Good evening and welcome to RussertWatch, a doozy today as Tim Russert hammered Vice President Dick Cheney on "Meet The Press," hooked on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 but in reality a solid hour of grilling on Iraq, Afghanistan, and WMDs. It was an incredibly dense show, and more than anything shows how carefully Cheney parses words — no question gets a simple yes or no answer and even while acknowledging that, fine, Iraq was not linked to 9/11 he hammers home the meme of Iraq as a sponsor of terrorism and incipient WMD threat. He manages to answer every question with a "Yes, but..." without making it sound like a "but," trumpeting success in interrogation instead of acknowledging Guantanamo and CIA black prisons, Iraqi democracy instead of the 20,000+ civilians dead in civil strife, and how safe the world is without Saddam Hussein instead of the fact that the administration led the country into war on trumped-up evidence. He also claims not to have read the just-declassified Senate Intelligence Committee report that revealed that intelligence linking Iraq to 9/11 was in fact highly disputed before the invasion. A neat sidestep, that.
My feeling (and that of the blogosphere, it seems) is that Russert did an uncharacteristically tough and dogged job up against Cheney, hammering the main points, bringing up the glaring "gotchas" (with this one there are many: Greeted as liberators, insurgency's last throes, and yep, Saddam's defnitely got WMDs). Reading Nora Ephron's post earlier, I was surprised to find that she thought Russert went easy on Cheney, and upon consideration I can see why: Everything he hammered Cheney on was easily part of the public record, and thus easily prepared for to be glibly countered. In his quest to cover everything from Iraq to Afghanistan to WMDS to midterms to rumors of Cheney's flagging influence to poor peppered Harry Whittington, Russert missed potential opportunities to play the "Yes, but" game right back (see Stephen Kaus for more evidence of this). Even so, he brought up the main points and pounded away at them bluntly like the blunt instrument he is, refusing to accept Cheney's first and often second effort at dissembling. And let's not forget how skilled Cheney is: The man is the strong, silent type only until he has to open his mouth, and then he is a force to be reckoned with. My impression; what's yours?
Below is excerpted from my earlier post this afternoon on Eat The Press:
Notable was the trademark Russert "gotcha" moment wherein he played the infamous clip of Cheney saying in August 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." When asked if, knowing that Saddam did NOT have weapons of mass destruction, if Cheney would still have gone into Iraq, he said "Yes" and went on:
"The world is better off because Saddam Hussein is in jail instead of in power in Baghdad. It was the right thing to do and if we had it to do over again, we'd do exactly the same thing."
Note that Cheney dated Saddam's WMD use at 1991.
Russert also called him on his other infamous comment, the old "insurgency in its last throes" comment, which Cheney admitted was — what's that word? — oh yeah, WRONG but with barely a breath spun it as a good thing, based on Iraqis embracing democracy and being willing to "step up and take on the responsibility for their own fate." Cheney also invoked the tough-guy rationale for staying in Iraq ( "My gosh, the United States hasn't got the stomach for the fight. Bin Laden's right, al-Qaeda's right, the United States has lost its will and will not complete the mission"), lauded the U.S. "detainee policy", claiming it was Constitutional by citing "the blessing of the lawyers" which, considering that the source of that is Gonzales, is an eyebrow-raise (when Tim asked him about "shady" methods, Cheney said stolidly "We have done everything we could think of to make the nation safe"). He also nimbly sidestepped Russert's question about military intervention in Iran, saying "I don't want to speculate on military options. It's not wise. And Rumsfeld would probably object."
Russert also grilled him on Plamegate, where he admitted that "I have the authority, as Vice President under an executive order issued by the President, to classify and declassify information. And everything I have done is consistent with those authorities." He then refused to answer any more questions on the matter, though he began to look annoyed under Russert's repeated questioning. Cheney also had this chilling commentary on midterms: "I feel better about the election now than I did three months ago." SCARY.
RUSSERT: Should I be relieved you didn't bring your shotgun in today?
CHENEY: I wouldn't worry about it. You're not in season.
That may be the closest Cheney has ever come to exhibiting a sense of humor. Choice excerpts below; full transcript here - flag the issues of your choice in comments, today's transcript is packed with gems from one of the spinniest around.Stating and restating the meme:
(Videotape, August 26, 2002):
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.
(End of videotape)
MR. RUSSERT: In fact, there is grave doubt, because they did not exist along the lines that you described, the president described, and others described. Based on what you know now, that Saddam did not have the weapons of mass destruction that were described, would you still have gone into Iraq?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yes, Tim, because what the reports also showed, while he did not have stockpiles--clearly the intelligence that said he did was wrong. That was the intelligence all of us saw, that was the intelligence all of us believed, it was--when, when George Tenet sat in the Oval Office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, "George, how good is the case against Saddam on weapons of mass destruction?" the director of the CIA said, "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President, it's a slam dunk." That was the intelligence that was provided to us at the time, and based upon which we made a choice.
