06/16/2013 01:08 EDT | Updated 08/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Cheney says surveillance could have stopped 9-11, calls Snowden a 'traitor'

WASHINGTON - Dick Cheney, one of the most controversial political figures in contemporary American politics, said Sunday that Americans have nothing to fear from widespread government surveillance programs, adding the practices could have prevented the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Cheney, vice-president to George W. Bush during the post-9-11 period when the current surveillance programs were first implemented, said congressional lawmakers like fellow Republican Rand Paul are wrong to suggest the practices are an invasion of Americans' privacy.

He also branded Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who leaked details of the National Security Agency programs to the media, a "traitor" and suggested he was a Chinese spy.

"As everybody who's been associated with the program's said, if we had had this before 9-11 ... we might well have been able to prevent 9-11," Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday."

Of Snowden, he added: "I think he's a traitor. I think it's one of the worst occasions, in my memory, of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interests of the United States .... I am very, very worried that he still has additional information that he hasn't released yet, that the Chinese would welcome the opportunity."

Cheney's comments aren't surprising — in the traumatic aftermath of 9-11, the Bush administration initiated many of the current, far-reaching surveillance tactics that allow the government to mine phone logs, emails and other data in the hunt for terror suspects.

The former vice-president has long been under a cloud of suspicion in the U.S. that he exaggerated security threats to the country in order to justify the invasion of Iraq in early 2003 as well as other aggressive foreign policy initiatives under Bush.

The Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan investigative news organization, says the Bush administration made at least 935 false statements in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War. Cheney made 48 of them, including his insistence in 2002 that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Snowden's fresh details about how the Obama administration has expanded some of the Bush-era programs without public knowledge has ignited a fierce debate in the United States over whether the government is overstepping its bounds.

President Barack Obama has defended the NSA programs as being vital to national security. He's also insisted his administration has scaled back some of the Bush-era practices after suggesting in May that the war on terror is winding down.

“First of all he's wrong, it's not winding down ... the threat is bigger than ever,” Cheney said Sunday in a snide retort that made reference to other controversies dogging the president.

"I don't pay a lot of attention, frankly, to what Barack Obama says. I find a lot of it is, in other areas — the IRS, Benghazi — not credible. I'm obviously not a fan of the incumbent president."

Instead, Cheney focused on defending the Bush administration's role in the surveillance.

“The reason we got into it is because we were attacked ... the worst attack since Pearl Harbor,” he said.

He also rebuked Paul, a Kentucky senator and civil libertarian, for suggesting the government was monitoring the phone calls and emails of ordinary citizens.

"That's not the way it works," he said. "It's just a big bag of numbers... you don't go into that box of numbers unless you've got a suspicious number."

He added that most lawmakers don't grasp the importance of the surveillance programs.

"Two-thirds of the Congress wasn’t here on 9-11, or for that period immediately after when we got into this program," Cheney said.

"When you consider the possibility of somebody smuggling something like a nuclear device into the United States, it becomes very, very important to gather intelligence on your enemies and stop that attack before it ever gets launched."