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Playboy Interview: Dick Cheney

Playboy Interview: Dick Cheney: Photography by Nicholas Kalman

Photography by Nicholas Kalman

Dick Cheney likes lattes. Seated in his favorite brown-leather chair in the sunlit study of his home in McLean, Virginia, the former vice president of the United States can toss back two of the warm java blasts in an hour. They come from a stainless-steel machine in the kitchen and a slender, mustachioed housekeeper named Gus, who serves them in custom-ordered white Starbucks cups outfitted with cardboard Starbucks sleeves.

Behind a small desk sits the chair Cheney occupied for eight years as vice president in the White House, and above the white-trimmed fireplace hang three framed swords. One was a gift from the cadets at West Point when Cheney was secretary of defense; the second came from the U.S. Marine Corps commandant when Cheney was guest of honor at the Marine Corps ball two months after 9/11; the third belonged to Samuel Fletcher Cheney, the vice president’s great-grandfather, who fought for the Union in the Civil War—enduring 34 battles, some of the conflict’s bloodiest fighting—only to lose part of his left hand in a sawmill accident after the war’s end.

Hugging the walls are approximately 300 books, mostly military history and political biography, arranged in chronological order—the World War II books, proceeding clockwise, give way to the Eisenhower books, which yield to the Kennedy books and so on—with all the spines aligned neatly at shelf’s edge. Despite Cheney’s predilection for orderliness, however, his life has unfolded in anything but an orderly fashion.

Born in 1941 in Nebraska and raised in Wyoming the oldest of three siblings, Cheney was the son of Marjorie Dickey, a cheerful and athletic homemaker, and Richard Herbert Cheney, a quiet Navy veteran who spent three decades in the Soil Conservation Service. The former vice president has recalled his childhood as “utterly stable,” a carefree life of baseball, football and outdoorsmanship.

In 1958, at Natrona County High School, Cheney started dating Lynne Vincent, a pretty and intellectually ambitious blonde and the homecoming queen, in their senior year, to Dick’s class president; they would marry in 1964 and remain married today. When Cheney headed east to enroll at Yale University on a scholarship, however, things went awry. He fell in with what the dean called “a very high-spirited group,” prodigious consumers of beer in a common room Cheney and his housemates set up as a bar. His second DUI within a year landed Cheney in an overnight jail cell in Rock Springs, Wyoming, while consistently poor grades prompted his expulsion from Yale.

Cheney returned to Wyoming to build power lines and thereby paid his way through the University of Wyoming. After a series of internships and fellowships brought him to Washington, D.C., he fell under the tutelage of a young congressman named Donald Rumsfeld, who hired Cheney at the outset of the Nixon administration as an aide at the federal Office of Economic Opportunity.

When Gerald Ford became president, he tapped Rumsfeld to serve as White House chief of staff, and when Rummy headed for the Pentagon as secretary of defense, Cheney moved up, becoming the youngest chief of staff in history. Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976 sent Cheney packing, so he moved Lynne and their two daughters, Liz and Mary, back to Wyoming. There, in 1978, while campaigning successfully for the state’s lone House seat, Cheney suffered the first of five heart attacks, at the age of 37. Numerous surgeries, including a heart transplant, followed over the next few decades. While experts can point to other living patients who have suffered as many heart attacks, doctors know of no one besides Cheney who suffered his first cardiac event in the 1970s and is still around to talk about it.

A low-key lawmaker who did his homework and avoided grandstanding, Cheney in the 1980s quietly amassed one of the House’s most conservative voting records while rising swiftly through the GOP leadership ranks. When Senator John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of defense collapsed in March 1989 amid allegations of alcohol abuse and womanizing, President George H.W. Bush turned to Cheney to run the Pentagon. They, along with General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the country to victory over Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War.

Cheney spent much of the Clinton presidency in Dallas as CEO of the energy firm Halliburton—a private-sector stint that made him, for the first time, a multimillionaire. In 2000 he agreed to lead the search for a ticket mate for Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. “You’re the solution to my problem,” Bush told his discreet advisor, and over the next eight years Dick Cheney would emerge, by all accounts, as the single most influential vice president in American history. Amid the panic and confusion of the 9/11 attacks, with the president hopscotching the country on Air Force One, Cheney was the coolheaded senior figure who effectively ran the federal government from a White House bunker. In the traumatic weeks that followed, he worked behind the scenes to expand federal surveillance powers and shape U.S. policy toward detainees. He argued forcefully for the Iraq war and on behalf of the energy industry; critics dubbed him Darth Vader.

Six years after he left office, Cheney—whose preoccupations today revolve around the books in his study and the purchase of just the right gifts for his grandchildren—remains a figure of unique stature for the American right and, in a very different way, for the left. In the vitriol directed at him even today, he is surpassed in modern times perhaps only by the man he served in the White House a decade ago—to whom he refers, unsentimentally, as “43”—and by Richard Nixon. For the tumultuous and still-controversial era of 9/11 and Iraq, Cheney remains, to many minds, the malevolent power behind the throne, a locus of latter-day conspiracy theories.

Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen sat down with the former vice president. “For all the stress he’s endured over the past 40 years, medical and professional, Cheney is in amazingly good shape,” Rosen reports. “That said, he has aged somewhat since his heart-transplant operation in 2012: He has regained some of the 50 pounds he lost, his hair is whiter, his voice a bit raspier. In his views about the post-9/11 world, however, and in the dry, laconic style he uses to express them, Cheney remains defiantly unchanged.

“He is also a generous soul: While he agreed to conduct a lengthy interview with me that would span six hours over three days, we ultimately wound up recording nearly 10 hours together (roughly one tenth of which appears here). He knows that when the history of his time congeals, the Darth Vader caricature of him may well prevail, but he appears genuinely unfazed by that.

“Cheney embodies the maxim of the late nuclear theorist Herman Kahn, who famously said there are two types of people in the world: those who care what The New York Times says about them and those who do not.”


At different points, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have suggested that racism is a factor in criticism of them. Is there any truth in that?
I think they’re playing the race card, in my view. Certainly we haven’t given up—nor should we give up—the right to criticize an administration and public officials. To say that we criticize, or that I criticize, Barack Obama or Eric Holder because of race, I just think it’s obviously not true. My view of it is the criticism is merited because of performance—or lack of performance, because of incompetence. It hasn’t got anything to do with race.

Do you feel Obama, either intentionally or inadvertently, has undone your and President Bush’s work?
Oh absolutely. Where do you start? I think with respect to the situation in Iraq, his precipitous withdrawal and refusal to leave any stay-behind forces, to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqis, was a huge mistake; we are paying a price for it now. He’s having to go back in now, and the guy who campaigned on the basis of bring the boys home and get out of Iraq is now redeploying forces to Iraq. I think his apology tour, when he went to Cairo in the summer of 2009 and said the U.S. overreacted to the events of 9/11, was a huge mistake. I don’t think he ever bought into the notion that we’re at war, in terms of a war on terrorism; I think he always wanted to treat it as a law-enforcement problem. I think he’s done enormous damage to the military. I think what’s happened to the military in terms of morale, in terms of financing, budget and so forth is just devastating. The way Obama is functioning now, he’s crippling the capacity of future presidents to deal with future crises. It takes a long time to build up that military force. And I am absolutely convinced there will be a future president—two or three times down the road, perhaps—who will be faced with a major crisis and will not have the military capability he needs to deal with it. We are limiting the options of future presidents because of what is happening to the defense budget today. I can go on for hours.

The Obama administration points to a number of things—the swift formation of an international coalition to combat ISIS, for example, or the multilateral effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear program—as evidence that this president has strengthened America’s alliances after the damage done to them by George W. Bush and the Iraq War.
I came to town in 1968, and I have never seen people I have known in some cases for a quarter of a century—foreign leaders, especially in the Middle East—who are so terribly frustrated, angry, frightened. “Whatever happened to the United States?” There’s a conviction they can’t count on us, that our word doesn’t mean anything.

What was your reaction when President Obama backed off from launching air strikes in Syria, in August 2013, in response to Bashar al-Assad’s having crossed the president’s “red line” and using chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war?
That’s a classic example, where Obama got everybody ready to do something about Syria and then at the last minute pulled the plug. I had a prominent Mideast leader talk to me when I was there last spring. First time I’d ever heard him say this; he’s always been very self-confident and very much in command. He said, “You assume there is no political price to be paid for those of us over here who support the United States—wrong assumption. It is sometimes a real question of leadership these days whether or not it’s smart, politically, for us, with our people, to be friendly to the United States.” General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the new president of Egypt, has been to Moscow; he hasn’t been to the United States. It’s not because he loves Russians; it’s because the political price he would have to pay domestically, inside Egypt, to come to the United States and be seen with Barack Obama would be very damaging for him. Our friends no longer trust us, and our adversaries no longer fear us. We’ve created a huge vacuum in that part of the world, and ISIS has moved in big-time. Now we have a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

President Obama argues that under his leadership, “core Al Qaeda” has been “decimated.”
We have had a massive spread in the number of Al Qaeda–type organizations. The RAND study that came out last summer said that between 2010 and 2013 there had been a 58 percent increase worldwide in the number of Al Qaeda–type organizations. We used to worry, at 9/11, just about Afghanistan; now it stretches from Mali and Nigeria in West Africa, across North Africa, through the Middle East, all around into Indonesia, where you’ll find potential sanctuaries and safe harbors for Salafi Islamists, the terrorists, the Al Qaeda types. It’s a very dangerous situation. I think the threat is growing steadily, and I think our capacity to deal with it is rapidly diminishing. I look at Barack Obama and I see the worst president in my lifetime, without question—and that’s saying something. I used to have significant criticism of Jimmy Carter, but compared to Barack Obama and the damage he is doing to the nation—it’s a tragedy, a real tragedy, and we are going to pay a hell of a price just trying to dig out from under his presidency.

