The US government and military have undergone a series of jolting expansions in the Bush years. We got, for instance, a second Defense Department called the Department of Homeland Security. We got a military command for North America called United States Northern Command. More than anything else, however, while we already had an “imperial presidency,” we also got an add-on–an imperial vice-presidency, a new form of shadow government in the United States, a startlingly unbound, constitutionally unmandated new institutional power.

On taking office, Dick Cheney promptly began to set up a vice-presidential office that essentially mimicked, and then to some extent replaced, the National Security Council (NSC). Just as promptly, his office plunged itself into utter, blinding secrecy–as journalist Robert Dreyfuss discovered when he simply tried to chart out who was working in this new center of power. No information, it turned out, could be revealed to a curious reporter, not even the names and positions of those who worked for the Vice President, those who, theoretically, were working for us. Cheney’s office would not even publicly acknowledge its own employees, no less let them be interviewed.

From that office (and allied posts elsewhere in the executive branch and the federal bureaucracy), the Vice President and his various right-hand men like I Lewis “Scooter” Libby and present Chief of Staff David Addington, both fierce believers in the so-called unitary executive theory of government (in which a “wartime” commander-in-chief president is said to have unfettered power to command just about anything), elbowed the State Department, the NSC, and the Intelligence Community. With the President’s ear, and in league with Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon (among others), they spearheaded a series of mis- and disinformation operations that led to Iraq and beyond. (Reporter Jim Lobe wrote about this at Tomdispatch in August 2005, “Dating Cheney’s Nuclear Drumbeat.”)

Now shorn of Rumsfeld, Cheney and his men, increasingly beleaguered, are nonetheless pushing on as the Vice President secretively travels the world, warning and scheming. Only this week, in “The Redirection,” a New Yorker piece as chilling as any you might ever want to read, our premier journalist of this era (as well as the Vietnam one), Seymour Hersh reports that, two years ago, old hands from the Iran-Contra fiasco of the Reagan era, well-seeded into the Bush administration, had an informal meeting led by Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Their conclusions: “As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: ‘One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office.”

That’s what passes for learning from experience in the Bush/Cheney White House. Indeed, the same folks are now evidently running an updated version of Iran-Contra (without the CIA) out of the Vice President’s office. At the same time, according to Hersh, Cheney, in his urge to roll back Iranian regional power as well as undermine Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia in Iraq, and the Syrians, has set the Saudis loose to fund Sunni jihadis–just as they did in Afghanistan at American behest in the 1980s. The result then was, among other things, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So imagine: Cheney’s office is now working hard to combine the worst of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal with the worst of the Afghan disaster. I wonder what the results could possibly be?

The history of this sudden explosion of ultra-secretive vice-presidential power remains to be written, based on documents that have not yet seen the light of day. The Libby trial has recently offered us a glimpse into the most secretive and powerful office in the land and its interplay with the White House, State Department, and CIA. As former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega points out, that glimpse should be enough to trigger a Congressional investigation into the Plame case. It’s time to open a few windows on that claustrophic bunker of a vice-presidential office. It’s time, she tells us, for Congress to investigate all the President’s and Vice President’s men and women.