The hallmark of the Dick Cheney administration is its illegitimacy. Its essential method is bypassing established lines of authority; its goal is the concentration of unaccountable presidential power. When it matters, the regular operations of the CIA, Defense Department and State Department have been sidelined.
Richard Nixon is the model, but with modifications. In the Nixon administration, the president was the prime mover, present at the creation of his own options, attentive to detail, and conscious of their consequences. In the Cheney administration, the president is volatile but passive, firm but malleable, presiding but absent. Once his complicity has been arranged, a closely held “cabal” — as Lawrence Wilkerson, once chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, calls it — wields control.
Within the White House, the office of the vice president is the strategic center. The National Security Council has been demoted to enabler and implementer. Systems of off-line operations have been laid to evade professional analysis and a responsible chain of command. Those who attempt to fulfill their duties in the old ways have been humiliated when necessary, fired, retired early or shunted aside. In their place, acolytes and careerists indistinguishable from true believers in their eagerness have been elevated.
The collapse of sections of the façade shielding Cheney from public view has not inhibited him. His former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, indicted on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, appears to be withholding information about the vice president’s actions in the Plame affair from the special prosecutor. While Bush has declaimed, “We do not torture,” Cheney lobbied the Senate to stop it from prohibiting torture.
At the same time, Cheney has taken the lead in defending the administration from charges that it twisted intelligence to justify the Iraq war and misled the Congress even as new stories underscore the legitimacy of the charges.
The administration relied for key information in the NIE on an Iraqi defector code-named Curveball. According to a Nov. 20 report in the Los Angeles Times, it had learned from German intelligence beforehand that Curveball was completely untrustworthy and his claims fabricated. Yet Bush, Cheney and, most notably, Powell in his prewar performance before the United Nations, which he now calls the biggest “blot” on his record and about which he insists he was “deceived,” touted Curveball’s disinformation.
In two speeches over the past week Cheney has called congressional critics “dishonest,” “shameless” and “reprehensible.” He ridiculed their claim that they did not have the same intelligence as the administration. “These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence materials. They are known to have a high opinion of their own analytical capabilities.” Lambasting them for historical “revisionism,” he repeatedly invoked Sept. 11. “We were not in Iraq on September 11th, 2001 — and the terrorists hit us anyway,” he said.
The day after Cheney’s most recent speech, the National Journal reported that the president’s daily briefing prepared by the CIA 10 days after Sept. 11, 2001, indicated that there was no connection between Saddam and the terrorist attacks. Of course, the 9/11 Commission had made the same point in its report.
Even though experts and pundits contradict his talking points, Cheney presents them with characteristic assurance. His rhetoric is like a paving truck that will flatten obstacles. Cheney remains undeterred; he has no recourse. He will not run for president in 2008. He is defending more than the Bush record; he is defending the culmination of his career. Cheney’s alliances, ideas, antagonisms and tactics have accumulated for decades.
Cheney is a master bureaucrat, proficient in the White House, the agencies and departments, and Congress. The many offices Cheney has held add up to an extraordinary résumé. His competence and measured manner are often mistaken for moderation. Among those who have misjudged Cheney are military men — Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Wilkerson, who lacked a sense of him as a political man in full. As a result, they expressed surprise at their discovery of the ideological hard man. Scowcroft told the New Yorker recently that Cheney was not the Cheney he once knew. But Scowcroft and the other military men rose by working through regular channels; they were trained to respect established authority. They are at a disadvantage in internal political battles with those operating by different rules of warfare. Their realism does not account for radicalism within the U.S. government.
Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal thwarted his designs for an unchecked imperial presidency. It was in that White House that Cheney gained his formative experience as the assistant to Nixon’s counselor, Donald Rumsfeld. When Gerald Ford acceded to the presidency, he summoned Rumsfeld from his posting as NATO ambassador to become his chief of staff. Rumsfeld, in turn, brought back his former deputy, Cheney.
