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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Our national security, the preservation of our republic demands ever-steadfast attention amid threats foreign and domestic. My guest today is retired United States Marine Corps Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project, whose mission is to forge a bipartisan consensus on a new national security strategy that will restore America’s leadership and ensure our security. In its overview of the central dilemma, the American Security Project concludes partisan bickering and age-old solutions simply won’t solve our problems. America and the world needs an honest dialogue about security that is as robust as it is realistic. Cheney’s career has spanned from artillery and training to commanding officer to enforcer of policy at the Pentagon at the helm of our nation’s armed forces, and I am eager to listen to the General’s assessment of the challenges we face and how to enhance our readiness from nuclear and cyber, to terrorism lone wolf and sophisticated alike, to climate change. General, thank you for joining me today.
CHENEY: Alexander, my privilege.
HEFFNER: I have to ask you to begin, in the wake of the announcement about trans members… It seemed to be an arbitrary announcement by the President and it’s not clear yet if it has the full weight of backing or blessing from the DOD. But at a time when we already have a deficit in recruitment, what was your reaction to the President’s tweet that we would be banning service members who are trans?
CHENEY: Yeah, Alexander, astonishment would perhaps best describe it. I, I ran recruiting for half the country for the Marines from ‘99 to 2001, and even then it was tough recruiting ch…kids today to come into the military and I, and my point to this is that today’s young men and women that are serving are highly qualified, they’re great people. But there aren’t that many of ‘em available. About seventy to seventy-five percent of today’s youth are unqualified for service even before they get in the door. Either they’re not high school grads, uh, they’re too obese, they’ve got a drug history, or they’ve got a, a felony on their record. So that remaining 25 percent is the only pool you have to select from, and now you reduce that pool even more. Uh, and plus that, we’ve got tens of thousands of transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines serving honorably today. Are you going to overnight kick them out? And, and we’ll also point out one other thing. It takes years to grow a non-commissioned officer or a staff non-commissioned officer. Uh, you can’t just arbitrarily say you’re unqualified for service, get out. So I’m, I was just astonished by the announcement.
HEFFNER: I heard this morning, and of course we’re recording this and facts may change, that Secretary Mattis was appalled at the nature of the announcement. Perhaps the substance of it too. But your contention as someone who served with Secretary Mattis, also Secretary Kelly, is that this will be revoked or rescinded in some way…
CHENEY: Uh, I,
HEFFNER: Because it’s just not feasible.
CHENEY: Well, again,
HEFFNER: Besides perhaps being a moral calamity…
CHENEY: Look at the numbers that are already in service today and then overnight you’re gonna process them out under what discharge process, what kind of discharge are you gonna, I mean there are so many legal questions here. It will be challenged in court, and my personal opinion is overturned in court. Uh, it, and very quickly I’ve already seen it on the news today, you’ve seen a number of members that are saying I’ll, I’ll take this one to court and challenge it, and I think they will, and I think they’ll win. And, and, and on Secretary Mattis, um, I, I have not talked to him personally about this issue and have not talked to him in a while, um, I’d be surprised if he made a public announcement that he was astonished at the announcement. I, I think he’s, he’s probably going to sit back as all other things that come in his desk, look it in a measured way and then go back to the administration and perhaps talk this, tone this down a little bit.
HEFFNER: What seems to stand between arbitrary decision-making now is Secretary Mattis, General Mattis. He seems to have the composure, the measured attitude, to prevent any kind of conflagration from happening. We’re placing a lot of faith in Secretary Mattis, are we not.
CHENEY: Well there’s no doubt. Uh, he’s an experienced combat veter…veteran. He’s spent decades in the United States Marine Corps and plus that he’s worked in the office of Secretary of Defense before for several years as the Executive Secretary, so he, he knows the business. He is not a, a draw your six-gun and shoot type guy, you know, what some say shoot, aim later. He’s, he’s not that style. He will take a very measured approach to all these issues and I think, thank God he’s there.
HEFFNER: I think a lot of Americans thank God he’s there and I think he’s too measured to resign in the wake of something that relative to the challenges that we’re gonna discuss today…
HEFFNER: The grave challenges we face, he is more thoughtful and measured than to resign over something that ultimately could be corrected quite quickly or that is more trivial than the threat of climate change, the threat of nuclear war, of terrorists. He’s in for the long game in this administration that seems to be in some turmoil.
