Return to Transcripts main page


Last Word: Interview With Joe Sestak

Aired March 15, 2009 - 12:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: We head into this new week with a president whose tone is noticeably more upbeat, a stock market that saw its best run since November, four days of gains. The White House says it's time to be optimistic and makes the case its economic turnaround plan is beginning to take hold.

But, as he appeals for patience on issues from the economy to Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is quick to suggest the depth of the problems isn't his fault.


OBAMA: We've inherited an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression.



OBAMA: By any measure, my administration inherited a fiscal disaster.



OBAMA: We inherited a big mess.


KING: With us, exclusively this morning, is a key player in the administration Mr. Obama is so found of blaming, former Vice President Dick Cheney, here in his first television interview since leaving office.

Mr. Vice President, welcome.

CHENEY: Good morning, John.

KING: Is that how you see it?

Just about every day -- I assume you're reading the newspapers now that you're out of office -- the president says, well, we've got a lot to do, but it's not my fault; I inherited a mess. Did you leave him a mess?

CHENEY: Well, I don't follow the news quite as closely as I once did.


But there's no question but what the economic circumstances that he inherited are difficult ones. You know, we said that before we left. I don't think you can blame the Bush administration for the creation of those circumstances.

It's a global financial problem. We had, in fact, tried to deal with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac problem some years before with major reforms and were blocked by Democrats on the Hill, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd.

So I think the notion that you can just sort of throw it off on the prior administration, that's interesting rhetoric but I don't think anybody really cares a lot about that. What they care is what is going to work and how we are going to get out of these difficulties.

KING: Well, let's talk about that. We may get back to how we got here. But let's talk about where we are. If you look at the front page of The Washington Times this morning, you see the president voicing absolute confidence in the economy.

And if you listen to the administration over the past 48 hours or so, they say, look, the stock market, after a bleak period, up four days in a row, up 9 percent for the week, they make the case that the economic stimulus plan they passed is beginning to kick in.

They also make the case that they are beginning to restore a confidence in the markets that they say was lost in your administration. Is that how you see it?

CHENEY: Well, I hope that they are successful in restoring confidence in the markets. I noted when the markets were going down, they didn't want to talk about it. Had a good week last week -- and I'm glad they had a good week. It repaired some of the damage that had been done, anybody who has been invested in the market in the past.

But the key, I think, is the extent to which they fix the problem with the financial institutions in the society. That is a federal government responsibility. It's the banks, it's the Federal Reserve, it's the FDIC, it's all of the financial regulations and management of our currency that is a federal responsibility.

And I look to that as an area that they've got to get right in order for everything else to flow. I worry a lot that they're using the current set of economic difficulties to try to justify a massive expansion in the government and much more authority for the government over the private sector, and I don't think that's good. I don't think that's...

KING: Well, let's talk a bit about that.

(CROSSTALK) CHENEY: ... solve our problems.

KING: You learn a lot about an administration, especially a new administration, when it puts forward its first budget: $3.6 trillion, that's a lot of money. And as you know, it would redirect a lot of the government's priorities, essentially President Obama has said almost every day, what he has said is a repudiation of many of the priorities you have.

When you look at that budget, $3.6 trillion, redirecting the government's resources in health care, in energy, in the environment, also a pretty large $1.75 billion deficit the first year out, do you think that is consistent with what he promised in the campaign or do you think he is overreaching his mandate?

CHENEY: Well, I didn't like what he promised in the campaign. I frankly disagreed with it. And obviously, they won the election. He's the president of the United States. He gets to put forward the program he wants.

But those of us who are of the other political faith, obviously, get to comment on it and try to improve on it and suggest alternatives. And, frankly, I think the programs that he has recommended and pursuing in health care, in energy, and so forth, constitute probably the biggest or one of the biggest expansions of federal authority over the private economy in the history of the republic.

And my own belief is that the way we grow the economy, create jobs, create wealth is in the private sector. The government doesn't do that. If you're really seriously interested in improving the performance the economy, I think tax policy is more important.

But I worry very much that what is being done here is saying, we've got an economic crisis, therefore, we're justified in fundamentally remaking the health program in America. I don't think that's right.

KING: Well, you mentioned your party and you mentioned proposing alternatives. There is a debate in your party about whether to put forth specific alternatives or whether, as the minority leader in the House, John Boehner, has said, look, we don't have the votes, so let's just fight what we don't like, but we don't have a responsibility to lay out an alternative approach.