From Nixon, they learned the application of ruthlessness and the harsh lesson of failure. Under Ford, Rumsfeld designated Cheney as his surrogate on intelligence matters. During the immediate aftermath of Watergate, Congress investigated past CIA abuses, and the press was filled with revelations. In May 1975, Seymour Hersh reported in the New York Times on how the CIA had sought to recover a sunken Soviet submarine with a deep-sea mining vessel called the Glomar Explorer, built by Howard Hughes. When Hersh’s article appeared, Cheney wrote memos laying out options ranging from indicting Hersh or getting a search warrant for Hersh’s apartment to suing the Times and pressuring its owners “to discourage the NYT and other publications from similar action.” “In the end,” writes James Mann, in his indispensable book, “Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet,” “Cheney and the White House decided to back off after the intelligence community decided its work had not been significantly damaged.”
Rumsfeld and Cheney quickly gained control of the White House staff, edging out Ford’s old aides. From this base, they waged bureaucratic war on Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, a colossus of foreign policy, who occupied the posts of both secretary of state and national security advisor. Rumsfeld and Cheney were the right wing of the Ford administration, opposed to the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, and they operated by stealthy internal maneuver. The Secret Service gave Cheney the code name “Backseat.”
In 1975, Rumsfeld and Cheney stage-managed a Cabinet purge called the “Halloween massacre” that made Rumsfeld secretary of defense and Cheney White House chief of staff. Kissinger, forced to surrender control of the National Security Council, angrily drafted a letter of resignation (which he never submitted). Rumsfeld and Cheney helped convince Ford, who faced a challenge for the Republican nomination from Ronald Reagan, that he needed to shore up his support on the right and that Rockefeller was a political liability. Rockefeller felt compelled to announce he would not be Ford’s running mate. Upset at the end of his ambition, Rockefeller charged that Rumsfeld intended to become vice president himself. In fact, Rumsfeld had contemplated running for president in the future and undoubtedly would have accepted a vice presidential nod.
In the meantime, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld undermined the negotiations for a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty being conducted by Kissinger. Fighting off Reagan’s attacks during the Republican primaries, Ford was pressured by Cheney to adopt his foreign policy views, which amounted to a self-repudiation. At the Republican Party Convention, acting as Ford’s representative, Cheney engineered the adoption of Reagan’s foreign policy plank in the platform. By doing so he preempted an open debate and split. Privately, Ford, Kissinger and Rockefeller were infuriated.
As part of the Halloween massacre Rumsfeld and Cheney pushed out CIA director William Colby and replaced him with George H.W. Bush, then the U.S. plenipotentiary to China. The CIA had been uncooperative with the Rumsfeld/Cheney anti-détente campaign. Instead of producing intelligence reports simply showing an urgent Soviet military buildup, the CIA issued complex analyses that were filled with qualifications. Its National Intelligence Estimate on the Soviet threat contained numerous caveats, dissents and contradictory opinions. From the conservative point of view, the CIA was guilty of groupthink, unwilling to challenge its own premises and hostile to conservative ideas.
The new CIA director was prompted to authorize an alternative unit outside the CIA to challenge the agency’s intelligence on Soviet intentions. Bush was more compliant in the political winds than his predecessor. Consisting of a host of conservatives, the unit was called Team B. A young aide from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Wolfowitz, was selected to represent Rumsfeld’s interest and served as coauthor of Team B’s report. The report was single-minded in its conclusion about the Soviet buildup and cleansed of contrary intelligence. It was fundamentally a political tool in the struggle for control of the Republican Party, intended to destroy détente and aimed particularly at Kissinger. Both Ford and Kissinger took pains to dismiss Team B and its effort. (Later, Team B’s report was revealed to be wildly off the mark about the scope and capability of the Soviet military.)
With Ford’s defeat, Team B became the kernel of the Committee on the Present Danger, a conservative group that attacked President Carter for weakness on the Soviet threat. The growing strength of the right thwarted ratification of SALT II, setting the stage for Reagan’s nomination and election.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1978, Cheney became the Republican leader on the House Intelligence Committee, where he consistently fought congressional oversight and limits on presidential authority. When Congress investigated the Iran-Contra scandal (the creation of an illegal, privately funded, offshore U.S. foreign policy initiative), Cheney was the crucial administration defender. At every turn, he blocked the Democrats and prevented them from questioning Vice President Bush. Under his leadership, not a single House Republican signed the special investigating committee’s final report charging “secrecy, deception and disdain for law.” Instead, the Republicans issued their own report claiming there had been no major wrongdoing.
