LESTER HOLT: As you know, this has been the bloodiest day in Iraq since the end of major combat. More than 140 civilian—Shi’ite civilians killed in Karbala and Baghdad. A lot of voters going to the polls today, they’ll be going to the polls in November, asking where is the light at the end of this tunnel? Obviously, U.S. soldiers continue to come under attack. Where is the light?
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, we don’t yet know exactly who did the attack. We’ve got suspicions obviously. My take on it, my assessment of it based on what I know so far is that the attacks today, tragic as they were, were probably launched possibly by Al Zargawi, this al Qaida associate who we recently intercepted a letter that he was sending to Osama bin Laden’s associates, bragging about launching 25 of these kind of attacks and talking about his strategy of launching attacks against Shi’ia in order to try to start a civil war inside Iraq.
I think what it is more than anything else is major desperation on their part, as we get closer and closer to standing up a new government in Iraq, as we get closer to establishing a government to which we can transfer sovereignty, to establishing a democracy.
Of course, they’ve just adopted an interim constitution just within the last few days, but all of those things make the terrorists more and more desperate. They recognize that once power is handed over to the Iraqis that it will be increasingly difficult for them to try to have their way in Iraq.
MR. HOLT: What does that mean in terms of when American troops can be done in Iraq?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, I can’t put a final time on it. We’ve said repeatedly we’ll stay however long it takes to get the job done, but we don’t want to stay a day longer than is necessary. We’re clearly going to be there until they can stand up a government. They’re taking over more and more of their security responsibilities themselves. If you look at the casualty figures, there’s been a fairly significant decline in American casualties in the last couple of months, and the Iraqis are picking up more and more of the security responsibility themselves, and that’s as it should be.
The tragedy day obviously is very unfortunate, any loss of life is. But again, as I say, I think it’s a measure of how desperate the terrorists have become, that they’re willing to launch that kind of strike at religious sites, and these are Muslim terrorists. These are all al Qaida associates, my guess. I can’t absolutely prove that yet, but if they’re part of the Zargawi network—he is a noted al Qaida associate who’s operated there off and on over the years.
MR. HOLT: The UN weapons inspectors are issuing a report that essentially backs what David Kay said, that there were no significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the war. You, of course, were a big advocate to call Saddam Hussein to task to end the game. So are you disappointed that nothing’s been found, frustrated, even embarrassed?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: No. I think you have to look precisely at what we are finding and will find. The search is going to go on. There’s still a lot of work to be done before we’ll have looked every place we need to look, we’ve checked out all the ammunition dumps and looked at the documents and interviewed all the people. That work will probably continue for another year or two, and it’s not complete yet.
David Kay said that he clearly had programs. Talk about a difference between stockpiles and programs, but he clearly had programs. For example, the building of a missile that was beyond UN allowed limits. It was a clear violation of the UN Security Council Resolution. He had biological weapons programs that could have produced on relatively short notice because he had the basic laboratories, he had the technology and people who had done it before.
He had a track record of having used and produced this material before as well. So we’re now in the process of finding out exactly how close our intelligence matched what we find on the ground. We need to do that, but I think on balance overall there’s no question we did the right thing in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein had hosted terrorists before, and he had produced and used weapons of mass destruction before. And what the President and I said, as well as many others, prior to the war, tracked very closely with what we were being given by the intelligence community, and that was their best estimate of what he had.
On Bin Laden
MR. HOLT: Let me turn to the matter of Osama bin Laden. Do you feel better about the U.S. changes of catching or killing him today than you felt, say, two months ago?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I think we will get Osama bin Laden. I’ve always believed that.
MR. HOLT: Soon?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I can’t put a clock on it. There’s no way to establish a timetable on it. But there shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind that we’re absolutely determined to keep up that search just as long as we have to, and—
MR. HOLT: And how far will that search go? If the U.S. had information that Osama bin Laden was on the Pakistan side of the border, would U.S. forces go get him or would you—
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I wouldn’t want to speculate. We work very closely with our friends in Pakistan. There are Pakistani forces on their side of the border, U.S. forces working in Afghanistan alongside forces of many other nations.
And—but the fact is, it’s in everybody’s interest that we capture Osama bin Laden, and we’ll continue to work with our friends and allies in the region, and intelligence services, military forces, law enforcement personnel, whatever it takes ultimately to run him to ground. We’ve been very successful to date. We’ve wrapped up over 500 al Qaida members in Pakistan. We obviously did enormous damage to their base of operations in Afghanistan, closed all the camps, killed thousands of al Qaida and Taliban soldiers during the course of our operations there.
So we’ve made major progress. We still haven’t laid our hands on Osama bin Laden. We want to do that, and we’ll stay at it just as long as necessary.
On Decision 2004
MR. HOLT: Today is Super Tuesday. Senator Kerry seems well on the way toward nomination. Let me ask you about your own political future. The President says he wants you on the ticket.