Would you urge your party to be as specific as possible in every one of these issues and go to the American people and say, if we were in charge, here is what we would do differently, or should they just fight?

CHENEY: Well, I think it's important over time to develop those alternatives. I think it's very important to let the public know what principles you're going to govern by if you're elected. I understand why they might not have a comprehensive program at this stage. It has only been a few weeks since the transition. And so it will take them a while to get their act together, but there is nothing inappropriate or wrong with the Republicans in the Congress saying to the American people what it is they like and don't like, what they agree with or disagree with on the Obama platform.

KING: As you know, there is a debate in this town about whether the president is trying to do too much, too fast. This is The Sunday Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, and a Knight Ridder story here about is Obama trying to do too much too fast.

You have a unique perspective. You have been the White House chief of staff. You served in the Congress in the minority party. You were in the cabinet in the first Bush administration and then vice president for eight years.

I know you don't like a lot what he is trying to do, but if young Richard Cheney was in the chief of staff's office down the hall from President Obama, not Rahm Emanuel, would you be saying, Mr. President, you're trying to do too much, too fast? Or given that he wants to do so many things and at the moment he is quite popular, would you say, you know what, it's a little risky, but let's go?

CHENEY: Well, that's somewhat analogous to the situation we had. We came in after probably the closest election in history, a five-week recount of the Florida vote. And we got a lot of advice at the time that we should change our program because the election had been so close.

The president, rightfully, I thought, rejected that and said, look, this is what I ran on. We're going to improve our military capabilities, we're going to cut taxes, we're going to do No Child Left Behind, and we did it.

We did not allow the critics to diminish what we were trying to accomplish. So from the standpoint of what the Obama administration is trying to do, I can't argue that they should pace it or anything like that. I think that's -- those are all tactical calls they have got to make.

What is much more important is the substance of what they recommend and that is what I disagree with.

KING: You disagree with that. I want to show you one more newspaper headline in this segment. This is a newspaper many Americans might not recognize, but I read it and I know you read it.

CHENEY: Human Events.

KING: It's the conservative weekly Human Events. And in the lead article this week, they call it Obama's brazen deception to sell agenda. Essentially the point you just made, that they have, under the umbrella of an economic crisis, you must support us, there is urgency to act now, that they are putting, in this newspaper's view, a lot of items like health care, like the environment, other priorities and saying, we have to do this all now. Is the president of the United States trying to brazenly deceive the American people? CHENEY: Well, I think they've taken liberties, if you will, with the arguments. Given the importance to the country and to all of us of having a healthy economy and getting the economy back on track, it seems to me an administration does have an obligation to set priorities and go after that first.

It also occurs to me that one of the tools that is most important to doing that is tax policy, and cutting taxes, especially for those who invest and create wealth and create jobs. That's not what we're seeing.

We're seeing an argument made that we've got economic difficulties, therefore, we're going to have a cap and trade program with respect to carbon emissions. That's a huge energy tax that's going to be applied across the society.

Or that we're going to fundamentally change the health care system, we haven't had a debate is on the health care system, well, since '93. Perfectly fine to have a debate on it, but we're not having a debate on it.

I was concerned when the first stimulus program wasn't put together in the administration but, rather, was something they sort of chucked up on Capitol Hill and let the Congress write that legislation which says, to me, there really isn't a coherent approach at this point to try and improve the economy.

KING: There are people I assume watching this interview right now, and people in this town who would say, why should we listen to you? And they would say that because of the context of the Bush administration numbers.

They would say, you know, what did you do when you were in charge?

And they have some numbers to back up their case. And I want to show some to our viewers. When you came to office, the unemployment rate in the country was 4.2 percent. When you left, it was 7.6 percent.

The number of Americans in poverty when you arrived, just under 33 million; over 37 million when you left. The number without health insurance, a little over 41 million when you came; over 45 million, approaching 46 million, when you left.

And you came with a budget surplus of $128 billion, and in the final year, the budget deficit was a record $1.3 trillion.

So what would you say to someone out there watching this who is saying, why should they listen to you?

CHENEY: Well, there are all kinds of arguments to be made on that point. But there -- there's something that's more important than the specific numbers you're talking about, and that had to be priority for our administration. Eight months after we arrived, we had 9/11. We had 3,000 Americans killed one morning by Al Qaida terrorists here in the United States.