You worked closely with both presidents Bush. What were the most significant differences you observed between them as men and leaders?
Well, I liked them both. I was grateful for the opportunities they provided. I think of them as very different people. You know, we always talked about how 43 was a lot more like his mother in terms of personality and so forth, with a quick wit and a sharp tongue on occasion. Politically, in some respects, he was more successful than 41 because he got reelected. They were different, obviously; they came with very different backgrounds in the sense of their political experience. You know, 43 arrived as a successful two-term governor of one of our biggest states, with a heavy emphasis on the domestic side of the ledger. And from my standpoint, in part, that’s why he wanted me—because I brought my own background and experience on the international side. His dad, on the other hand, came with all the credentials of a guy who had been a naval aviator in World War II and director of the CIA and ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to China, member of the House and so forth. So, totally different backgrounds.

Did you find one easier to work with than the other?
You know, the experiences were so different.

Because you were secretary of defense for one and vice president for the other?
Yeah, and there were other differences too. I always thought the national security team we had under 41 was especially effective, with Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, as well as the president, obviously, and myself; it was a group that worked well together. That wasn’t as smooth an operation by the time you got to 43. But again, my perspective on it was different, because in one case I’m the secretary of defense and the other I’m vice president. You know, everybody always wants to compare across administrations. After you have been there and spent time at it and worked in the different circumstances that I did, you find what strikes you is the differences, not the similarities.

Let’s discuss your relationship with George W. Bush. The account goes that you famously told Dan Quayle, “I have a different understanding with the president” about the role you would play as vice president. And when Quayle asked you, “Did you get that directly from Bush?” you replied in one word: “Yes.” Where and when, exactly, did you and George W. Bush hash out this understanding of the role you would play?
It had grown over time. I can’t say, “Well, let’s see, at two o’clock on March 14.” No, it didn’t work out that way at all. What had happened, in effect, was he had asked me to help him find somebody to be vice president. And walking through that process over a period of months, talking about various individuals and the traits and attributes he was interested in and what he needed, I developed an understanding of what he was looking for. And when we got through that whole process he concluded by saying, “You’re the solution to my problem.” I think it was through that process, rather than saying there was one particular point in time when he said A, B, C and D.

One account quotes Bush 43 as having said at a certain point, “Dick is going to have the intelligence portfolio.” Was there ever a conversation between you, prior to Inauguration Day, when the two of you laid out what large areas you would tackle as vice president and how your authority would be structured?
You’re overthinking it. You really are. It was the kind of situation where he wanted me because of my background in national security: secretary of defense, intelligence, on the House intelligence committee, in charge of a big chunk of the intelligence community as secretary of defense. I mean, you go through all that litany of credentials, and we began at the very beginning of the process. You know, he’s the one who sent me to Washington to start working on the transition, in terms of recruiting candidates for it. He obviously had firm ideas of what he wanted to do in some areas. But we talked about functions and so forth. There, from my perspective, one of the things I wanted to do and told him I planned to do—with his approval, obviously—was that as soon as I could, I wanted to dig back into the intelligence community, because I had been out of the loop for eight years. And so I spent those early weeks visiting the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, et cetera. Went through all of them, visited all of them, got to know the top leadership in all of them, spoke to groups of their employees, spent an awful lot of time getting back up to speed on intelligence at the outset of our time in office. That’s partly what he wanted me to do.

When you gaze upon the images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, what do you see?
Well [pauses], what I see is disturbing. It’s always a tragedy when there is a death involved and so forth. But it seems to me it’s a clear-cut case that the officer did what he had to do to defend himself. He was perfectly within his authorities to take action. That if you reach through the open car window and slap an officer upside the head and reach for his gun, you know, there is going to be a response. And I’ve been disappointed, I guess, in the Obama administration’s response. I think there should have been more people who were ready to stand up and say, “Look, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. The grand jury has reviewed it thoroughly. Here’s what we know. This is what happened.” And that we should not sort of throw it all over on the burden of race, or racial inequality or racial discrimination, as being responsible for this particular event. I think that would be wrong, and [pauses] it bothers me that that kind of an incident has generated that kind of response. I don’t think it is about race. I think it is about an individual who conducted himself in a manner that was almost guaranteed to provoke an officer trying to do his duty.

Do you think we’re going to see more Fergusons?
I don’t know. I’m reluctant to generalize from it. I’ll leave it at that.

You played a central role in the development of Bush’s energy policy. How would you characterize the Obama administration’s record in that area?
We’ve had enormous success, a lot of it due to the private sector, in terms of becoming self-sufficient on energy. That is a huge development for the United States, affecting our situation globally. Yet Obama is doing everything he can to shut down the coal industry. Unilaterally, Congress rejected the carbon caps, so he is doing it through the Environmental Protection Agency by executive authority. We will not build the Keystone Pipeline. We ought to develop our capacity, support the European gas market for U.S. exports. The Baltics should not have to get 100 percent of their gas from Russia. You can put a real cramp in Vladimir Putin’s economy and activities, and his eagerness to create problems for us in Europe, if we would take advantage of what we’ve got by way of our capacity to produce gas.

