Speaking with reporters on board his plane yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney was in the mood for some vigorous back-and-forth about the administration's NSA al Qaeda spying program. He defended the Bush administration's general efforts to protect presidential prerogatives, and then challenged reporters who suggested the surveillance was both widespread and alarming:
Q Do you not understand, though, that some Americans are concerned to hear that their government is eavesdropping on these private conversations?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: What private conversations?
Q The private conversations between Americans and people overseas.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Which people overseas?
Q You tell me.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's important that you be clear that we're talking about individuals who are al Qaeda or have an association with al Qaeda, who we have reason to believe are part of that terrorist network. There are two requirements, and that's one of them. It's not just random conversations. If you're calling Aunt Sadie in Paris, we're probably not really interested.
And the key quote:
Cheney was also asked whether he thought there might be a backlash against the NSA news, so much so that Congress might impose new restrictions on the executive branch:Emphasis mine.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I think when the American people look at this, they will understand and appreciate what we're doing and why we're doing it. It's not an accident that we haven't been hit in four years. There's a temptation for people to sit around and say, well, gee, that was just a one-off affair, they didn't really mean it. Bottom line is we've been very active and very aggressive defending the nation and using the tools at our disposal to do that. That ranges from everything to going into Afghanistan and closing down the terrorist camps, rounding up al Qaeda wherever we can find them in the world, to an active robust intelligence program, putting out rewards, the capture of bad guys, and the Patriot Act.
Now we've gotten to the point where four years beyond the attack, people are saying, well, gee, maybe there's not a threat here after all, and so we've got people suggesting we shouldn't be doing what we're doing with respect to the NSA program. We've got the Senate Democrats filibustering the Patriot Act, so it's going to go out of -- certain parts of it are going to expire here in two weeks. It has been absolutely vital to what we've been doing in the intelligence and law enforcement area. It breaks down that artificial barrier that used to exist between law enforcement and intelligence. And the tools that we're given there to use in the counterterrorism area are the same tools we use against drug traffickers. But all of a sudden there's a lot of stirring around shall we say about our authority to operate in those areas.
Either we're serious about fighting the war on terror or we're not. Either we believe that there are individuals out there doing everything they can to try to launch more attacks, to try to get ever deadlier weapons to use against, or we don't. The President and I believe very deeply that there's a hell of a threat, that it's there for anybody who wants to look at it. And that our obligation and responsibility given our job is to do everything in our power to defeat the terrorists. And that's exactly what we're doing.
But if there's anything improper or inappropriate in that, my guess is that the vast majority of the American people support that, support what we're doing. They believe we ought to be doing it, and so if there's a backlash pending, I think the backlash is going to be against those who are suggesting somehow that we shouldn't take these steps in order to protect the country.