[[ Blurb: Here's the Pulitzer Prize-winning inside view of how Cheney wound
up running his own personal government inside the Bush Administration. It's a
scary tale of unparalleled duplicity, hunger for power, idelogical fanaticism.
For many years to come, we will be dealing with the ruinous results of his
stranglehold on the levers of federal power. ]]
Reading Barton Gellman's "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency" (Penguin Press,
2008) is yet another reminder that all too often those who were right early
on about the massive dangers facing American society under the CheneyBush
Administration were ignored, marginalized, reviled, often punished.
There were scores of us in the media, most on the internet but a healthy
handful inside corporate mainstream journalism, who from the very beginning were
warning of a power-hungry Administration out of control, with terrible co
nsequences to our foreign/military policy and to the integrity of the Constitution.
(See this one, for example, from December 2001.) (
www.commondreams.org/views01/1205-06.htm ) Eight long years were lost to this catastrophically wrong turn
in American politics, while the corporate mass-media in the main served as an
effective lapdog for the neo-conservative madness.
But Bart Gellman's voluminously-researched volume, along with recent
revelations by Obama's Department of Justice about the run-amok legal philosophy in
the Bush White House, ( www.truthout.org/030409A ) has demonstrated the
incontravertible truth that no longer can be ignored:
The United States came justthisclose to an irreversible militarist coup, and
leading the charge at every step of the way was Dick Cheney. I think virtually
everyone outside the 30% GOP base, at least by 2006 or so, sensed there was
something deeply wrong with the guy and/or in how he operated. Gellman, who
(along with Washington Post co-writer Jo Becker) won a Pulitzer Prize for this
reporting, nails it. In so doing, he provides an object lesson for how Obama and
future presidents might want to treat the Constitution, the
separation-of-powers tradition, the rule of law, transparency in governing, etc.
If you haven't read "Angler," do so: It's extraordinary history and a great
read. But be prepared: Cheney's actions are worse, more wide-ranging and more
scary that you might even have imagined.
THE SEARCH FOR HIMSELF
It seemed fairly clear how much of an influence Cheney had on Bush,
especially, say, in the first five or six years. Bush was not prepared, informed,
curious, sufficiently intelligent, and, since politics like nature abhors vacuums,
Cheney flowed into all the holes. He had appointed himself Vice President
precisely to fill that role. How Cheney maneuvered himself into the #2 job is
deliciously told by Gellman. Cheney in effect organized "a nationwide search for
himself," and made sure that neither his medical records nor his policies and
connections would ever be vetted, by anyone.
Cheney, after his decades in the federal structure, knew the byways and
little-known corridors to information and power, and used all that knowledge and
collected on favors-owed. He also placed cohorts in key positions of power
around the capitol, from Cabinet members to sub-Cabinet and even middle-grade
officials. Cheney, in charge of appointments, believing that "personnel was
policy," installed his guys into these linchpin positions and began to manipulate the
levers of power. The result was that Cheney, in effect, was running his own
government within the government.
Sometimes, he kept Bush informed, but often he withheld key information from
his boss, and moved the chess pieces himself, sometimes with disastrous
results. (For some major such withholdings, see what Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist Ron Suskind reported in his book "The One Percent Solution.") (
The Vice President's two chief lieutenants, Scooter Libby and David
Addington, provided the enforcing muscle and the cut-outs to keep Cheney's fingerprints
off the various controversial policies being enacted and promulgated. (No
wonder Cheney was so upset that Bush in his final days would not grant a full
pardon to Libby for taking the fall for him in the spy-outing case of CIA agent
Nothing escaped Cheney's notice. One of his underlings said that Cheney held
the view that "everything should run through his office." While all power
would appear to flow from the Chief Executive/Commander in Chief, Cheney would
exercise a good share of that power, if not most, in the areas that counted: war
and peace, the economy, natural resources, homeland security, appointments,
intelligence, negotiations with Congress -- in short, the brief of a President.
Cheney even made sure to review the daily CIA briefing that Bush would receive
later each morning; in the interim, Cheney did his homework, contacted folks
in high place, and was thus armed with arguments in case Bush was leaning the
"wrong" way on something raised by the briefing.