Speaking of Russia, some American analysts foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union because they believed any system that was so morally bankrupt and thoroughly dishonest in its conduct of diplomacy around the world was very likely issuing wildly inflated claims for its annual GDP, for example. Do you think the same could be true of China today? Is China as a Stalinist system so rotten to the core that its collapse, like the Soviet Union’s, is inevitable?
I don’t think so. As I look at China, it’s obviously still a communist system. The first time I went was with President Ford in about 1974, 1975. Mao was still alive, and everybody was wearing the same uniform and marching in lockstep. There was only one decent hotel in Beijing, and it wasn’t very good. The world has changed dramatically. But I look at China as a place that has achieved phenomenal growth economically. They have so far been able to maintain their overall political structure while dramatically advancing their ability to be an important part of the world economy. We are heavily intertwined, our economy is, with theirs. They have moved hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty into a more prosperous lifestyle. I think that it’s a strong, dynamic economy with significant military potential. And I don’t see that anything like that has happened in Russia. It doesn’t mean there isn’t corruption in China; I think there is. But I think we’re far enough into one another’s economy that we’ve got a better feel for how we measure their progress, their levels of production and so forth. I mean, we’re into their knickers a long way and vice versa. Russia—I don’t think they’ve ever really made that transition. I think their economy is much shakier, much more dependent on a single resource: energy. And I think the level of corruption is probably higher there than in China.

Do you see a military conflict between China and one of its weaker neighbors, perhaps with one of these territorial disputes as the pretext, as highly likely in the short term?
I can’t predict that. I have not thought in the past that China’s interested in a head-on conflict with the U.S. It’s not in their interest or in our interest. I think there are areas of potential friction out there. The islands off Japan obviously are a place where we have interest, and clearly the Japanese are deeply concerned about it. At one point we looked at China, early on in our administration, as a potential ally in dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem. That hasn’t come to pass. They’ve not really been an ally there, partly because I think we botched it on our side. But are they likely to get into a dustup of some kind? In a sense, they already are with the Vietnamese, in terms of who owns.

Fishing rights and things.
Yeah. But I can’t predict that there’s going to be a head-to-head confrontation. The Chinese are increasingly, I think, able to throw their weight around. They’ve developed a ballistic-missile capability that is probably targeted on our carriers. They’ve invested heavily in improving their own military capabilities, and they are extraordinarily dangerous when you start to talk about cyberwarfare. So they’re a major potential threat and at the same time an economic competitor.

Does the fact that China owns so much of our debt constrain our foreign policy and national security decision making?
I don’t think so. I don’t think it has.

George W. Bush famously said he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul, as a man that business could be done with.
Mm-hmm.

You wrote in your 2011 book, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, that when you looked into Putin’s eyes, you saw an old KGB hand.
That’s true.

Did you ever tell the president that you disagreed with him about Putin?
I never felt so much that it was a disagreement, I guess. I think that’s almost what the president had to say—especially after the first meeting. He’s trying to build a relationship; you got things you’d like to do vis-à-vis the Russians. He might well have shared my exact view that “This guy is KGB.” I mean, that’s where Putin came from, that’s his background, that’s the experiences of his life. So I don’t take it, in terms of our conversations between the president and myself, as a sort of fundamental difference of opinion.

So you don’t think that Bush fundamentally misjudged Putin?
Mmm. [pauses] Uh, I can’t say that he did misjudge him. I think he obviously learned over time—everybody did. Putin was a relatively new commodity when we got there in 2000. I had been skeptical of Mikhail Gorbachev. I mean, one of the first things I did when I got to be secretary of defense was make a prediction on the Evans & Novak television show that Gorbachev would fail and in the end be succeeded by somebody a lot more like the old Soviet leaders than like Gorbachev. I got a phone call from my buddy Jim Baker, who was secretary of state, and he made it very clear to me I had transgressed onto his turf—and he was right. But I think I was right too [chuckles], long-term. But no. [pauses] I’m not critical of the president for the way he dealt with Putin. I think he handled it pretty well.