We immediately had to go into wartime mode. We ended up with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

CHENEY: Some of that is still very active. We had major problems with respect to things like Katrina, for example. All of these things required us to spend money that we had not originally planned to spend, or weren't originally part of the budget. Stuff happens. And the administration has to be able to respond to that, and we did. I think it's also -- you talked the unemployment...

KING: But you're a conservative administration, spending more than $1 trillion.


CHENEY: We always said -- I always said that wartime scenario is cause for an exception in terms of spending. It was appropriate in World War II, certainly, and I think it's appropriate now. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: All right, we'll continue our conversation in just a minute. When we come back, President Obama has made some significant changes to the way the United States fights the war on terror. Will those changes put the country in more danger? We'll ask former Vice President Dick Cheney when our exclusive interview continues in just a moment. Stay with us.



CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies, and against us. I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.


KING: All comments you made over the years, Mr. Vice President, and we are back with our interview with Vice President Dick Cheney. All comments you made over the years about the Iraq war that proved to be quite controversial. I do not want to relitigate the past six years. You've been asked about these things, you've answered these questions many times, and people out there either accept those answers or many people are infuriated by those answers, as you well know.

But I do want to ask this, because we're in a unique position this morning. You're out of government now. When all of those statements were made, you were trying to build up public support for administration action, you might have been in a reelection campaign, you might have been heading into a new presidential campaign or a debate in Congress about spending or about withdrawing the troops and timelines. That's all gone. You're out of government. I just want to ask you now that you're free of all that, and you're free of worrying about what you say and could it hurt George W. Bush, because you were the vice president of the United States -- is there anything that you wish you could have said during those debates or in response to those controversies that you feel free to say now?

CHENEY: That's an interesting question, John. I -- I guess my general sense of where we are with respect to Iraq and at the end of now, what, nearly six years, is that we've accomplished nearly everything we set out to do.

Now, I don't hear much talk about that, but the fact is, the violence level is down 90 percent. The number of casualties and Iraqis and Americans is significantly diminished. There's been elections, a constitution. They're about to have another presidential election here in the near future. We have succeeded in creating in the heart of the Middle East a democratically governed Iraq, and that is a big deal, and it is, in fact, what we set out to do.

KING: It's a dangerous term because of the political debates in the past, but mission accomplished?

CHENEY: I wouldn't use that, just because it triggers reactions that we don't need. But I would ask people and the press, too, to take an honest look at the circumstances in Iraq today and how far we've come. The defeat of Al Qaida in Iraq, the writing of that democratic constitution, a series of elections that involve power sharing among all the various groups, the end of sectarian violence. I think a major defeat for the Iranians living next door to Iraq, who tried to influence events there.

KING: Do you think it would be a lot easier, though, to make that case if you hadn't made and others hadn't made those statements before the war? Because many were, they believed that this was not going to be so hard, and this is where we are, nearly six years later. Six years, the war has cost $657 billion, and that spending will continue. More than 4,200 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and more than 31,000 U.S. troops wounded, and 63 percent of the American people now think this war was a mistake.

Is that, in part, you think, as you make the case for where things are now, are the feelings about this war based on the fact that the American people think they didn't get what they were sold? CHENEY: Well, a lot of what we said in terms of the elements you had on the program in response to questions and reporting we're received. And we were receiving intelligence reports right along that said that he did, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction. The director of the CIA said it's a slam-dunk case, et cetera. I would be asked questions by your colleagues and respond to the best of our ability.

The circumstances, though, that in terms of whether or not this was worth doing, I think it was. I think if you hark back and look at the biggest threat we faced after 9/11, it was the idea of a rogue state or a terrorist-sponsoring state with weapons of mass destruction -- say, nukes, for example -- and providing those to terrorist organizations.

What happened in Iraq is we've eliminated that possibility. We got rid of one of the worst dictators in the 20th century. We got rid of his government. There is no prospect that Iraq is going to become a place where once again they produce weapons of mass destruction or support terrorists, as they...

KING: No prospect or a less likely prospect?

CHENEY: Well, I think as long as it's a democratically governed country, as long as they have got the security forces they do now and a relationship with the United States, I think there is no prospect that you're going to see the kind of behavior out of this new government in Iraq that we saw out of the old one over a period of 20 or 30 years.

So I think it was absolutely the right thing to do, and I think when history reviews this period, 10 or 20 years hence, that what will be significant was that we did, in fact, accomplish what we set out to do, and that the other things are interesting and important, but, you know, they are secondary to the basic -- basic result.