The origin of Cheney’s alliance with the neoconservatives goes back to his instrumental support for Team B. Upon being appointed secretary of defense by the elder Bush, he kept on Wolfowitz as undersecretary. And Wolfowitz kept on his deputy, his former student at the University of Chicago, Scooter Libby. Earlier, Wolfowitz and Libby had written a document expressing suspicion of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing perestroika and warning against making deals with him, a document that President Reagan ignored as he made an arms control agreement and proclaimed that the Cold War was ending.
During the Gulf War, Secretary of Defense Cheney clashed with Gen. Colin Powell. At one point, he admonished Powell, who had been Reagan’s national security advisor, “Colin, you’re chairman of the Joint Chiefs … so stick to military matters.” During the run-up to the war, Cheney set up a secret unit in the Pentagon to develop an alternative war plan, his own version of Team B. “Set up a team, and don’t tell Powell or anybody else,” Cheney ordered Wolfowitz. The plan was called Operation Scorpion. “While Powell was out of town, visiting Saudi Arabia, Cheney — again, without telling Powell — took the civilian-drafted plan, Operation Scorpion, to the White House and presented it to the president and the national security adviser,” writes Mann in his book. Bush, however, rejected it as too risky. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was enraged at Cheney’s presumption. “Put a civilian in charge of professional military men and before long he’s no longer satisfied with setting policy but wants to outgeneral the generals,” he wrote in his memoir. After Operation Scorpion was rejected, Cheney urged Bush to go to war without congressional approval, a notion the elder Bush dismissed.
After the Gulf War victory, in 1992, Cheney approved a new “Defense Planning Guidance” advocating U.S. unilateralism in the post-Cold War, a document whose final draft was written by Libby. Cheney assumed Republican rule for the indefinite future.
One week after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, on Jan. 27, 1993, Cheney appeared on “Larry King Live,” where he declared his interest in running for the presidency. “Obviously,” he said, “it’s something I’ll take a look at … Obviously, I’ve worked for three presidents and watched two others up close, and so it is an idea that has occurred to me.” For two years, he quietly campaigned in Republican circles, but discovered little enthusiasm. He was less well known than he imagined and less magnetic in person than his former titles suggested. On Aug. 10, 1995, he held a news conference at the headquarters of the Halliburton Co. in Dallas, announcing he would become its chief executive officer. “When I made the decision earlier this year not to run for president, not to seek the White House, that really was a decision to wrap up my political career and move on to other things,” he said.
But in 2000, Cheney surfaced in the role of party elder, above the fray, willing to serve as the man who would help Gov. George W. Bush determine who should be his running mate. Prospective candidates turned over to him all sensitive material about themselves, financial, political and personal. Once he had collected it, he decided that he should be the vice presidential candidate himself. Bush said he had previously thought of the idea and happily accepted. Asked who vetted Cheney’s records, Bush’s then aide Karen Hughes explained, “Just as with other candidates, Secretary Cheney is the one who handled that.”
Most observers assumed that Cheney would provide balancing experience and maturity, serving in his way as a surrogate father and elder statesman. Few grasped his deeply held view on presidential power. With Rumsfeld returned as secretary of defense, the position he had held during the Ford administration, the old team was back in place. Rivals from the past had departed and the field was clear. The methods used before were implemented again. To get around the CIA, the Office of Special Plans was created within the Pentagon, yet another version of Team B. Senior military dissenters were removed. Powell was manipulated and outmaneuvered.
The making of the Iraq war, torture policy and an industry-friendly energy plan has required secrecy, deception and subordination of government as it previously existed. But these, too, are means to an end. Even projecting a “war on terror” as total war, trying to envelop the whole American society within its fog, is a device to invest absolute power in the executive.
Dick Cheney sees in George W. Bush his last chance. Nixon self-destructed, Ford was fatally compromised by his moderation, Reagan was not what was hoped for, the elder Bush ended up a disappointment. In every case, the Republican presidents had been checked or gone soft. Finally, President Bush provided the instrument, Sept. 11 the opportunity. This time the failures of the past provided the guideposts for getting it right. The administration’s heedlessness was simply the wisdom of Cheney’s experience.