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Cheney Doesn't Care About Polls, Or Qahtani

4:09 PM, Jan 14, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Vice President Cheney gives an exit interview to Jim Lehrer tonight, a transcript of which was just released by the White House. Cheney is asked at length about his current approval rating and whether it makes him sad. It doesn't. Cheney also responds to today's Washington Post story in which Susan Crawford alleged that Mohammed al-Qahtani's interrogation amounted to torture. Some highlights...

On public opinion of the Bush administration:

Q Okay. Why do you believe that the public approval of, at least measured by the polls and other things, is so low? In your case, almost historically low. ...

THE VICE PRESIDENT: We've tried very hard not to govern based on polls. That is to say we haven't tailored our policies in order to appeal to polls. We did start out -- I think one of the things that contributed to the amount of hostility that's out there in the body politic was what happened in the 2000 election, that it was as close as it was. And I think there were some people out there who questioned the legitimacy of our administration, given the way the Florida recount ultimately turned out. I think that contributed to it.

I think the decisions we've had to make on things like terrorist surveillance, like on interrogation of detainees, Patriot Act and so forth, the steps we've had to take to guard against another attack have been controversial and have been attacked robustly by our critics and our opponents....

I served in the Ford administration. I was there and remember what it was like when Jerry Ford made a very controversial decision to pardon Richard Nixon and fell 30 points in the polls in a week. I also know that 30 years later he was much revered and much respected for that decision because he made it without regard to what it would do to him politically.

Q But, Mr. Vice President, people would say back to you, wait a minute, you govern in the present, not by what some historian is going to say 50 years from now. The idea in a democratic society of having the disapproval of an overwhelming majority of the American people, does that work?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's what elections are for, Jim. And as I say, we went out and stood for election and were reelected comfortably. But you cannot, in these circumstances, especially, start worrying about the polls in terms of whether or not you're going to make these tough decisions. The easy thing to do is -- oh, let's not do terrorist surveillance, let's not have a robust interrogation program of these al Qaeda folks when we capture them, let's not take aggressive action to defend the nation -- because then The New York Times will love and we'll get editorials written about us all over the country and our numbers will go up in the polls.

On the interrogation of Qahtani:

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I heard about this individual -- this is Mr. Qahtani, who was the 20th hijacker. He tried to get into the United States so he could get on one of the airplanes on 9/11 and fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. He was stopped by an alert customs agent in Florida, I believe.

And also, as I recall -- I read the article this morning -- that she said all of the techniques that were utilized were authorized. None of them were in violation of the basic fundamental tenets that were used out there. She was, as I understand it, complaining about the way in which, or the -- well, specifically the way in which they were administered. I don't have any way to judge that. I'm sure that the Defense Department has, or will thoroughly investigate it and get to the bottom of it. They're very good at those sort of things.

So it's entirely possible that it was a problem in terms of how one specific prisoner was handled. I can't claim perfection. What I can say is that in terms of what the policies of the administration were, both at the White House level and then at the Defense Department, was that enhanced interrogation was okay. We had specific techniques that were approved by the Justice Department. But we don't torture, and that we would not support torture from this standpoint. It was not the policy of this administration.

Q Well, just for a general premise here, looking back, you don't -- nothing happened that you feel was over the line or that you feel was a miscalculation, a mistake of some kind?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, in terms of the treatment of a specific individual, I can't say that. With Abu Ghraib, for example, in that case, I believe, based on what I've seen, that that was the result of some military personnel who were improperly supervised, weren't given the right kind of guidance, weren't managed properly.

As we dig in and look at hundreds of cases, we may well find a few people who were not properly treated. I ran the Pentagon. I know that you can't absolutely guarantee at all times everybody is doing it the way they're supposed to do it. I can tell you what the policy was. I can tell you that we had all the legal authorization we needed to do it, including the sign-off of the Justice Department. I can tell you it produced phenomenal results for us and a great many Americans are alive today because we did all that. And I think those are the important considerations.

Q And you're personally very comfortable with that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I am.