This post has been updated.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney voiced his concern about the Trump administration’s ability to handle national security issues in a talk at Cornell on Tuesday night while defending the George W. Bush administration’s decision to deploy U.S. military to Iraq and the controversial use of waterboarding on detainees at the time.
Despite rumors of students allegedly hoarding tickets, Call Auditorium, where the event took place, was packed with only a few seats empty. Students, parents and guests gathered to hear Cheney, who was hosted by the Cornell Republicans, discuss the issues of national security and his views on the current president.
Cheney said that sending the U.S. military to Iraq was “the right thing to do” after the events of 9/11. The decision to act, he said, was based on the intelligence — which suggested that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was supporting terrorists and hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
Cheney said that the Central Intelligence Agency had been providing this information to the White House “for years.” “A lot of what we did was based on the intelligence that we received,” he added.
Cheney recalled that George Tenet, then-CIA director, responded that the intelligence was as reliable as a “slam dunk” in a meeting at the Oval Office that then-President George W. Bush and Cheney himself attended.
Cheney said the confirmation from the head of the CIA led the administration to believe the intelligence was reliable and that “there [was] a serious problem” in Iraq.
According to him, the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international organization that reports to the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, also concluded after conducting an independent investigation that Hussein had plans to develop nuclear weapons.
“We looked at [the intelligence] in 47 different ways, and in the end, I’m convinced that we did the right thing that needed to be done,” he said, also insisting that U.S. involvement in the area produced good results.
“We did change the regime in Iraq,” Cheney said. “We went in, we took down Saddam Hussein. I think the world is a better place without Saddam in it, I think the president had all the justification he needed.”
He added that one of the “byproducts” of the Iraq war was getting “Libya out of the nuclear business,” as former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than 42 years, publicly surrendered Libya’s nuclear materials “five days after we dragged Saddam out of his hole.”
Cheney said that unlike Libya, North Korea would not be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, and he said he was unsure about what the upcoming U.S.-North Korea talks will lead to.
“I’m hopeful like everybody else, but I find it hard to believe [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] would give it up,” Cheney said, warning that North Korea has “turned their back on whatever commitment they made” before. “You’ll have to come up with circumstances to get North Korea to buy off, but I cannot foresee a situation where they’ll give up the nukes.”
Besides external forces like North Korea, which cannot be controlled, Cheney also expressed doubt on whether the current administration is able to handle future crisis, referring to the the recent White House staffing turmoil, which involves a record-breaking turnover rate of 34 percent, according to The New York Times.
“Trump has good people around him, but they don’t last very long,” Cheney — who voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election — said. “Numerous ambassadorships are still empty … I think he is ignoring one of the most important responsibilities now.”
Regarding the other recent events, such as the Justice Department’s investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, Cheney said these situations have distracted the president from governing the country.
“When you are focused on stuff that doesn’t really advance the cause … who’s going to run the store? Who’s going to put together … talks with North Korea?” Cheney asked. “When we look back on this period, especially when we encounter major crisis down the road and we lack the talent that can cope with it … I think it’ll be potential tragedy.”
According to Cheney, the controversy around Trump himself also prevented him from receiving support from experienced staff and experts.
“The controversy was so great during the campaign that an awful lot of our most capable people — generals, intelligence specialists, staff from the previous administrations — all signed a letter saying that under no circumstances would they work for President Trump,” Cheney said.
In response to the criticism that waterboarding, an interrogation technique used by the U.S. government on detainees during the Bush administration, was no different than torture, Cheney said the practice did not violate any laws and was necessary to obtaining crucial intelligence on terrorist organizations following the events of 9/11.
“We decided … in fact, we needed to know, especially after we captured Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the mastermind behind 9/11,” Cheney said. “We needed the ability to say more than just ‘please, please, pretty please.’”
“We went to the Justice Department and we had them tell us where’s that line out there, and the answer was, waterboarding was inside the line,” Cheney went on to say, adding that waterboarding was “one of the techniques that we used on our own people for training” and is not “something that we reached out to the dark side” to get as some people said.
Cheney said Mohammed, who went through the most extensive waterboarding, did “ultimately cooperate” and became a “premiere source” on information about al-Qaida, which eventually led the U.S. military forces to Osama Bin Laden.
“On that basis, I think we did the right thing,” he said. “A lot of people call it torture, ‘Cheney is the vice president for torture,’ etc., but we did what needed to be done. I am comfortable that we proceeded in a very careful, cautious manner. I believed in it, I worked hard to defend it, because I know we did the right thing.”
The event, which lasted around one and half hours, was interrupted three times by individual protesters. The first one occurred soon after the event started, when Ariel Gold, national co-director of CODEPINK, repeatedly shouted “arrest the war criminal” — to which Cheney responded, “thank you.”
The second protester paused the event by accusing Cheney of invading Iraq even though reports on weapons of mass destruction were false. The third one said Cheney was “guilty of felony” for “asking for the assistance of the Cornell Police” in this event.
All three individuals stopped protesting at the request of Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88, senior associate dean of students, and were escorted out by Cornell University Police. Austin McLaughlin ’18, outgoing Cornell Republicans president, told The Sun that he thinks the event “went pretty smoothly” and that “CUPD has done a great job.”