CHENEY: Yeah I, Alexander I, you hear the rumors all the time, look at Secretary Tillerson and the rumors about Rexit they call it now and I think that’s all just hype in the press. The uh, when the Cabinet gets together with the cameras off and they’re in the, the Cabinet room, situation room, they’re mature people and they’re gonna talk and they’re gonna think things out, despite what you hear from the President and the, the tweets, uh, I think they’re a bit more reserved and rational.
HEFFNER: We want policy to, especially in military terms, to be dictated by more than 140 characters. Your security project, the American Security Project, I’d urge our viewers to Google it and look at your work comprehensively assessing the opportunity and the threats. What is the most pressing issue, General, to you right now.
CHENEY: Well, I mean there’s a lot of issues on the plate today and if you want to talk immediate, you know, you talk ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban, North Korea, China, I mean there’s a whole range of issues but long-term there’s a number of issues that have been raised by this administration and previous ones that are threats to our country. In our little organization, one of the top ones on our list is climate change. And people kind of laugh a little bit about it and I mean Admiral Locklear, when he was the Commander of Pacific Command said that the number one long-term threat was climate change. And you would go nah, he’s got China in there, he’s, he’s got North Korea, um, how can that be the number one long-term threat and so I’ll just, if you give me a second I’ll lay this out a little bit.
CHENEY: You know, he had just gone through Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines with the highest recorded wind, uh, force of any hurricane or typhoon in the world. Uh, he sent twelve thousand soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to do that humanitarian effort there and by the way we’re the only ones who could have done that. Nobody else could have logistically provided that level of support to the Philippines. So he sees those events, catastrophic weather happening far more frequently, and then he talks sea level rise and you look at Bangladesh, one and a half-foot, uh, rise in sea level creates twenty to thirty million refugees. That’s going to happen. I mean that, that battleship’s already going and it’s hard to turn it around. That rise is going to occur and, and they know that. Now that, those refugees aren’t coming to the United States but they’re going somewhere. They could go to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, where there already is an ISIS footprint, and I, and I think Admiral Locklear saw this in a, in a worldwide way and, and on a more tactical side. His bases in stations, which virtually all of ‘em are on the coast, Diego Garcia perhaps most prominent, are going underwater. So he said we, we’ve got think, think long-term. Don’t think tomorrow, don’t think next week, next month, next year. Think next decade, next century, and what this is going to cost to our country and that’s why I mention climate change. Um, energy security. We’ve got a very unusual circumstance today in this country on energy security, and it’s a good one. Because of the shale revolution, we now are awash in oil and natural gas. So we’ve, what I call we have some breathing room here to pursue alternative energy sources and stop polluting the atmosphere, stop creating this environment that causes climate change, and fix that, and plus there are other big implications to the Department of Defense on the energy security perspective so uh, get off of coal, you know, burning coal is killing us. Uh, pursue wind, solar, geothermal, uh, all types of alternate fusion energy, all types of, we’ve got some room here to pursue, pursue those. If we just sit back and think hey, we’re free to go, we’re now energy independent and, and I don’t like that word either and I could talk about it, uh, but we’ve got a lot of breathing room now in this space and that long-term should be a huge concern for us.
HEFFNER: What would your advice be for your peers in the community, who are active now to consider these threats through that lens of long-term impact as opposed to…
CHENEY: Well it uh, they’ve taken climate change into account through the quadrennial defense review and our national security strategy certainly over the last eight years. The current administration has taken a bit different tack on this, certainly with Trump’s Executive Order, uh, but even in the last two to three weeks with the crafting of the National Defense Authorization Act, there now has been language put in there telling the Department of Defense to consider climate change a long-term threat and list all the bases and stations by service, top ten, that you believe are impacted by climate change and what’s the long-term threat to those bases and stations. But Secretary Mattis himself has said he, he understands climate change. He recognizes the threat it poses. It’s one of a number of threats that he has to face, but I can tell you he will tell his staff to consider that in the mix of what the threats are to our bases and stations. The senior-level military guys, those that are in charge of the budgeting and taking care of the services and the bases and stations, are certainly gonna look at this. Army and Air Force have a program that’s called Net Zero, and what this means is they’re going to produce more energy than they consume, and they’re getting there. And it’s a huge advantage. When I was a Base Commander at Parris Island, we were totally dependent on the local grid for electricity. If there was a huge thunderstorm or a hurricane, we were out of luck. Uh, wouldn’t it be nice to not be dependent on that, for starters. Secondly, get off the fossil fuel, wean yourselves off of that dependency and create a more independent armed service. So I mean there, Alexander, there are some tremendous advantages to going to alternative energies and, and recognizing climate change for what it does.