What could the Obama administration be doing right now, with or without the backing of our European allies, to repel Putin in Eastern Ukraine and, more fundamentally, to force him to make the choice that you say Russia “must” make, between its current conduct and being a responsible international stakeholder?
I think you’ve got to repair the damage that’s been done. First and foremost, we’ve got to rebuild the military. You’re not going to be able to do anything long-term if your diplomacy’s not credible, and your diplomacy’s not going to be credible if you don’t restore U.S. military capability—and we are going in exactly the opposite direction. So whether we’re talking about China fooling around in the South China Sea, or the vacuum that’s being created in the Middle East and a loss of confidence on the part of our allies, or Putin’s willingness to throw his weight around in Europe, we’ve got to demonstrate that we’re an administration that believes—if we can get such an administration—that the U.S. has a major role to play in the world as the leader, that it’s backed up by significant military capability, that we’re prepared to keep our commitments in various places around the world and make it very clear to friend and adversary alike that the U.S. is going to be the kind of formidable player we have been for most of the past 70 years. When I look at Barack Obama I see a guy who is not part of the consensus that has governed Republican and Democratic administrations alike since Harry Truman’s day. You can argue about Carter and how committed he was, but there’s been a basic fundamental belief since the end of World War II that United States leadership in the world produces a far more peaceful, less hostile world and greater prosperity. The U.S. has to play a leadership role. And it’s going to take a lot to rebuild the damage that has been done over the past few years, because we’ve actively conveyed to the world the notion—this president has—that we no longer believe that.

Back to our question: How can we repel Putin from Eastern Ukraine?
I think in terms of dealing with Putin and trying to rein him in, you’ve got to make NATO mean something again. NATO works when the United States provides the real leadership and the muscle behind it; it’s always worked that way. We ought to be able to persuade our NATO allies that they need to make their commitments, from a spending standpoint, in terms of the percentage of GDP they spend on defense. Hell, we are not even coming close ourselves anymore. We ought to be able to actively support our friends in the Baltics. There ought to be beefed-up military exercises in Poland, joint ventures and exercises of various kinds with the U.S. If you want to get Putin’s attention, you really ought to whack him economically, and that’s not just a matter of sanctions; it’s also a matter of going after his energy stuff. What’s happening to oil prices now, frankly, is a blessing for us, because it really puts the screws to Putin. He’s so dependent on oil, in terms of his economy, that we ought to do everything we can to encourage that. So it’s a mind-set that is, I think, totally lacking in this administration. I don’t know where the president gets his guidance. I don’t know who he talks to; I don’t know who he listens to. He has gone through defense secretaries; you know, he sort of chews them up and spits them out. I don’t have any concept that he has a worldview that’s sort of the traditional worldview that most American presidents have adhered to for 70 years.

There is a school of thought out there that 9/11 has been allowed to assume an outsize role in national security policy-making over the years, that we overreacted.
I just disagree with it. I don’t think it’s right. I think it sounds a little bit like Obama going to Cairo, his first year in office, sort of the center of the Muslim world, and apologizing, saying the U.S. overreacted to 9/11. I don’t buy it. We did what we felt was necessary and needed to be done, that a key priority for us after 9/11 was to make sure it never happened again, and we devoted a lot of time and energy and resources to exactly that effort—I might add, successfully. For the time we were in office, we did not get another mass-casualty attack against the United States. There were arguments about Guantánamo, and periodically after we set up Guantánamo there would be a burning desire on the part of the State Department to close Guantánamo. And I can’t count the hours we spent in what I considered to be���obviously others [chuckles] had a different view—a totally wasted exercise, arguing about “Let’s close Guantánamo.” It’s still open today. It’s still there for a reason. You’ve still got a couple hundred really bad guys, terrorists, who you need to have someplace you can keep them. You don’t want to bring them to the United States and give them the rights and prerogatives they would have as an American citizen in a legal proceeding. If anything, we’ve let too many of them go, in terms of those who have returned to the battlefield.

You have become publicly identified with the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that CIA officers used when questioning suspected terrorists. Your critics call those techniques torture. To your knowledge, was President Bush briefed about the actual methods that were to be employed?
I believe he was.

We ask because in Decision Points, the former president’s 2010 memoir, he recalls having been briefed on the EITs. Yet former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, in his 2014 memoir, Company Man, disputes that and says that he contacted former CIA director George Tenet about it, after reading the president’s book, and that Tenet backs him up in the belief that Bush was not briefed.
No, I’m certain Bush was briefed. I also recall a session where the entire National Security Council was briefed. The meeting took place in Condi Rice’s office—I don’t think Colin Powell was there, but I think he was briefed separately—where we went down through the specific techniques that were being authorized.

Why do you say you’re certain Bush was briefed?
Well, partly because he said he was. I don’t have any doubt about that. I mean, he was included in the process. I mean, that’s not the kind of thing that we would have done without his approval.

To that point, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote in State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, published in 2006, “Cheney made certain to protect the president from personal involvement in the internal debates on the handling of prisoners. It is not clear whether Tenet was told by Cheney or other White House officials not to brief Bush or whether he made that decision on his own. Cheney and senior White House officials knew that Bush was purposely not being briefed. It appears that there was a secret agreement among very senior administration officials to insulate Bush and to give him deniability.”
I don’t have much confidence in Risen.

That’s not the question. Is what he alleges here true or false?
That we tried to have deniability for the president?

Yes.
I can’t think of a time when we ever operated that way. We just didn’t. The president needed to know what we were doing and sign off on the thing. It’s like the terrorist surveillance program. You know, one of the main things I did there was to take Tenet and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden in hand and get the president’s approval for what we were doing, and there’s a classic example why I don’t believe something like this. The president wanted personal knowledge of what was going on, and he wanted to personally sign off on the program every 30 to 45 days. To suggest that somehow we ran a system that protected the president from knowledge about the enhanced interrogation techniques, I just—I don’t think it’s true. I don’t believe it.

