The long march of Dick Cheney
For his entire career, he sought untrammeled power. The Bush
presidency and 9/11 finally gave it to him -- and he's not about to
give it up.
By Sidney Blumenthal
-- -- 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.
Former Sen. Bob Graham has revealed, in a Nov. 20 article in the
Washington Post, that the condensed version of the National
Intelligence Estimate titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction
Programs" that was submitted to the Senate days before it voted on
the Iraq war resolution "represented an unqualified case that
Hussein possessed [WMD], avoided a discussion of whether he had the
will to use them and omitted the dissenting opinions contained in
the classified version." The condensed version also contained the
falsehood that Saddam Hussein was seeking "weapons-grade fissile
material from abroad."
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
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
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
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
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
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
-- By Sidney Blumenthal
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