KING: You don't like timelines for bringing troops home, bringing troops home. You made that clear before. President Obama won the election. He says now he is going to bring most combat troops home by August of 2010. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was when you left office, he's still the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he doesn't like timelines either and he's made that clear. But he was here two weeks ago and he says he believes the new president's approach is reasonable and will work. Is it reasonable? Will it work?

CHENEY: The key opinion I would seek under these circumstances is -- obviously, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs isn't bad -- but I also want to know what the local commander thinks, what Ray Odierno believes, the four-star who now commands in Iraq.

CHENEY: And, as best I can tell, I think he does support this program. It does meet our commitments that we made in the status of forces agreement to the Iraqis, and it leaves a residue of forces there after 2010 that would allow him to do whatever needs to be done before we get to the end of 2011, which is when all of the troops have to be out.

KING: Are you convinced the new president is listening to his commanders and not bound by his campaign rhetoric?

CHENEY: I think he's had to compromise. He's tried to, I think, keep his campaign commitments, but I do think he has modified his position some, and I think that's a plus. I think he's dealt with the people who have been in the field, who have been in charge and responsible for these policies, and, hopefully, that's had an impact on him. They are good folks. KING: When he was here, Admiral Mullen also said he agreed with the IAEA report that says Iran now has enough nuclear material, enough fissile material to produce a bomb. He says he agrees with that. What should President Obama do if that's the case?

CHENEY: Well, you've got to find ways, I think, to avoid having Iran develop an inventory of nuclear weapons. We've talked about this for years. We worked it aggressively through the international community and with a lot of our friends in Europe...

KING: You were not always happy with that, especially at the end of the administration.

CHENEY: I was not always happy with that.

KING: You think your president invested too much in the European diplomacy?

CHENEY: Well, I can't say that. It was a choice he made. And...

KING: But it was not your choice? It would not have been your choice?

CHENEY: I supported what he did. I supported his policies. And I got to argue my case with him.

The circumstances now, though, are that we still have an Iran that I believe is pursuing nuclear weapons. What they've done, I think, as best I can tell -- I'm not reading the intelligence reports anymore like I did before January -- is they produced a fair amount of low enriched uranium, the kind that you would use for a power plant. That's the hardest step to get to. Once you have got low enriched uranium, it's relatively simple to change it to highly enriched uranium, and that's the last step that's needed before you have got fissile material for a weapon. So I'm not sure exactly where they are at this point, but I am confident of what their objective is, and I don't think that's changed.

KING: Do you wish your administration had taken more aggressive steps, and were you boxed in by opposition to Iraq not only here, but around the world?

CHENEY: I can't say that. You know, you deal with the situation you find. We were very concerned about rogue states or terrorist- sponsoring states like Iran getting nuclear weapons. We were, I think, very successful in some of the things we did. First term, for example, we went in and took down the Iraqi regime, which had been a prime proliferator and sponsor of terror. We shut down the A.Q. Khan black-market network that had provided nuclear technology to Libya, to Iran and to North Korea, and we cleaned out the Libyan program. When they say what we did in Iran (sic), they surrendered all of their nuclear materials and designs for weapons and so forth. Those were all major successes.

We still had on the table when we left the unresolved issues of North Korea and Iran. KING: Before we get to another break, let me follow up on that point. You disagree with the over-reliance, I think is a good term, a fair term, tell me if I'm wrong, on the diplomacy with the Europeans when it came to Iran. You also disagreed with the approach in the end to North Korea and taking them off the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for, I believe your view is, for nothing, or for just false promises.

The man who led that effort, Chris Hill, the diplomat in charge then is now President Obama's choice to be the ambassador in Iraq. That's a tough job. Do you think Chris Hill is up to that job based on what he did in North Korea?

CHENEY: He's not the man I would have picked for that post. He doesn't have any experience in the region. He's never served in that part of the world before. He doesn't speak the language. He's got none of the skills and talents that Ryan Crocker had, who was our last ambassador, who did a superb job, deserves as much credit as Dave Petraeus in terms of how that process worked during the surge that led to the success we've seen now in Iraq.

So I think it's a choice that -- a choice I wouldn't have made. I did not support the work that Chris Hill did with respect to North Korea.

KING: Why didn't the president listen to you?

CHENEY: Well, he gets to listen to whoever he wants to listen to, and I had my say. I got my chance to voice my views and my objections. I didn't the North Koreans were going to keep their end of the bargain, in terms of what they agreed to, and they didn't.

KING: More of our conversation in just a moment.