Cheney was the true eminence grise who exercised power from behind the
throne. He may not have had ambition for higher office, but he certainly had
an agenda for the accretion of power, and he knew this was probably his last
chance to exercise that power; no wonder he didn't give a flying fig for what
anyone else thought, not the least the public. He was quite aware that as the
elected V.P., he could not be fired, and that the Democrats were too wimpy to
even consider taking him on. Cheney was so all-powerful and intimidtating that
mere mention that he was interested in a topic could freeze bureaucrats, even
Cabinet officers, in their tracks, and policies often changed -- or else.
Cheney managed it, writes Gellman, so that he got "three bites at the apple"
on every decision. He intervened early with any topic of his choosing, got the
base information and understood the key decisions being considered long
before others even knew what was going on, plus he had the final input to the
President, should that be necessary. Sometimes, since he had kept Bush more or less
in the dark on a topic, what Cheney spoon-fed him late was enough to get Bush
on board. "By the time Cheney had Bush's ear," writes Gellman, "he was
intimately familiar with opposing views," and dispensed with them easily. In the
end, Bush thought he had made the decision, but, of course, it was really Cheney.
"In public," writes Gellman, "Cheney took Bush's lead, adopting the language
of unity. But even as he spoke the words, he repositioned their meaning. ...
There would be many reasons for Cheney's dominance in the Bush Administration,
some of them subtle. One was as simple as could be. The vice president knew
what he wanted. ... Cheney spotted strategic ground, and there he marched." In
short, in those first five or six years, Cheney rarely lost a battle, always
managing to turn the policy in the direction he sought.
THE ACCRETION OF POWER
During this period, Cheney was the person to go to to get things done, not
Bush. Said HardRight Senator Phil Gramm: "Dick could make a deal. He didn't have
to check with the President, not as far as I could tell. I'm sure at the end
of the day, he would fill the president in on what had happened. But Dick had
the agency of the president." Cheney, Gellman notes, often operated by
practicing the art of UNODIR (military shorthand for "unless otherwise directed"); in
other words, unless Bush himself raised an issue and explicitly told him not
to do something, Cheney went full speed ahead on his own authority and did it.
And, given his intimidating nature, he got away with it.
Cheney's over-arching goal, writes Gellman, "was enlargement of presidential
authority," which, not incidentally, would provide Cheney himself with the
same authority. The neo-con "unitary executive" principle of governance meant
that the president's inherent functions -- command of the Army and Navy,
direction of the cabinet, execution of the law -- were "beyond the reach, in
principle, of legislative or judicial review." Cheney claimed that the commander in
chief "may refuse to disclose his acts in office or disregard a law once it has
passed" (the many hundreds of so-called "signing statements" Bush promulgated).
The president could also rule by fiat, so to speak, through "executive
orders" and "executive regulations."
Add all this up and you can see what the country endured for the past six to
eight years: bluntly, something mighty close to a dictatorship. As long as the
public didn't find out what the president and his officers (especially
Cheney) were doing, there would be no problem.
On rare occasions, a governmental official did raise objections. Comptroller
General David Walker. for example, said that Cheney's unitary-executive theory
"seeks to work a revolution in separation of powers principles, one that
would drastically interfere with Congress's essential power to oversee the
activities of the executive branch...[Cheney's argument] would create a new and
unbounded immunity from oversight based on constitutional provisions that have
never before been invoked in an inter-branch dispute over documents. Indeed,
[under Cheney's conception] of our 'government of separated powers'...no such
disputes could ever again reach the courts."
But, because matters do on occasion leak in Washington, Cheney was a secrecy
fanatic, be it on the makeup of his energy panel or on anything else. He
"favored stealth, in part, because it gave him practical advantages in getting his
way." On matters he cared most strongly about -- such as oil and gas,
deflecting global warming initiatives, domestic spying -- "he brooked little
On those rare occasions when the Supreme Court shot down the overarching
assertion of total authority lodged in the executive, Cheney made sure to find a
way to delay implementation and, in the interim, to find a work-around that
would get the administration to the same goal but via a different route.
MONUMENTALLY STUBBORN & WRONG
It wasn't just that Cheney, on these and other matters, was stubborn and
locked into rigid ideological frameworks that didn't accord with reality. What's
of even more import is that time and time again, Cheney was devastatingly
wrong. Gellman includes illuminating chapters in the second half of the book on
Cheney and 9/11, Cheney and Iraq, Cheney and global warming, Cheney and torture,
Cheney and domestic spying, etc. He got them all wrong and by so doing did
gross and impeachable violation to the country and Constitution.