But can you say as a fact “I know that’s not true,” rather than having to surmise?
I can remember sitting in the Oval Office with deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley and others—I think others were in there—where we talked about the techniques. And one of the things that was emphasized was the fact that the techniques were drawn from that set of practices we used in training our own people. I mean, we were not trying to hide it from the president. With all due respect, I just don’t give any credence to what Risen says there.

What do you say to those who argue that the measures you and President Bush put in place to defend America after 9/11 were unlawful?
I think we did those things we needed to do to make certain that we were operating within the statutes and the laws. We worked hard, for example, when we got into enhanced interrogation techniques. The Central Intelligence Agency was very cautious and insistent upon not going forward until they had sign-off. And that meant an opinion from the Justice Department that what we were going to do was legal and consistent with our international obligations, and it had been authorized by the president of the United States and the senior NSC people. Which is exactly the right way to go. I had watched through Iran-contra when the CIA to some extent was hung out to dry: good guys sent on missions they thought had been authorized and then, when the stuff hit the fan, the politicians all headed for the hills. I felt very strongly that that shouldn’t happen again, but the agency did too—CIA officer Jose Rodriguez and the others who actively worked the program. And we bent over backward to adhere to the law, to not do something that was, quote, “torture,” et cetera, et cetera. So I feel very good about it. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying what the critics have to say about it.

Where Guantánamo is concerned, did you have any concerns that the way it was set up and operated created a situation in which an innocent man could languish in that place for, like, a decade?
Mm-hmm. [pauses] Frankly, I didn’t worry a lot about that. I wanted to make certain that we had a place where we could, in fact, take guilty individuals.

How did you know they were guilty if they weren’t put on trial?
Well, most of them weren’t exactly bashful about admitting what they’d done. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—you know, the worst of the worst, the mastermind of 9/11, a guy who, among other things, cut Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s throat and was proud of it! I didn’t sit around wringing my hands at night worrying about an innocent terrorist down in Guantánamo. I mean, these were people we captured on the battlefield or caught in the act, and they were well cared for, treated far better than they would have been in their own country, in terms of the facilities, the services that were provided for them and the things we did to meet the highest standards. They’re probably better than some of the municipal jails here in the United States.

The criticism is that, far from taking pains to ensure that these programs were conducted according to the law, the law was reshaped purposefully to allow you to do what you wanted to do.
Okay, fair enough. FDR ever do that? [chuckles] I mean, I point out the facts on the meeting of the terrorist surveillance program. When you get in the congressional leadership, bipartisan, both houses, and say, “Here’s what we are doing. Do we need to come back and get additional authorization from you guys?” and the answer was uniformly no.

Moving from history to the present day, there’s a book out now called The Second Machine Age, written by a pair of guys from MIT, that assesses the effects on industrialized economies of the increasingly rapid and profound changes that are being wrought by technological innovations, among them an annual doubling of computing power. With the understanding that the digital revolution is probably still in its infancy, how do you see it transforming America in the years to come?
You can look at the enormous impact it’s had over the past few years. I mean, we’re sitting here, I’ve got my iPad, I’ve got my iPhone, my laptop’s around here someplace. You know, a few years ago I wouldn’t have known how to turn one of those on. According to my grandkids, I can barely turn one on today! It’s just a phenomenal change in our whole society.

And it’s having profound impacts on our labor force.
It is. There was a piece in The Economist I read recently that talked about three revolutions, as I recall. And one was when steam came in—18th century, late 18th century. Then the second industrial revolution. And in both cases, those generated a significant increase in employment. The third, the one we are in now with respect to the digital revolution, so far has not produced the gains in employment that the earlier ones had. That’s an interesting proposition. It starts to make sense. I mean, as we see this phenomenal growth in development, in terms of the technology and what we’re able to do with it, we’ve still got a declining percentage of participation by our workforce, our population.

The labor participation rate is the lowest it’s been since 1978.
Exactly. And headed south.

That’s not entirely attributable to Barack Obama.
Well, it’s a different—it’s a statistic that I think has been ignored for far too long. We always worry about the unemployment rate—politically, that has always been the significant number. But now we are talking about the percentage of the workforce, the percentage of the population that is in the workforce, and that, disturbingly, is on the downward slide and has consistently been there for quite a while. I suppose there are different arguments for it. I am not prepared to make any bold statements on it at this point. I am a student, I guess you would say now. You get into the whole question of the extent to which government makes it “attractive” to work. Every once in a while I run into someone who has strong views on the notion that we’re rapidly approaching the point where we have more people receiving benefits than we do paying taxes, and that that’s worrisome in terms of its long-range political impact on the country.