And up next, some tension with President Bush in their final days in office, and tensions now about the role of Rush Limbaugh in the Republican Party. More of our exclusive conversation with the former vice president, Dick Cheney, just ahead.



CHENEY: It means we need to be able to go after and capture or kill those people who are trying to kill Americans. That's not a pleasant business. It's a very serious business. And I suppose sometimes people look at my demeanor and say, well, "He's the Darth Vader of the administration."


KING: That's a conversation we had, a little more than two years ago, at the vice president's residence. You have since moved out.

You say that "capture and kill people" and it's "not a pleasant business." One of the people you were unable to capture or kill, Osama bin Laden, released another audiotape this weekend.

Is that a cloud on your legacy, that Osama bin Laden is still out there?

CHENEY: Well, we certainly would have liked to have nailed him on our watch, if I can put it in those terms. We didn't, but we had a major effort to -- to do so, and we passed that on to our successor.

KING: What's the closest you ever got?

CHENEY: Well, of course, we don't know for certain. We were fairly confident where he was located. We also believed, though, that he's buried so deep that it's very rare that he is able to communicate with his associates.

We also had a very great effect upon the number three in -- in Al Qaida. That was the most dangerous job in the world, for a long time, was to become the number three, because that was the one that, sort of, interacted between bin Laden and Zawahiri and the rest of the organization, and we were often able to capture or kill them.

KING: You made clear, in an interview with the Politico, when you left office, that you were a little worried that President Obama might not be up to this challenge of fighting terrorism.

I want to read to you from that interview. You said you "think there's a high probability of such an attempt," meaning a major attack on the United States like 9/11.

KING: And you said, whether or not they can pull it off depends whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts since 9/11 to launch mass casualty attacks against the United States."

Well, since taking office, President Obama has done these things to change the policies you helped put in place. He has announced he will close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He has announced he will close CIA black sites around the world, where they interrogate terror suspects. Says he will make CIA interrogators abide by the Army Field Manual, defined waterboarding as torture and ban it, suspend trials for terrorists by military commission, and now eliminate the label of enemy combatants. I'd like to just simply ask you, yes or no, by taking those steps, do you believe the president of the United States has made Americans less safe?

CHENEY: I do. I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. I think that's a great success story. It was done legally. It was done in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles.

President Obama campaigned against it all across the country. And now he is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack.

KING: That's a pretty serious thing to say about the president of the United States...

CHENEY: Well...

KING: ... and commander in chief of the military. So I want to give you a chance, because many people will say, Vice President Cheney just said Barack Obama, President Obama is making us less safe, more at risk, which you just said. I want to give you a chance -- and take as much time as you want -- to prove it. Because you put that list up there, and I know you say there have been three cases, I believe, of waterboarding in the past, and you say that specific things have been prevented. I know some of this is classified intelligence, but now that you're out of government, to the degree that you can, tell the American people, because of those tactics, because of those, yes, sometimes extreme tactics, we stopped this. CHENEY: Well, I would say that the key to what we did was to collect intelligence against the enemy. That's what the terrorist surveillance program was all about, that's what the enhanced interrogation program was all about.

KING: But another 9/11, because of a tactic like waterboarding or a black site, can you say with certainty you stopped another attempt to do something on that level?

CHENEY: John, I've seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected then that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs. It's still classified. I can't give you the details of it without violating classification, but I can say there were a great many of them.

The one that has been public was the potential attack coming out of Heathrow, when they were going to have several American planes with terrorists on board, with liquid explosives, and they were going to blow those planes up over the United States.

Now, that was intercepted and stopped, partly because of those programs that we put in place.

KING: Much more of our conversation with the former Vice President Dick Cheney ahead. What's life like after the vice presidency, and how's his health? We'll ask when our exclusive interview with Mr. Cheney continues in just a moment. Don't go anywhere.


KING: Back now with our exclusive conversation with the former Vice President Dick Cheney. You noted earlier you disagreed with the president's strategy on Iran and North Korea.

I am told by people close to you and close to the former president that the most tense moment came late, when you wanted the president to pardon your friend and your former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and the president said no. How tense did that get? CHENEY: Well, it was -- it was one of the moments that occurred in the administration where we had fundamental difference of opinion. I believe firmly that Scooter was unjustly accused and prosecuted and deserved a pardon, and the president disagreed with that.

KING: Angry? Tense? Shouting?

CHENEY: Those kinds of details, I think, are best left to history. Maybe I'll write about it in my book.