Things got extra heavy in some of those areas when Cheney began meddling with
the all-important White House Office of Legal Counsel at the same time as
Rumsfeld was carving out extra-constitutional powers for the armed forces. Cheney
made sure Bush's lightweight consiglieri Alberto Gonzales didn't get
the OLC post; instead, Cheney eased in a trusted aide, Tim Flanigan. With
Flanigan in the White House under the influence of Cheney and David Addington, and
John Yoo and his colleagues tearing up the Constitution at the Pentagon under
the influence of Rumsfeld, there was no real countervailing power in the
Administration's legal departments to stop the reckless policies on torture,
violation of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition and so on. Often Condoleezza
Rice, Colin Powell, Andy Card and even George W. Bush were frozen out of the
One of Yoo's earliest memos asserted in the most expansive terms that the
commander in chief need take no account of restrictions set by the co-equal
legislative and judicial branches. No law, Yoo wrote, "can place any limits on the
President's determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military
force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the
response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to
make." Yoo, writes Gellman, went on to claim without limitation that the
President "could disregard laws and treaties prohibiting torture, war crimes,
warrantless eavesdropping, and confinement without hearing. The breadth of the
language was stunning."
And, of course, to return to one of Cheney's bugaboos, everything decided in
this manner was classified and secret. "The new legal framework was meant to
be invisible, unreviewable -- its very existence unknown by legislative or
judicial actors who might push back."
THE HOSPITAL CONFRONTATION
As to surveillance inside the U.S., even though the law clearly states that
all such must be run through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Court, under Cheney the Administration "would not tell the FISA court. They would
not seek legislation. They would rely on the president's asserted authority as
commander in chief to defy explicit prohibitions of law." And off went the
Administration with its "drift net" data-mining programs, "sweeping in emails,
faxes, and telephone calls made by its own citizens, in their own country."
Bush verified that Cheney "has the portolio for intelligence activities."
Perhaps the dramatic highlight of "Angler," aside from Cheney's deceitful
machinations getting the U.S. into the war in Iraq, is the chapter devoted to
the infamous hospital scene with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, when
Gonzales and Card attempted to convince the groggy, post-operative Ashcroft to sign
an extension of a domestic-spying program that the Justice Department had
concluded was illegal.
This hospital scene was high drama, with armed FBI agents, White House
heavies, DoJ officials converging on the hospital with sirens blaring, an ailing AG,
Ashcroft's wife spitting her rage at Card and Gonzales. I can't wait to see
the movie version.
CHENEY LOSES TOTAL CONTROL
After the 2006 midterm elections, when the American people had seen enough
and booted the Republicans out of the majority in the House and Senate, Cheney
and Addington and Rove were inclined to continue on as before, rolling the
CheneyBush juggernaut over the political landscape as if nothing had changed.
Addington described the technique as: "We're going to push and push and push until
some larger force makes us stop." But the political realities had shifted.
Cheney's star was beginning to wane.
Perhaps the beginning of that fall from unquestioned power came in mid-2005
when, at the height of the bloody civil war of the insurgency in Iraq, Cheney
went on TV and said of the rebels: "I think they're in the last throes, if you
will, of the insurgency." Gellman notes that jaws dropped all over Baghdad and
Washington. People wondered "how a man so smart could manage to be, as one of
his top aides put it privately, so 'consistently wrong, unyielding and
unbending on Iraq'." A key White House insider summed up the more general problem by
saying that "the failing of this administration, because of a fear of
admitting error, has been an unwillingness to evolve."
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court put another nail in Cheney's political
coffin, by ruling that the legislature and judiciary could limit the president's
exercise of inherent war power. "This was the Supreme Court's third and most
important rebuff to his claim of unchecked authority for the commander in chief."
Cheney and Addington tried to fight their way through the diminution of the
vice president's power, but the die was cast.
New, more realistic, less ideologically-blinded advisers and staffers were
added to the White House. Rumsfeld was long gone, Rove was headed for the door,
Libby was a convicted felon, only Cheney hung in until the new administration
took over. Toward the end, Cheney had an 13% approval rating. #
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations in
universities in California and Washinton, worked as a writer/editor with the
San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of
The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: email@example.com
First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 3/10/09.
Copyright 2009 by Bernard Weiner.
March 11, 2009