Does Cheney want to see the U.S. attacked?

The CIA director reportedly said he thinks the former veep is hoping for a new attack to prove him right

By Alex Koppelman

Published June 15, 2009 7:35PM (EDT)

As former Vice President Dick Cheney has come back into the spotlight, embarking on a media tour in defense of the Bush administration's policies, he's come in for plenty of criticism. But none's as powerful as what CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly told the New Yorker. 

The magazine's Jane Mayer quotes Panetta as telling her, "I think he smells some blood in the water on the national-security issue. It’s almost, a little bit, gallows politics. When you read behind it, it’s almost as if he’s wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point. I think that’s dangerous politics.”

Cheney has responded, saying in a statement, "I hope my old friend Leon was misquoted. The important thing is whether the Obama administration will continue the policies that have kept us safe for the last eight years."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has weighed in, calling on Panetta to retract the quote and slapping at him over his leadership of the CIA. But other than McCain, Republicans have largely been keeping their distance from this particular fray, Greg Sargent notes. He says "the silence suggests that GOP leaders want to move the conversation past Cheney and his legacy." That's probably part of it, but I think the bigger issue here is the power of Panetta's quote.

It's one thing for, say, Keith Olbermann to attack Cheney this way, but if Republicans were to hit out at Panetta over what he said, they'd first have to acknowledge what they were talking about: That the director of the CIA apparently believes Cheney wants to see the U.S. attacked again, for his own political gain. Once they make that acknowledgement, they've lost.

There is one high-profile voice pushing back against the quote, though: The CIA. In a statement given to Sargent, a spokesman for the Agency said, "The Director was simply expressing his profound disagreement with the assertion that President Obama’s security policies have made our country less safe. That’s all there is to it. Everyone understands that al-Qaeda and its allies are a dangerous and determined enemy."

Update: CNN got a stronger statement from the CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano. "The Director does not believe the former Vice President wants an attack," Gimigliano told the network. "He did not say that. He was simply expressing his profound disagreement with the assertion that President Obama's security policies have made our country less safe. Nor did he question anyone's motives."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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