
talk about, but we clearly need to do everything we can to forestall those kinds
of activities by improving our intelligence capabilities, and this offers a
lot of lessons learned.
At the same time, the key, though, is to go eliminate the terrorists. We may
never have 100 percent perfection in terms of our intelligence capabilities
to be able to penetrate and know about all these kinds of operations
Timothy McVeigh, for example, in Oklahoma City. But if we go after the terrorists,
if we deny them sanctuary, if we take out their bases and their locations where
they operate, thats probably the most effective way to deal with this
threat. But we have to recognize, no matter how good we are, no matter how aggressively
we pursue this, were likely to be subject to that partly by the very nature
of our society. Were an open society, we love it that way, thats
very important to preserve that, and not to let the terrorists win by turning
ourselves into some kind of police state.
MR. RUSSERT: The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said this is
a failure of great dimension in terms of intelligence. Will George Tenet remain
as director of the CIA?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think George clearly should remain as director of the CIA.
I think Ive had great confidence in him. Ive watched him
operate now and worked closely with him for the last seven or eight months.
I think he and his people do superb work for us. And I think it would be a tragedy
if somehow we were to go back now in the search for scapegoats and say that
George Tenet or any other official ought to be eliminated at this point. I dont
think you can say that.
MR. RUSSERT: When Air Force One returned to Washington, we saw it accompanied
by fighter jets.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: General Norman Schwarzkopf, a man you know well, has suggested
that perhaps in the short term, at least, Air Force One should be accompanied
by fighter jets while flying over the United States just as a precaution.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Perhaps. I dont know that weve made that judgment
yet, that decision yet. You know, what happened on Tuesday of course,
once we got all the aircraft grounded, that gave us a fairly high degree of
confidence that we were in control. The problem was, there were some 2,000 aircraft
up when this operation started, and it took several hours to get them all down.
And as long as there were aircraft up and there was a report of a threat against
Air Force One, and there were aircraft we couldnt account for, that might,
in fact, have been taken by the terrorists, flying cover for Air Force One was
MR. RUSSERT: Would we consider using fighter jets to protect Air Force One for
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think if we believe its necessary, we absolutely
MR. RUSSERT: In Europe, the government provides security at the airports, highly
trained, well-paid specialists. Here in the United States, its a low-paying
job hired by the airlines. Would we consider having the government take over
airline security, airport security?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Were clearly going to have to look at this whole question
and find ways to improve and enhance our security, without a doubt. And its
going to be a prime focus for Norm Mineta and the folks over at the F.A.A. Exactly
what the answer ought to be, Tim, I dont have enough information now to
be able to judge that. But without question, this was a significant failure
there in the sense that they were able to take four aircraft. But again, they
didnt do it with guns or explosives; they did it with knives.
MR. RUSSERT: The airline industry is losing $300 million a day, several teetering
on bankruptcy or at least Chapter 11. Would you support a federal bailout of
both loans and grants and assistance to the airline industry?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: The president hasnt really taken a position on any
particular piece of legislation. And I think were very interested in finding
ways to make certain that in this particular instance, there is no sort of permanent
damage, if you will, to our civil aviation capacity. Its very important.
Weve got people Norm Minetas working on it. Larry Lindsey,
who heads the economic council, is heavily engaged in it. Were working
with the airlines, and Im sure well come up with some...
MR. RUSSERT: So youre open to the concept?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Absolutely.
MR. RUSSERT: About a week ago, we were all discussing the so-called Social Security
trust fund and who...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: And the lockbox.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and the lockbox...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and who spent the surplus. Is that debate now moot?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think so. I certainly hope so. I think, you know, weve
all been concerned to make certain we protect Social Security. But we clearly
have a situation here and that debate was a little bit fallacious anyway,
because, in fact, there was never any question but what the United States government
was going to pay its obligations to our seniors. Weve never defaulted
on a debt since Alexander Hamilton was Treasury secretary, so thats never
really been an issue. But clearly, at this stage, we do have a surplus thats
generated primarily by the payroll tax, and as has been true oftentimes in the
past, that comes in, we were using it to retire debt. Clearly, some of it now
is going to be used to meet this emergency, the urgent supplemental that the
Congress passed this weekend of some $40 billion; take those steps we need to
take, both to recover from this attack, as well as to do everything we can to
prevent future ones.
MR. RUSSERT: The president said he would use the Social Security surplus in
case of war and/or recession.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Do we now have both war and recession?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Quite possibly. We clearly have a war against terrorism and
we dont know yet what the third quarter is going to be like. But if the
economists come in and revise the second quarter down into negative territory
in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth and the third quarter, fourth quarter-third
quarter of the calendar year, fourth quarter of the fiscal year...