Do you regard the internet as an intrinsically democratizing force?
[Chuckles, pauses] Oh boy, you know, we’re blue-skyin��� it now. I think it clearly has had a significant impact. “A democratizing force.” Um. [pauses]

In the sense that whenever you have a freer flow of information, that’s going to redound to the forces of good.
Yeah, but on the other hand, I suppose you could argue that it provides ways in which the government, an authoritarian government, can exert control over and monitor and keep track of what everybody is up to and what they are doing. It’s not a one-way street. It’s not necessarily—I need to think about that before I comment further.

You’ve made clear at various points in your career that one of the few subjects you would prefer that your questioners not raise with you in-depth would be religion.
Mm-hmm.

And without seeking to deprive you of that prerogative, might you explain why you are averse to that subject in interviews?
I just think it’s a private matter. I was raised a Methodist. My family and my folks were very active in the church. Lynne and I were married in the Presbyterian church because that’s where she had gone as a youngster, and we, probably, if we go to any one particular church now more than any other, it’s the Episcopal church.

Why is that?
Because we like the Episcopal church in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The theology or the actual building?
It’s [chuckles] the feeling, the place. It’s just a church that we prefer.

You said your parents were very active in your church.
Mom sang in the choir. Dad was the treasurer of the church, kept track of all the funds. She was a pianist, played in the services. They were very active in the Methodist church in Casper.

And so as a natural function of that, were you active in that church as a child?
I went to Sunday school when I was a kid. I wasn’t all that active as a church member, certainly, as I got older. And my sister, to this day her life almost parallels my mom’s. She plays organ; she’s very active in the church in Boise, Idaho. She is now a retired federal employee. So it was an important part of their lives. I think it would be fair to say I acquired a certain set of values and beliefs as a result of that experience. But I’ll leave it at that.

Can you remember a particular moment when those values and beliefs struck you, or a particular pastor who had a certain influence, something like that?
No. It’s a private matter, and I have strong feelings. I am a Christian. I believe in life hereafter.

You’ve written of your father that he was “reticent. He didn’t give away a lot on a first meeting—or a second or even a 10th.” Do you remember how old you were when you first took note of that trait in your father?
How old I was? No, frankly, I don’t. I don’t think I know.

In other words, when did it dawn on you, “This man doesn’t waste many words”?
Well, he was always that way. I mean, I didn’t know any other way for a father. That’s the way Dad was, and the way he worked. I didn’t think it was remarkable; I just thought that was him.

For some little boys, if their father isn’t saying much, the child may not feel reassured: “Does he love me? Am I measuring up?”
You’re trying to psychoanalyze something here—I had a great relationship with my dad. But he was a man of few words.

So how did he communicate to you that he loved you?
Well, the time we spent together. I think he was proud of my accomplishments later in life. There were a few rocky years there, when he obviously didn’t agree with the way I was spending my time. But he didn’t chew me out. I knew he was unhappy. But [pauses] in terms of his reticence, it wasn’t a matter of he didn’t approve of me or he didn’t love me.

That was never in doubt?
That’s too much psychobabble. That’s not the way the relationship worked.

What traits that contributed to your success in life do you think you inherited from your mother?
Mom was basically optimistic. Both she and Dad were proud when I played baseball and football and so forth. Mom had been on the girls softball team back in the 1930s, in her hometown of Syracuse, Nebraska.

Have you given some thought to how life would have been different had you not flunked out of Yale?
Well, not a lot. It occurred to me from time to time. [laughs] Well, one way to capture it, I guess, is to tell the story George W. Bush told at commencement at Yale in 2001. Of course, he was a graduate. And he told the assembled multitude, the graduating class of 2001, “If you graduate from Yale with a gentleman’s C, you can become president of the United States. If you get kicked out, you can become vice president.” [laughs] And that sort of captured the view of it.

Why do you think you failed at Yale?
I really didn’t like it; I didn’t enjoy it. I frankly was having a more enjoyable time building power lines and transmission lines back in Wyoming. And it wasn’t sort of a conscious career decision or anything like that. I hadn’t really given much thought to what I wanted to do. As I reflect back on it now, what happened to me, in effect, was that I reached a point where I had to recognize that I was headed down a bad road after I had been kicked out of Yale. I had been arrested twice for DUI when I was 22 years old. And Lynne had already graduated from college early, at the top of her class. My Yale classmates had all graduated. And I was in jail in Rock Springs, Wyoming, overnight, on a DUI charge—second one in a year. And that was a wake-up call, in effect. I decided that I really needed to get my act together, and what I ended up doing was going back to school at the University of Wyoming. It was cheap: 96 bucks a semester for tuition. I could pay for everything out of my own pocket with what I earned summers, building power lines, as well as having a part-time job while I was going to school. I took a full class load, I think, the first semester. I had all A’s except for one C, and after that it was straight A’s. Academically, it turned out I was a pretty good student when I worked at it. And I valued what I was doing much more because I had to work for it.

