PunditFact fact-checks Dick Cheney on 'Meet the Press'

Former Vice President Dick Cheney on the Dec. 14, 2014, edition of "Meet the Press."
Former Vice President Dick Cheney on the Dec. 14, 2014, edition of "Meet the Press."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has had a relatively quiet couple of years since leaving the White House. But with the release of a Senate report on alleged torture by the CIA, it was inevitable that Cheney -- who is closely associated with the post-9/11 policy of "enhanced interrogations" for captured terrorists -- would return to television screens.

The report concluded that techniques signed off on by Cheney and President George W. Bush were not an effective way to gain intelligence from detainees, and that the CIA misled Congress and the White House. The report detailed such techniques as "rectal rehydration" and the use of coffin-size confinement boxes.

Cheney, however, says the techniques worked and were legal. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cheney said the deaths of 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, at the hands of al-Qaida terrorists justified expanded interrogation methods and the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

"We got to the point where we were very concerned about the possible linkage between terrorists on the one hand and weapons of mass destruction on the other," Cheney said. "Saddam Hussein had previously had twice nuclear programs going. He produced and used weapons of mass destruction. And he had a 10-year relationship with al-Qaida."

Cheney is relying on some thin evidence to tie Hussein to al-Qaida. His claim rates False.

The 9-11 Commission, an independent, bipartisan body created by Congress and Bush, had the job of writing a complete account of the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Among its tasks: Examine the ties between al-Qaida and Hussein’s regime.

The commission found isolated contacts over the years between Iraq and al-Qaida terrorists but nothing more.

"To date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship," the report, released in 2004, said. "Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaida in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."

In 2007, the Institute for Defense Analyses, a nonprofit research branch of the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command, completed its assessment based on over half-a-million captured Iraqi documents.

That study "found no ‘smoking gun’ (i.e., direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al-Qaida," the analysts wrote.

When it suited their goals, both the Hussein regime and al-Qaida leaders might support the same third-party militant groups in different countries, but the researchers said the two parties had little else in common.

"To the fundamentalist leadership of al-Qaida, Saddam represented the worst kind of ‘apostate’ regime," they wrote. "A secular police state well practiced in suppressing internal challenges."

Al-Qaida had good reason to mistrust Hussein. In the mid 1990s, the Iraqi government cracked down and arrested religious extremists who it saw as a threat to Hussein’s power.

Peter Neumann is a professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College in London and the author of several books on terrorism. Neumann called Cheney’s statement "absolutely false."

"There was no relationship of any kind, and Vice President Cheney, despite making these claims for more than 10 years now, has failed to present any evidence to support it," Neumann said. "He's, as far as I can see, also the only significant person in the Bush administration that's left making this claim."

A few days before his Meet the Press appearance, Cheney sat for an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier.

At one point that interview, Cheney said that the terrorists "were not covered by the Geneva Convention. They were unlawful combatants. And under those circumstances, they were not entitled to the normal kinds of courtesies and treatment you would accord to those."

That rates Mostly False.

The Geneva Convention is a series of four treaties that guarantees a certain level of protection for former combatants, including prisoners of war and civilians. They set out in detail the requirements for food, clothing, shelter, safety from combat, access to medical care, and other matters.

However, whether fighters could qualify for these protections depended on whether they adhered to some basic rules of law such as wearing uniforms, carrying arms openly, answering to a chain of command, and not committing war crimes. Many of those who would one day end up in Guantanamo Bay and other sites were from non-state terrorist groups and did not adhere to these rules. So these fighters were not guaranteed the same protections afforded POWs.

Cheney’s strongest point in his interview with Baier was to draw this distinction between prisoners of war, who receive these extensive protections, and "unlawful combatants," who do not. There is, in fact, a distinction in the level of protection.

What undercuts the accuracy of Cheney’s claim, however, is a different part of what he said. It’s misleading for him to say that such combatants are "not covered by the Geneva Convention." While detainees who do not have POW status don’t get the top level of protection, they do get more basic protections from the Geneva Convention.

And glossing over those less-stringent protections hides an important point: Even the lower level of protection would have shielded detainees, at least on paper, against some of the harsh treatments now alleged in the Senate report.

Experts pointed us to identical passages in each of the four Geneva treaties, known as "Common Article 3."

Among other things "prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever" by Common Article 3 are "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture" as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

In other words, despite the implications from what Cheney said, even unlawful combatants "have minimum protections under the Geneva Conventions," Richard D. Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law & Policy at Texas Tech University Law School.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was considerable debate inside and outside the Bush administration about how captured members of al-Qaida and the Taliban should be treated.

The Bush administration contended that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to terrorism suspects held abroad, siding with White House and Pentagon lawyers over objections from the State Department. Administration lawyers also approved the "enhanced interrogation techniques" and said they were legally permissible.

The debate about the Geneva Convention piece of the equation ended in June 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, a watershed case on detainee rights. The 5-3 majority wrote that Common Article 3 "affords some minimal protection, falling short of full protection under the Conventions, to individuals associated with neither a signatory nor even a nonsignatory who are involved in a conflict 'in the territory of' a signatory."

In other words, by this decision, "our own Supreme Court has made it completely clear that, whatever their status, (detainees) are entitled to some minimal protections under the Geneva Convention," said Steven R. Ratner, a University of Michigan law professor. "That ruling is binding law in the United States, no matter what the former vice president says."