HEFFNER: What are you and your Chair, former Governor Christine Todd Whitman, hoping to accomplish with the project now?
CHENEY: Yeah I, the uh, you know, we were formed a little over ten years ago by senators you’ll all know, Kerry, Rudman, Hart, uh, and Hagel, so names you’re familiar with and they’re, one of the reasons they put it together, bipartisan, two Republican, two Democrat, they said yeah but can we, can we pull this out of the partisan side of the House and who can we get to speak for the organization that’ll take the politics away from these issues and talk national security. So they grabbed eight generals and admirals, three and four-star, recently retired, put ‘em on the board and said you guys get to talk. Don’t talk as a Republican, don’t talk as a Democrat, talk as a national security expert for those who have been there and done that, and we’ve retained that. We’ve kept a number of those are still on the board today. Uh, thankfully I’ve got a fabulous chairperson in Governor Whitman. Uh, we still have a number of three and four-star admirals and generals on the board. General Lyles from the Air Force, four-star, Admiral Fallon, former Central Commander to, to name but two. Uh, who all preach this same message that we talk on climate change, energy security, and we haven’t gotten into the nuclear security side of the house, the JCPOA, Iran, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and these are all men and women who, Claudia Kennedy, Army, three stars on the board. Uh, who have been there done that and recognize the threat that all these things pose to our country and again, don’t, don’t speak from a Republican or Democrat perspective. They speak from the national security perspective here. So you can see it in the administration and that’s perhaps why the President has picked some of these military folks who didn’t lean right or left. They weren’t standing up and screaming, uh, some of them at the conventions. Uh, Mattis was not there, Kelly was not there. Uh, they are security professionals who’ve been in this business for thirty or forty years or more in the case of Kelly and Mattis, uh, who understand it. So from my little American security project, we continue to beat those drums on energy security, on climate change and, and climate change has been a big one lately with the NDAA, uh, the Iran, uh, JCPOA is another one that, you know, that I, I will talk about that more if you want me to.
HEFFNER: Well I, I did want you to weigh in on the nuclear issue and the nuclear threats that we face right now.
CHENEY: Sure. Well um, my organization obviously was a big-time supporter of the JCPOA. Of course Secretary Kerry having been one of the original founders and, and was on the board and is coming back to our board, uh, and my point from a military perspective on this, um, wouldn’t you far rather have people on the ground in the country that has that potential to develop a nuclear weapon than have no intelligence at all. And the contrast here is Iran and North Korea. North Korea, we have nobody there. Our, our only visibility into them is through satellites, uh, imagery, uh, and what they announce and what we see, uh, whereas in Iran there are IAEA inspectors in that country in almost all or every nuclear facility that they’ve got. Not Americans, I would point out. Uh, they’re all from the IAEA but, but they have all been trained in America and they know what it takes to constitute a nuclear weapon and how to put that together. So you’ve got, I would say, it’s intelligence on the ground in Iran. So for starters, from a military perspective, at least you’ve got somebody in country who, who can see what’s going on and not have to rely on, on overhead imagery. Uh, that and, and it’s, and it’s worked. The JCPOA has worked. We’ve stopped them from building a weapon. We’ve limited their capability. And some would say oh, they’re just going to build another one in five or ten years. I don’t think so.
HEFFNER: Well you would probably cite the re-certification as an example of the necessity of that agreement.
CHENEY: Absolutely, absolutely. And, and, and they are in compliance. And, and, and the more, Alexander, the more this goes on and the more trade that goes on between the rest of society and Iran, the more they get involved in, in the monetary side of the house, the more they’re dependent on this and the more leverage you have over their society. So and we, we’ve, and it’s worked. I mean those sanctions worked in the case of Iran. They went up and signed up to it. So the longer it goes, I think actually the better it is. Now if you declare ‘em in non-compliance and you drop out, you lose that leverage.
HEFFNER: Why do you think during the Obama tenure there was no progress made on North Korea?