KING: You're writing a memoir. What is the title going to be?

CHENEY: We haven't decided on one yet, but I am seriously interested in writing about my 40 years in Washington and all kinds of different jobs, and I think that's how I'll spend the bulk of my time the next few months.

KING: Did that hurt? Did the Scooter Libby disagreement hurt your relationship with the president of the United States? Do you still speak?

CHENEY: Yes, we do. We've had three calls in the last few weeks. So, you know, obviously, we traveled a long way together in eight years and two presidential campaigns, and that built a very solid, lasting relationship.

I was clearly not happy that we, in effect, left Scooter sort of hanging in the wind, which I didn't think was appropriate. I think he's an innocent man who deserves a pardon.

KING: What next for your party? There has been a big dust-up in recent days, in parts stoked by the White House, about Rush Limbaugh making some comments. David Frum, a conservative who worked in your administration, says that Rush Limbaugh is kryptonite, because he drives away the voters the Republicans need to build the road to discovery. Is Rush Limbaugh kryptonite?

CHENEY: No, Rush is a good friend. I love him. I think he does great work and has for years. He's now offered to debate President Obama on his radio show. Hell, I'd pay to see that! It would be interesting to have developed. I think Rush is a good man and serves a very important purpose.

KING: You worked in government for so long, especially these past eight years. You didn't get to have one of these.

CHENEY: No, sir.

KING: I'm told, because...


KING: ... a lot of new technology. I'm told you now have a BlackBerry and you have a car that talks to you. What is it like to not get up at 5:00 every morning and have the CIA come in with a book of intelligence, and instead you're stuck reading the newspapers, like the rest of us. But a BlackBerry and a car that talks to you?

CHENEY: Well, I get on the BlackBerry and get a lot there. I also own a Kindle now, one of these electronic books. And so I follow a lot of issues. But that's right. I don't get up at 5:00 a.m., I don't receive that CIA brief every morning. On the one hand, I miss it. I've spent 40 years in the business, and so I'm used to it, but this is also the fourth time I've transitioned out of government. I know there are good things up ahead. I'm enjoying spending time with my family.

KING: Do you drive yourself?

CHENEY: We're getting a new house. Driving myself now. So.

KING: Secret Service chase you around? CHENEY: Secret Service follows me around, but they now let me drive myself. And it's been a -- you know, it's a useful exercise to go through.

CHENEY: After eight years, I think it's time for me to step down and for others to take over. That's a healthy thing for the nation.

KING: Does "step down and let others take over" mean fade from the scene, or will we hear from Dick Cheney, beyond his memoir?

Will you be active in the party?

Will you be active in politics; take another job in business?

CHENEY: Well, I don't have any plans to run for office. I also don't have any plans to retire. We've got a lot of good folks out there, I think a new generation of leaders coming along, people like Rob Portman in Ohio, Mark Sanford in South Carolina, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan in the House.

There's some really, really talented people in the Republican Party, and I look forward to helping them some day, if they need my help, in terms of whatever I can do to see them succeed.

KING: We're out of time on this morning, but I'll invite you back at a later date, especially when the book is ready. Bring it on in. I may have read it on a -- I may have to buy a Kindle.

CHENEY: All right.

KING: Mr. Vice President, thanks so much for being here.


KING: President Obama's promising to reform earmark spending, but can he get Congress to break an old habit?

One of the topics we might discuss with Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. He gets the last word, when "State of the Union" returns.


KING: Thirty -- count them -- 30 newsmakers, analysts and reporters were out on the Sunday morning talk shows today, but only one gets the last word. That honor, this week, goes to Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania.

Once -- and we can show you a photo -- a three-star admiral -- you see Admiral Sestak there -- he is the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to the United States Congress.

Congressman, thanks for joining us today.

SESTAK: Good to be here, John.

KING: I want to start with some pretty startling things that the vice president said, former Vice President Cheney said, earlier today, on the program.

And I asked him, quite simply -- we know he disagrees with President Obama's views on the war on terrorism, but I put the question to him, are Americans less safe because of the policies of the new president?

Let's listen.


KING: Do you believe the president of the United States has made Americans less safe?



KING: Two words, "I do" -- a pretty big thing for anyone to say about the president, the commander in chief.

Do you agree with Vice President Cheney?

SESTAK: No, I don't. And that's pretty damning two words that he said.

