STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Former Vice President Dick Cheney gave a passionate defense of the National Security Agency surveillance program Friday night at the 5th annual Steamboat Institute Freedom Conference.
Speaking on a stage with his daughter Liz beside him, the elder Cheney argued that the NSA surveillance program was necessary to protect Americans and urged the more than 300 conservatives in attendance to trust the professionals who run the NSA, even if they don’t trust President Obama.
“The first thing you do is you get yourself a new commander in chief,” Cheney said when asked by his daughter, who is running for U.S. Senate in Wyoming, for his thoughts on the issues surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program.
“No question this is a difficult subject matter. There are a lot of Americans out there, some of them good friends of mine, who are concerned about the NSA. Part of the difficulty is — and I plead with people don’t conflate the NSA with the IRS. Totally different problems, totally different issues.”
“It would be a terrible mistake if because the IRS has been abused by Barack Obama and his people, we would therefore turn and say, ‘well, we are going to get rid of the NSA program because it might be abused by the president,” he continued. “But there aren’t any really good examples out there how the NSA programs have been abused. You don’t have the kind of evidence there that you’ve got with respect to the IRS.”
Cheney then effusively praised the professionals in the NSA, saying at one point that he’d “let [NSA director] Keith Alexander cover my back anytime.”
“I have confidence with men like General Alexander involved,” Cheney said. “Given the professionals in the intelligence community — I have never seen the situation that they violated for political purposes the way the fact the IRS the authority they had.”
Liz Cheney pressed her father further, arguing that the president running the program “seems not to care about defending the nation, the Constitution, the rule of law, American privacy and it gives rise to concerns.”
“There’s got to be a place between saying, ‘we’re going to trust him implicitly,’ because we trusted you guys when you had the program, and ‘we’re going to throw the program out,'” she said.
“So what’s your solution?” the vice president asked in response.
“I think we need a new commander in chief,” his daughter retorted after a beat, echoing her father.
The elder Cheney also spoke out against the move toward non-interventionism within certain segments of the Republican coalition, when an audience member posed a question about isolationism.
“We decided back in 1941 that [isolationism] didn’t work,” Cheney said.
Speaking of the cuts to the Defense Department overseen by President Obama, Cheney said: President Obama “could care less about the quality and state of our military capabilities.”
“What we are doing by the actions of the administration — in some cases the inaction — is we are crippling the capabilities that a future president will have 10-15-20 years from now,” Cheney said.
Cheney also noted his support for the military in Egypt and struck a pessimistic note on Syria.
“It’s almost as though whoever wins we are going to have problems with,” he said. “If there ever was a time to try to intervene to shape that situation was some years past.”
Asked by the audience who he would like to see as the next president, Cheney said the GOP was witnessing a generational shift in leadership, but declined to get behind any particular candidate for 2016.
“In terms of picking the next president, I’m not ready to do that yet,” he said.
But Cheney did point to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez as young Republican leaders he views as having great promise.
The two-day conference, billed by organizers as the conservative alternative to the Aspen Institute, comes to a close Saturday.
Full disclosure: The Steamboat Institute brought this writer out to Colorado to participate in a panel on the state of the media.