How bad were the actual DUIs?
Not bad. I mean, I was driving at the time and I had been drinking. And—

Were you swerving out of the lane? What was happening?
Uh [pauses], I’ll just leave it at that. I didn’t hit anything. There were no accidents involved. I was drinking and driving, and there was no question I was guilty.

In all the narratives of your life, the Yale experience always appears as an unqualifiedly negative event, a cautionary tale of sorts, both for the excessive drinking and for the ultimate outcome: namely, that you flunked out. While you clearly were on a self-destructive path, as you have called it, there must have been some funny as hell times associated with that period—and you’ve never allowed yourself the indulgence of relating one or two of those.
Of course not! [laughs]

This is your chance!
Why would you want to do that? No. [pauses] The dean at one point wrote a letter to my dad saying that I had “fallen in with a group of very high-spirited young men.” That was the way the dean described it. Yeah, I mean, we did a bunch of stupid stuff you do when you’re in college. I’ve never dwelled on it or written about it, and I don’t plan to.

That’s why we’re asking.
I know, and I don’t plan to talk about it now. No, when I think about Yale, I can’t think of my life and all that has transpired, all I have been able to do, without being aware of the fact that I had not taken advantage of that opportunity that Yale afforded me back in 1959 and 1960. I always enjoyed the fact that after Desert Storm, when I was secretary of defense, I was invited back to Yale to speak to a large gathering of alums in the dining hall where I used to sling hash when I was a freshman. There must have been over a thousand people there. This was a period of time when the whole country is cheering: We won in Desert Storm; the troops are coming home and so forth. I was invited to come speak, and it was very well received. But I was never sure—and I’ve never asked—but I was never sure they knew they’d kicked me out 30 years before.

Answering that wake-up call and prevailing at that moment did not require that you completely renounce alcohol, correct?
No.

You didn’t become a teetotaler.
No, I didn’t become a teetotaler. I mean, I still drank. I think it was Senator John Glenn who asked me, “How did you clean up your act?” And I said, “Well, I got married and I quit hanging out in bars.”

In In My Time you devote two short sentences to the moment when your daughter, Mary, came out to you. You replied by saying very simply that you loved her very dearly and wanted only for her to be happy. Was there a time when you struggled with this?
I always thought George W. Bush agonized over it more than I did, when he informed me he was going to support a constitutional amendment basically to ban gay marriage, same-sex marriage. I can remember having lunch with him at one point, and he was trying to explain to me what he was going to do. And of course he knew about Mary, and that’s partly what stimulated his concern. He was worried that somehow I would be offended by what he was doing.

Harkening back to the period when Mary was growing up and her sexual orientation became apparent to you, was it a struggle for you to accept it?
No. And it was a surprise. I mean, it wasn’t something that was sort of there and nobody ever talked about. But Mary was very direct about it. She just came out and said it—as I recall, we were in the airport in Denver. But it wasn’t anything I had anticipated or contemplated before that.

Did you come to your position in favor of same-sex marriage because you had a personal connection to the issue?
Certainly that helped, yeah.

And the same for Senator Rob Portman, for example. Do you think you might ever have arrived at that position as a public policy matter had there been no such personal connection to the issue? And should that be necessary, in other words?
I don’t know. That’s not the situation I was faced with. I’m certain that having a daughter you love very much, part of your family, and to find that from her perspective, you know, the world looked very different than the conventional, traditional view of marriage, or life in general, it forces you to think about it, obviously. And it’s something you wouldn’t have had to deal with if it wasn’t right smack-dab in front of you. But no, I’ve said exactly what I wanted to say and what I believed, that “we love you very much, Mary” and let her know it was all right.

Does it feel strange to you to be in your 70s?
[Pauses] Does it feel strange? I don’t think of it so much in terms of age or how old I am. Probably partly because of my heart problems and cardiac stuff over the years.

The comedian Jack Benny famously maintained that in his mind he was perpetually 39. Is there such an age for you?
I can’t say perpetually 39, but certainly the experience with heart disease—five heart attacks, an episode of sudden cardiac arrest, end-stage heart failure—I’ve told you the story about the Cleveland Clinic having me up because they were doing a conference on innovation in cardiology and they needed a patient to demonstrate the technology. They discovered that I’d had virtually everything done that you could do to a heart patient, so they had me up for the day with my doctor. And they used my case to demonstrate the development of all that medicine: the technology and procedures that have reduced the incidence of death from heart disease by about 50 percent over that 35-, 40-year period of time where I was dealing with it. I mean, there was a time not long ago when I thought I had reached the end of my days. So when you say, “Gee, doesn’t age 70 sort of worry you?” or “You’re going to be 75 next January,” no, I feel damn lucky that I’m alive, that I’m here.

Do you have a philosophy of life?
I don’t know. I don’t think of it in those terms. I’ve had a very interesting life; I’ve loved it. It’s been—if I could design how I’d spent the past 70 years, I’d be hard put to improve on it, just in terms of my personal satisfaction and family and Lynne and the kids. We just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in August. And I look back over those years, and they’ve been remarkable in every respect.


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