What he's actually suggesting is that we have to continue to compromise on what is actually the source of Americans' greatness, our principles, in order to protect those principles, rather than admitting that what's really endangering our national security today is a military that is so overstretched from the tragic misadventure in Iraq that we can't even, John, respond to any other contingency in this world, and an economy that's in tatters and is actually causing a global recession; most of all, that the power of our ideals is one that this world no longer looks to us in order to implement across the globe.

How can we say that keeping a man in a black hole forever, perpetually in a black hole, and say, let's torture when we decide to, is what America stands for?

We're a nation of laws, not of men in the executive branch that interpret it. So, no, I strongly disagree.

KING: And I just want to make the point to our viewers, if they didn't get it at the beginning, as someone who wore the uniform, a three-star admiral, and now as, yes, a Democrat but a member of Congress, you are convinced that nothing on that list I went through with Vice President Cheney, closing Guantanamo Bay, closing the back sites, all of those things -- you're fine with all of it?

SESTAK: Absolutely. I headed the Navy's antiterrorist unit after 9/11. We were implementing the new types of processes needed to best address our security in this global war of terror.

I also was director of defense policy in President Clinton's White House, where I saw the intelligence flow to the commander in chief.

And, absolutely not. To say that we're going to place someone in a place where the law does not -- does not protect them, and that we can actually torture someone with water-boarding in Poland, as we have, and placed in a black site over there, run by the CIA, no.

We can have better security if we are able to, most important of all, protect the principles that I and my brethren that I -- to protect those principles, are protected themselves if we are ever captured. And that's the ingredient that was lost by this past administration.

I respect his service. I do. But I significantly disagree with the approach he took, outside the law, to actually take the judiciary branch that interprets our laws and say that, no, the executive branch can interpret the law. I disagree.

KING: Very blunt criticism from the former vice president, in the war on terrorism, yet surprising almost support for President Obama's approach now in Iraq.

I asked the former vice president if he was comfortable with the plan to bring most of the troops home by 2010. He said, as of now, he is. He believes that the president is consulting with the commanders on the ground. And he wouldn't use the term, "mission accomplished," because we all know that's politically loaded from the prior administration, but did say this.


CHENEY: We've accomplished nearly everything we set out to do.


KING: Have we accomplished -- has the United States accomplished everything the Bush administration set out to do in Iraq?

SESTAK: The Bush administration may have created, after six, seven long years, some stability with Iraq, but they have not kept the most precious constitutional duty of the presidency in highest regard, which is to enhance the security of America.

We now have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, months ago, said Afghanistan is spiralling downward. And the head of the CIA, over a year ago, had said Al Qaida, the Al Qaida that struck us, now has a safe haven in Pakistan.

And we do not have a military that's done any training on -- except counterinsurgency, for the last four years. Twenty-seven thousand troops sit in South Korea, ready to defend against a possible attack from North Korea, the divisions of Army troops ready to deploy there -- ready to deploy there; cannot.

And so I sit back and I say, they looked at Iraq as the determinant of national security for America, rather than saying, what's in the best interest of America's whole cloth, whole fabric of national security, and if the strategy in Iraq was harming it, change it.

So, yes, we are now redeploying safely, deliberately, having to now resurrect our interests and protect them in Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, in the most dangerous place in the world, Pakistan, and resurrect our Army.

The cost of this war is something that I strongly believe has far, far hurt us. Now, we're going to recover because we're Americans. But Iraq was just one piece of our security. And this past administration failed to realize that.

KING: Well, we have less than a minute left, sir. I want to turn to the economy.

KING: You are a Democrat who represents a formerly Republican district. Pretty tough swing district.

SESTAK: Still Republican.

KING: Still Republican you say in Philadelphia. A lot of Democrats like you, want to support this president. We're beginning to pick up more and more frustration, saying you're going home and starting to hear it from the people. What's all this spending in Washington? The bailout money, the stimulus money. Capture for me, and I'm sorry we have less than a minute left, your concern as you come back to Washington and want to support this president. Are there places where you think he's maybe spending too much or too much government?

SESTAK: My concern is that we will not be bold enough, that we will not be aggressive enough because policymakers, Congress and the presidency, have been shooting behind the rabbit too much. This is when we need leaders to stand tall in Washington because not ideology but pragmatic approaches, looking at the modeling demonstrates that only if we intervene strongly, the single global haven, AAA rated instituted in the world that can borrow at a low rate and actually get us quickly through this recession. If I learned anything in the military, is if you're in the middle of a storm, act quickly to get out of that storm, as rapidly as you can. We're going to burn some gas and deficit money, but the damage to our economy, exponentially greater if we don't do even more.