MR. RUSSERT: And the economic shock from this.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah. If that comes in negative, then well have the
definition of two negative quarters. That would qualify as a recession.
MR. RUSSERT: What about the debate over missile defense? Many Democrats are
saying this now proves that our focus should be on terrorism and counterterrorism
and preparedness, and that the primary threat is not something the missile defense
could take care of.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I just fundamentally disagree. I mean, theres
no question but what theres a threat on the terrorist front, and weve
got to deal with that. Weve been work it. Well continue to work
it. But there are also-this does not, in any way, diminish the threat with respect
to ballistic missiles down the road. A ballistic missile equipped with a weapon
of mass destruction, a nuke, for example, a nuclear weapon would be far more
devastating than what we just went through. If one of those was to hit one of
our cities or to hit a major base overseas where US forces are deployed, the
casualty list would be higher. The consequences would be even greater than the
terrible tragedy weve just been through.
MR. RUSSERT: So we can afford this war on terrorism and a missile defense system?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I dont see, Tim, how anybody can argue that we cannot
afford to defend America, and were going to have to defend it against
conventional threats. Were going to have to defend it against ballistic
missile threats. Were going to have to defend it against the threat of
terrorism. And I think for public officials to argue because we got hit with
a terrorist assault, we should ignore the ballistic missile threat out there
strikes me as irresponsible.
MR. RUSSERT: The stock market has been closed since Tuesday. It reopens tomorrow.
Are you concerned?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think that our economy is strong. I do believe the markets
going to open tomorrow. Thats clearly the current plan and expectation.
I would hope Im not an investor anymore, because I had to get out
of the market since Im now a public official. But I would hope the American
people would, in effect, stick their thumb in the eye of the terrorists and
say that theyve got great confidence in the country, great confidence
in our economy, and not let whats happened here in any way throw off their
normal level of economic activity. We look forward to recovery later this year
from the slowdown period that weve been through, and I have every confidence
that that will, in fact, happen.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you ever consider undoing or holding off or triggering part
of the tax cut in the future if the resources were necessary?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: No, I think the tax cuts crucial. And thats exactly
what we needed in terms of the slowdown. Having the tax cut out there now means
were going to have a more robust year than would have been the case without
the tax cut. Its a key piece of stimulus. And I think the president did
exactly the right thing.
MR. RUSSERT: There is such fervor, such emotion, such anger in the country right
now. And as we conduct this war against terrorism, as you said, its going
to take, days, months, years. What do we ask of the American people? Will they
have to sacrifice in order to help win this war?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I guess I would ask vigilance. Be aware of whats going
on around you. Dont operate on the assumption that somehow because we
live behind two oceans were immune to attack. We now know were not.
I would ask, obviously, that they be understanding, if you will, of the importance
of the effort that were going to have to undertake here. We may end up,
you know, with more stringent security measures at airports and things like
that. But I think theres a unity and a spirit out there that Ive
not seen for a long time in this country. And I see it on Capitol Hill between
Republicans and Democrats. I see it the workers who were cleaning up
the mess in New York where the president visited yesterday. I see it in the
people Ive talked with. And I think we have to recognize we are the strongest,
most powerful nation on Earth. Weve got a tremendous set of accomplishments
and an enormously bright future ahead of us. There are those in the world who
hate us and that will do everything they can to impose pain, and we cant
let them win.
MR. RUSSERT: And well find them.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well find them.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Vice President, we thank you for inviting us up to the mountains
here with you, and well be watching you very carefully.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Thanks, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Like all of you, I have spent this week wiping my eyes and grinding
my teeth and wondering why. Ive drawn strength from a story about a man
I knew, Father Michael Judge. The chaplain of the New York City Fire Department,
a Franciscan, he raced to the World Trade Center after the explosion to comfort
the injured. While administering the last rites to a dying rescue worker, he,
himself, was killed by flying debris.
New Yorks bravest physically carried Father Mike away. They brought his
body first to the altar of St. Peters Church, where it would be safe,
then to their firehouse on 31st Street, Hook and Ladder Company Number 24, directly
across from the friary where he lived. They wrapped him in sheets and placed
him in one of their own bunks. They asked his fellow Franciscans to cross the
street and join them. Together f iremen, priests, and brothers
wept and sang the prayer of St. Francis, May the Lord bless and keep you
and show his face to you and have mercy on you. That is the way of New
York. That is the spirit of America. From February 1945 at Iwo Jima to September
2001 at the World Trade Center.