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Right.
MR. HOLT: Will you be on the ticket?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I will. He’s, he’s asked me to serve again, and I’ll be happy to do that.
MR. HOLT: Are there any circumstances in which you would decline to run?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, I can’t think of what they would be. Obviously, if a health question came up or something like that, clearly if I thought that I couldn’t do what he needs to have done, then I’d be the first to recommend that he gets somebody else to do—
MR. HOLT: Any suggestion of a health problem? How is your health?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Health’s been good. I’m watched more carefully now than I ever have been before. I’ve got a doctor with me all the time in my capacity as Vice President. They take good care of me.
MR. HOLT: You recognize, of course, that in many ways you’ve become a lightning rod. Haliburton is rarely mentioned without “the company that Vice President Cheney once ran.” Your name is mentioned in connection with weapons of mass destruction and as being a big proponent of war. I’m not saying any of that’s fair or not, but do you recognize it as a potential impediment to the—
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I think the fact that you become a lightning rod is it goes with the turn. There’s no way you can do one of these jobs, now for three years going on four years, without stirring up certain controversy. People agree or disagree with decisions the President makes or recommendations I make, and that’s the nature of the business. So I don’t—I’m not concerned about that. I hear about those kinds of charges and claims from our opponents. I imagine they’ll continue to make them all during the course of the campaign, but that’s not what this election is about.
What the election is going to be about is basic fundamental choice for the American people over what kind of strategy we pursue going forward, how we make the nation more safer and more secure from terrorism, how we win on the terror, as well as how we rebuild the American economy.
MR. HOLT: If you ever thought though that as a lightning rod you were beginning to hurt the President, would you step out of the race?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I—when he first asked me to take the job four years ago, I respectfully declined. I told him we needed to find somebody else. So if I thought I were a drag on the ticket, I’d be the first to recommend to him that, that he needs to consider alternatives.
That’s not been the case. He’s decided he wants me to run again. He’s a very artful persuader. He persuaded me in 2000 I should give up my private interests and sign on, and I’ve loved working for him, and he’s asked me to serve again, and I plan to do exactly that.
On same-sex marriage
MR. HOLT: Mr. Vice President, on a social issue, you’ve made statements in the past suggesting the issue of same-sex marriage as one that should be left up to the states. The President has, of course, called for a Federal Constitutional Amendment that would essentially ban same-sex marriage. Where are you today?VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, the President’s taken the clear position that he supports a constitutional amendment. His concern has been based primarily on developments in San Francisco and Boston, where in fact legal cases have arisen, and challenges have arisen to existing laws with respect to this issue.
He’s made clear what the administration position is, and I support him.
MR. HOLT: We’re, we’re both fathers. We love our children for who they are, what they are. Your daughter is openly homosexual. Is there ever a conflict when you look at matters like this from between the loving father, Dick Cheney, and the politician, the Vice President, Dick Cheney?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, what I’ve always done—I absolutely love my daughters very much, both of them, and care very deeply for them. One of the most unpleasant aspects of this business is the extent of which private lives are, are intruded upon when these kinds of issues come up. And I really have always considered my private—my daughters’ lives private, and I think that’s the way it ought to remain.
On the jobs issue
MR. HOLT: I think our time is nearly up, but I want to quickly ask you on the economy. The Democrats have, Senator Kerry, Senator Edwards have found a lot of traction on the jobs issue, the number of jobs lost under this administration, and the few that have been added. What’s the defense? What are they—what are Senators Edwards and Kerry not telling us?
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, they’re not telling you that the economy is, is recovering significantly over the course of the last year or two, that the President’s tax cuts were exactly the right medicine at the right time, that the rate of growth in the economy the last half of last year was over 6 percent, now one of the highest in the last 20 years, that we’ve added some 366,000 jobs in the last few months, that our productivity is very good, our homebuilding rate is high, inflation is low, interest rates are low.
The economy’s in very good shape, and going forward there’s every reason to be optimistic that we will have the kind of growth that we need to create jobs out there.
Unemployment rate’s at 5.6 percent. That’s not bad, given the historical average. It’s below the average of the ‘80s, the ‘90s and the ‘70s, for example.
So there is, without question, certain pain out there in various communities where there’s economic change under way, where a plant’s closed or a factory’s closed, or where individual families have lost their jobs. But it’s part of a dynamic economy. We always are creating new jobs as well, and you’ve got to look at the total picture, recognize that we’ll continue to push very hard to create the kind of jobs that are needed, and to recognize as well that the proposals of the Democrats to raise taxes are exactly the wrong medicine.
If the democratic policies had been pursued over the last two or three years, the kind of tax increases that both Kerry and Edwards have talked about, we would not have had the kind of job growth that we’ve had.
Lester Holt anchors 'Weekend Today' on NBC, and 'Lester Holt Live' on MSNBC, weekdays, 4-6 p.m. ET.