KING: Admiral Sestak, Congressman Sestak, thanks for coming in. And when we come back, we'll take you to Savannah, Georgia, where a former soldier who served on the front lines three times, from the start of the Iraq war until just a little over a year ago, still feeling the impact of combat as we approach the six-year mark.


KING: This coming Thursday marks the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. And in this past week, the military announced the first step of the planned troop withdrawal. With that in mind, we decided this week to base our travels down here in the state of Georgia. It is the state with many military installations, one of them Fort Stewart. And we visited this past week and here you see young men in the army training in the Bradley fighting vehicle. They are preparing in the weeks and months ahead to go over to Iraq or Afghanistan. They don't have their specific orders yet. Worth noting, close to 300,000 U.S. troops are currently overseas, more than 131,000 have been deployed at least once before. One of them is Chris Tucker. He's in Savannah, Georgia, now. That's why we were there. Back at the beginning as the third infantry rolled into Baghdad, he was a young man as excited as he was scared, worried about keeping his head down, not dealing with the nightmares that come with post- traumatic stress disorder.


KING (voice-over): Patrols come naturally to Officer Chris Tucker. His eyes move from side to side quick to notice the telltale signs of trouble.

TUCKER: Some people, you'll come around the corner and they'll just run. You can tell if they're favoring one side or it might be a gun.

KING: Skills honed in a different uniform, in a very different place.

TUCKER: Over there, it's just bad everywhere. Fallujah was bad. Sadr City was bad. Baghdad was bad. I think my attention to detail, I think, definitely helps me here.

KING: Here is Savannah, Georgia.

TUCKER: I clocked you at 70 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour zone.

KING: For Tucker, life after the army and life after Iraq, is a job as a police officer.

TUCKER: You still get to serve your community, your country in other ways. You all have a good morning. Call us if you need us.

KING: And the joys of fatherhood.

TUCKER: A baby daughter. He's three months old now. So my life is slowing down, but I enjoy the slow pace. KING: But he hasn't left it all behind.

TUCKER: I still have the nightmares and wake up and find myself downstairs, don't know how I got there.

KING: Is it any better since you've been home for awhile?

TUCKER: No, not really, no. I still see the same thing. Faces, kids' faces. People that you've engaged or that you've had contact with. See your colleagues blown up, you know. Things like that.

KING: He was there at the beginning.

TUCKER: A big fire fight out here, outside Baghdad. KING: A camera on his tank as the third infantry division rode triumphantly into Baghdad back in April of 2003. CNN visited with Tucker before his second deployment. The nightmares had started. War had given way to insurgency.

TUCKER: It's not like it was the first time where the enemy would be wearing a special Republican guard uniform and carrying an AK and now, it's different. Now, they're putting roadside bombs, IEDs. They're making it a dirty war.

KING: When we talked just before his third deployment in 2007, Tucker was taking medications for depression, had major hearing loss and injuries to his back and both feet. The army said treatment could wait.

TUCKER: You would hope that they would take care of you better. It makes you realize that we're stretched kind of thin.

KING: Home now, his experience tells him things in Iraq can take sudden turns for the worse, so he's skeptical of the new president's promise to bring most troops home by August 2010.

TUCKER: I think we're in too deep just to pull out. You can't just commit the way we did and walk away. Politics shouldn't be involved in how war is handled.

KING: His experience also tells him it is best to focus on his new work or his new daughter.

TUCKER: I try to distance myself from it as much as I can. For me, the more I think about it, the more I'll reflect on what happened, what we did, the more I think that the dreams and actual nightmares and things like that actually come back.

KING: But he does keep in tough with friends still there or going back. Six years and counting is not the Iraq legacy Chris Tucker imagined on that first ride into Baghdad.

TUCKER: I thought we'd get their quick, we'd handle our business and we'd be out. At least that's what we were told, anyway.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KING: Whatever you think of this war, remember the remarkable service and sacrifices of people like Chris Tucker and their families. We'll be here again next Sunday and every Sunday, 9 a.m. Eastern for the first and last word in Sunday talk. If you missed any part of our program, tune in tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern. We'll showcase the best of today's STATE OF THE UNION. Until then, I'm John King in Washington. Have a great Sunday. For our international viewers, "African Voices" is next. For everyone else, "Fareed Zakaria GPS" starts right now.