CHENEY: Oh, this is a great question. And, and, and I’ll, I’ll give you a couple of examples. When I worked in the office of Secretary of Defense, and this was ‘92, ‘93, I was the Deputy Executive Secretary to then-Secretaries Cheney and Aspin. I had a friend in the J2, which is intelligence down in the joint chiefs of staff, and about every other month he would run up to me and go my God, they’re massing on the borders. The South Korean army is there. They’re go—we’re gonna have war in Korea. And this is before nuclear weapons now. And, and I’d go, you know, not so fast here. We’re not gonna, you know, raise the alarm bells and go crazy about this. Let’s fast-forward ten years. We start to make progress with North Korea on limiting their nuclear capability and stopping them from having a nuclear weapon. Well those negotiations were dropped by the Bush administration and sure enough, as the years go by, they, they build a nuclear weapon and they now have nuclear weapons. Um, sure, it’s, it’s a, obviously a threat when Kim Jong-Un stands up and says he’s going to send a missile to the United States, nuclear-capable. Uh, but I, I, I hate to equivocate this to the incumbent administration here, it’s like tweets in the night. Don’t get overly excited by this. Uh, we cannot overly react. Sure, it undoubtedly is a threat, certainly a closer threat to South Korea and Japan than to us. Uh, but long-term a much more mature approach goes about this, I, some say they’re irrational. They want to survive. When you look what happened with Qaddafi in Libya, eliminated his nuclear weapon status and then he ends up going away, I think that’s not lost on North Korea. So I, it takes a much broader perspective and approach to this than, than thinking we got to commit more troops, we’ve got to bomb their facilities, mm, that, that’s just not gonna happen, not certainly in the near-term and not even for decades in my opinion.
HEFFNER: But it appears to the onlooker that the Obama Administration invested all of its capital in Iran when the greater threat now looms, and I’m just wondering what the rationalization of putting all of the chickens in that basket…
CHENEY: Yeah, you know…
HEFFNER: All the eggs in that basket.
CHENEY: I’m, um, I believe the Obama made—administration made a good faith effort to try to work, uh, with North Korea. Uh…
HEFFNER: Directly or through third parties.
CHENEY: Well I think both. Uh, now, not being, um, privileged to see what the intel is these days so I, I’ve got no inside look to this, but I know there were overtures made to them through a number of back channels to, to work with them and there still are today, by the way. None that are publicized, but we still try to work with the North Koreans and talk to them. Uh, not put in the press. Uh, I, I know those avenues are being approached. Um, so I, I don’t, I don’t blame the Obama Administration for this proliferation of nuclear weapons by, by North Korea. Uh, I blame Kim Jong-Un and the follow-up to what his father was doing in this and that, that, and that he sees it as his only stake in survival here. Right now I think diplomacy’s got to be the way to go. China is certainly key, Russia is now a part player into this. You’ve got to use all those tools before you even think about the military side of the house and I, and I know Secretary Mattis feels the same way. I mean you’ve got to really work the diplomatic side as hard as you can.
HEFFNER: When it comes to North Korea, Russia, and Iran to an extent, the word that comes up most often is sanctions, and you know, not necessarily an effective response, but that’s the word that Americans hear. We’re going to vote on sanctions. So from your, from your perspective, when it comes to the Russia and the North Korea threats, or at least our perception that those are geopolitical foes…
HEFFNER: Are sanctions enough.
CHENEY: I mean um.
HEFFNER: Because that’s the mantra you hear. I don’t think, can you tell our viewers in fact what that means.
CHENEY: Yeah, I um, it always seems like okay, let’s go back to sanctions and see what, but they worked…
CHENEY: In Iran. And, and it was, Iran’s a different story of course but when you squeeze them hard enough, you will, you will recognize that, that it will work.
HEFFNER: You’re withholding American products, most notably.
CHENEY: Well you’re, well you’re penalizing other countries who would trade with them…
CHENEY: Who want to trade with us or get involved in the international community. I’ll give you another example, a little bit off the wall here, but it’s Cuba where we sanctioned them or embargoed them and they would call it a blockade, and I was just there a couple months ago, and it’s crippled their economy. I mean just crippled their economy. And people, other countries are afraid to trade with Cuba ‘cause they want to trade with us, and we will not allow them to do that or get in an international banking system, and that, that same approach worked with Iran that uh, well if the EU’s gonna trade with Iran but the U.S. is gonna outlaw them from trading with us, mm, maybe we won’t trade with Iran. And that’s where I say it’s, it’s worked with Iran. North, North…
HEFFNER: But we already have sanctions against Russia that are active now and North Korea…
HEFFNER: So I’m just…
CHENEY: But, but North Korea’s a bit of a, it’s a different story, and it’s a different story because of its border with China and with Russia. And, and this, this gets complicated, but China sees it also as a security issue. Do they want a U.S. presence on their border…
HEFFNER: Right, right.
