CNN Access: Cheney blasts 9-11 critics
Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on CNN.com providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.
Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday fired back at lawmakers who have insinuated that President Bush had some warning of the September 11 terrorist attacks and could have done more to prevent them, calling the suggestions "outrageous" and "unjustified."
In an interview with CNN's Larry King, Cheney discussed his opposition to demands for an independent investigation of intelligence failures prior to September 11, and repeated his warning that future terrorist attacks in this country are inevitable.
KING: Can you give us an update, Mr. Vice President, on what's going on in New York?
CHENEY: Well, there's a continuing level of concern, obviously, about the threat. We now have a large number of people in custody, detainees, and periodically as we go through this process we learn more about the possibility of future attacks. And based on that kind of reporting, we try to be very cautious and alert people when we think there's a reason to be concerned about a particular subject or target.
It's not the kind of thing where somebody came in and said, "Hey, the Brooklyn Bridge is going to get hit tomorrow." It's never that detailed. It's more a matter of being concerned that there has been some planning activity in the past by the organization and therefore a need to ratchet up the level of security on that particular installation.
KING: That's why we're still on yellow alert?
CHENEY: Yes. I mean, yellow's serous. This is not normal peacetime kind of situation.
The fact of the matter is, the more we learn, the more convinced we become about how extensive the network is, that there is a global network, that even after you destroy and disrupt their base of operations in Afghanistan, they've still got cells all over the world, any one of which is capable of moving forward and carrying out an operation.
KING: When you said the other day they will strike again -- not if, they will....
CHENEY: Just a matter of time.
KING: What do we do knowing that?
CHENEY: Be vigilant. You know, be sensitive to the possibility. Obviously some parts of the country are far more likely targets than others. Be aware of the alert system. When we do put out alerts, those are the ones, obviously, that you want to pay attention to.
But in the end, what we have to do is go eliminate the terrorists. We can play defense all day long and do everything we can to protect ourselves from another attack, but in the end, in the final analysis, sooner or later somebody's likely to get through. We've seen the Israeli experience.
KING: You just play defense, someone's going to score.
CHENEY: That's right. And what you have to do is also go on offense. We've got to go eliminate the terrorists, and that obviously is the major part of the effort that's under way now, but it takes time.
KING: What about those who say you're doing all this now because of the criticism of the memo not paid attention to previously?
CHENEY: Well, in this work, Larry, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of thing. The fact is, there is reason to believe that the threat level has increased somewhat. We see more noise in the system, more reporting that leads us to be cautious here. We haven't changed our practices at all in terms of when we decide to go public and caution people.
KING: So this would have happened had nothing happened.
CHENEY: If nothing had happened. If there had not been the totally irresponsible charges last week, that wouldn't have affected any of this anyway.
KING: You have come out against an independent investigation of all that. Today Senator McCain came out in favor of one; so did conservative George Will. What's wrong with independent people like George Shultz, Daniel Moynihan, as suggested, I think, by Will, looking into it?
CHENEY: Well, there's going to be an independent investigation. It's already under way, being carried out by the oversight committees in the House and Senate, the House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence Committees, bipartisan, one chaired by a Democrat, Bob Graham from Florida, one by a Republican, Porter Goss. And we already provided over 200,000 pages of documents to those committees. We've got 39 members of Congress who are being read into these programs and going to oversee this investigation. We've got 184 people that have already been interviewed. That effort's been under way.
Our concern is that if we now lay another investigation on top of that, we'll just multiply potential sources of leaks and disclosures of information we can't disclose. The key to our ability to defend ourselves and to take out the terrorists lies on intelligence. And we're discussing such things as the president's daily brief, which is the most sensitive product, if you will, of the intelligence community; it comes from our most sensitive and secret sources. If there are leaks from that document, if it's disclosed to people that it shouldn't be disclosed to, we will lose the capacity to defend ourselves against future attacks.
And so what we're trying to do is make sure that have a good investigation; we're for that. There are a lot of lessons we'd like to learn as well, too, but there's already a good one under way by the Congress, which has the statutory and constitutional responsibility to do it. If we now start adding a commission, nobody's going to come back and shut down this one. There's not going to be just one, there'll be several, and we can't afford to have several.
KING: Why, Mr. Vice President, have you been critical of critics? We've already had critics in America. Johnson was criticized in Vietnam. Clinton was criticized in Bosnia. Roosevelt was criticized over Pearl Harbor. What's wrong with voicing a criticism?
CHENEY: Criticism's fine, Larry, but when members of Congress suggest that the president of the United States had foreknowledge of the attack on September 11, I think that's outrageous. That's beyond the pale. Somebody needs to say that ain't criticism, that's a gross, outrageous political attack and it's totally uncalled for, unjustified. The facts don't support it. And somebody needs to have to say that.
I feel very strongly about it. Perfectly prepared to have a debate; we do that all the time.
But that kind of assault, implication that somehow we had prior knowledge and didn't act on it, I think, was an abysmal statement.
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