MR. RUSSERT: So if the CIA said to you at that time, "Saddam does not have weapons of mass destruction, his chemical and biological have been degraded, he has no nuclear program under way," you'd still invade Iraq?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Because, again, look at the Duelfer Report and what it said. No stockpiles, but they also said he has the capability. He'd done it before. He had produced chemical weapons before and used them. He had produced biological weapons. He had a robust nuclear program in '91. All of this is true, said by Duelfer, facts. Also said that as soon as the sanctions are lifted, they expect Saddam to be back in business.
MR. RUSSERT: All right. Now the president has been asked, "What did Iraq have to do with the attack on the World Trade Center?" and he said "nothing." Do you agree with that?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I do. So it's not...
MR. RUSSERT: So it's case, case closed.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We've never been able to confirm any connection between Iraq and 9/11.
MR. RUSSERT: And the meeting with Atta did not occur?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don't know. I mean, we've never been able to, to, to link it, and the FBI and CIA have worked it aggressively. I would say, at this point, nobody has been able to confirm...
MR. RUSSERT: Then why, in the lead-up to the war, was there the constant linkage between Iraq and al-Qaeda?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: That's a different issue. Now, there's a question of whether or not al-Qaeda, or whether or not Iraq was involved in 9/11. There's a separate--apart from that's the issue of whether or not there was a historic relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The basis for that is probably best captured in George Tenet's testimony before the Senate Intel Commission, an open session, where he said specifically that there was a pattern of relationship that went back at least a decade between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
MR. RUSSERT: But the president said they were working in concert, giving the strong suggestion to the American people that they were involved in September 11th.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. There are, there are two totally different propositions here, and people have consistently tried to confuse them. And it's important, I think--there's a third proposition, as well, too, and that is Iraq's traditional position as a strong sponsor of terror.
So you've got Iraq and 9/11, no evidence that there's a connection. You've got Iraq and al-Qaeda, testimony from the director of CIA that there was indeed a relationship, Zarqawi in Baghdad, etc. Then the third...
MR. RUSSERT: The committee said that there was no relationship. In fact...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I haven't seen the report; I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but the fact is...
MR. RUSSERT: But Mr. Vice President, the bottom line is...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We know, we know that Zarqawi, running a terrorist camp in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, after we went in to 9/11, then fled and went to Baghdad and set up operations in Baghdad in the spring of '02 and was there from then, basically, until basically the time we launched into Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: The bottom line is, the rationale given the American people was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and he could give those weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda and we could have another September 11. And now we read that there is no evidence, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, of that relationship. You've said there's no involvement. The president says there's no involvement.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: No, Tim, no involvement in what respect?
MR. RUSSERT: In September 11, OK. The CIA said, leading up to the war, that the possibility of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction was "low." It appears that there was a deliberate attempt made by the administration to link al-Qaeda in Iraq in the minds of the American people and use it as a rationale to go into Iraq.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Tim, I guess--I don't--I'm not sure what part you don't understand here. In September--or in 1990, the State Department designated Iraq as a state sponsor of terror. Abu Nidal, famous terrorist, had sanctuary in, in Baghdad for years. Zarqawi was in Baghdad after we took Afghanistan and before we went into Iraq. You had the facility up at Kermal, poisons facility, ran by Ansar Islam, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. You had the fact that Saddam Hussein, for example, provided payments to the families of suicide bombers of $25,000 on a regular basis. This was a state sponsor of terror. He had a relationship with terror groups. No question about it. Nobody denies that.
The evidence we also had at the time was that he had a relationship with al-Qaeda. And that was George Tenet's testimony, the director of the CIA, in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. We also have a--had knowledge of the fact that he had produced and used weapons of mass destruction and we know, as well, that while he did not have any production under way at the time, that he's clearly retained the capability, and the expectation from the experts was as soon as the sanctions were lifted he'd be back in business again.
Now this was the place where, probably, there was a greater prospect of a connection between terrorists on the one hand and a terrorist-sponsoring state and weapons of mass destruction than any place else. You talk about Iran, North Korea, they're problems, too, but they hadn't been through 12 years of sanctions and resolutions by the U.N. Security Council and ignored them with impunity.
And hat tip to DailyKos for this:
Russert: There was a story in the National Journal that said that Cheney authorized Libby to leak confidential information. Can you confirm or deny that?
Cheney: I have the authority, as Vice President under an executive order issued by the President, to classify and declassify information. And everything I have done is consistent with those authorities.
Russert: Could you declassify Valerie Plame's status as an operative?
Cheney: (Cheney raises his arms in a shrugging-like motion and gives a half smile) I've said all I'm going to say on the subject, Tim.
Russert: Do you think the President should pardon Scooter Libby?
Cheney: I've said all I'm going to say on the subject, Tim.
Russert: You wouldn't support a pardon?
Cheney: I've said all I'm going to say on the subject, Tim.
Russert: How about Richard Armitage, who has come forward and said he was the source for Robert Novak, some years ago?
Cheney: Does he need a pardon? (chuckles)
Russert: You...You...Are you upset or concerned that...
Cheney (interrupting): Tim, I've said I'm not going to discuss the subject. I understand, um, why you want to ask about it. But the fact of the matter is, it is a matter pending before the court, and, uh, since I could be a witness, I think it would be inappropriate for me to say more.