CHENEY: No they don’t. Uh, do they see instability there in having ten or twenty million of refugees flowing into the country? Nope, don’t want that either. So they’re in a very unusual position in this, in this case and are they obviously supporting and perhaps propping up the regime in North Korea? I’d say so. So we, we try to work with them, we try to lean on them and, and in some cases the latest tweets have been accurate on this, they’re just not doing enough by our standards to do it, and we know that North Korea survives, their dependency I think is almost entirely dependent on China, a little bit on Russia. Uh, but, but you’ve got to look at it from China’s national security perspective too. So I mean it’s, it’s a very tough question.
HEFFNER: Those three countries are interlinked…
HEFFNER: And how we auto-formulate a new policy that can be effective, be…
HEFFNER: How do we do that?
CHENEY: Well I mean, not to say the same old thing, you keep applying pressure as best you can. You, you tell China, you work with China. If Kim Jong-Un miniaturizes a nuclear weapon, puts it on a missile, and proves that he can pinpoint or hit U.S. with it, um, I’m not saying it’s a tipping point, but that could be a point to go back to China and go he can he can also hit you, he can hit Japan, he can hit South Korea. You rea…
HEFFNER: And at that stage China may prefer regime change to…
CHENEY: Maybe, maybe. Well I…
HEFFNER: The present reality.
CHENEY: It’s an interesting word. Regime change. Um, it’s the same thing you talk about when I talk about Cuba. Don’t talk regime change. Talk about denuclearization. Get rid of your nuclear weapons capability. We, you can stay there, um, run your country the way you’re going to run your country, but we don’t want you threatening us anymore.
HEFFNER: To me the scenario that is most nightmarish would be hackers doing what they did to the U.S. election or what they did to hospitals in the UK and now here but instead of empowering hackers to disrupt elections and hospitals they’re, they’re using cybertechnology to hack weaponry. Is that something that keeps you up.
CHENEY: It, well a lot of things keep me up, you know, I mean I uh…
HEFFNER: Well I would imagine so but that to me seems like,
CHENEY: I was in front of the um, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week. Senator Cantwell asked that specific question. What is the national security threat to energy grid from cyber? And you’ve known that the Russians have shut down energy grids in Ukraine using cyber, and all of our energy utilities in this United States are privately owned, so they’re, they’re vulnerable to a cyberattack, so that’s just one start there. Then you start to get into the weapons side of the house and we’re so dependent now on communications and computers, uh, that if, if somebody gets in and hacks into your system and shuts it down, you’ve got to communicate. I mean you have to have that capability to protect your forces and to, and to use your forces in a, in an appropriate way. So cyber is a huge problem and, and it’s not one to be taken lightly. I will go back to the, what was released in the press about Stuxnet and what happened in Iran and how we were able, some say, to get into their centrifuges and shut ‘em down using cyber. Well that, you know, goes both ways. Somebody could come back and do the same here so uh, Alexander, it’s, it’s got to be way up there on your priority list of threats to this country and we, and there’s been talk in the House that’s passing legislation this week on a reorganization of the cyber-structure within the Department of Homeland Security which I think is totally appropriate. I mean put a big emphasis on this, you know, we’ve got within a Department of Defense a U.S. cyber command, our best and brightest to put there, and we don’t protect ourselves in that regard. Some enterprising young person sitting in the middle of Russia is going to dig into our systems and cause, and wreak havoc that you wouldn’t believe.
HEFFNER: To Senator Cantwell’s question, is cyber protection integrated where it needs to be on the ground level in those nuclear plants? Uh…
HEFFNER: And, and also to what extent is it managed by the government and to what extent is it managed by third parties, contractors when, if we’re talking about our nuclear arsenal, that’s all government.
CHENEY: That’s correct. But nuclear power plants, a different story. Uh, and that, that tends to lean towards her particular question, that they’re vulnerable to a hacking attack and if they shut ‘em down or cause the problem where there, where there’s a Fukushima style incident, are we, are we being protected in that regard and you know, it’s kind of contrary to what this current administration is doing in, in, in doing away with federal regulations and federal oversight, but this is one case where I believe you need both, and more, to protect our infrastructure and work with the private utilities to make sure that they’ll protect it from cyberattacks.
HEFFNER: General, thank you for being with me today.
CHENEY: Alexander, it’s been my privilege.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.