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Having catapulted himself back into the national spotlight as “the highest-profile critic of the new administration,” in the words of the New York Times, Dick Cheney has also invited us, inadvertently, to revisit his dispiriting legacy. Along with his support of cruel interrogations, Cheney’s everyday resort to stealth and subterfuge during his eight-year tenure in the Bush White House inspired certain administration insiders, privately and not necessarily derisively, to call the former vice president “Dark Side.” Angler, Barton Gellman’s study of the Cheney vice presidency, provides the most probing and comprehensive account we have, based on hundreds of original interviews, of Cheney’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering, not only in the “war on terror” but also in energy policy, environmental policy, tax policy and executive-legislative relations. But Gellman helps us explore an even more tenebrous domain. As it turns out, the proportions of calculating underhandedness and heady delusion commingled in Cheney’s political style remain frustratingly difficult to assess.
His recent, ongoing media campaign for the release of a few classified CIA memos is a case in point. Does he truly believe that in-house memorandums, containing publicly unchallenged and untested allegations, could conclusively prove that harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, produced intelligence that helped disrupt an imminent terror attack? Or is he playing smoke and mirrors, seeding the airwaves with sensational talking points to put his critics on the defensive? Such a maneuver might be unethical but would not be particularly irrational.
Consider, in the same light, the identical letters Cheney composed for his six grandchildren nearly two years ago, in July 2007, when President Bush was undergoing a colonoscopy and the vice president had assumed the role of acting president for several hours. Gellman has reproduced the remarkable text:
As I write this, our nation is engaged in a war with terrorists of global reach. My principal focus as vice president has been to protect the American people in our way of life. As you grow, you will come to understand the sacrifices that each generation makes to preserve freedom and democracy for future generations. I ask you as my grandchildren that you always strive in your lives to do what is right. Signed, Acting President of the United States, Grandpa Cheney
It is no doubt possible to discover some form of shrewd propaganda in this stilted message from a cardboard patriarch–words that were, after all, released to the public. But that is not the most plausible reading of these few lines. Cheney eulogizes himself as a nobly selfless leader who has been willing to make not only tough choices but also great personal sacrifices to defend freedom, democracy and the American way. Yet crowing before his children’s children as “Acting President of the United States” seems more delusional than instrumental. Temporarily the head of the executive branch, an office whose power he worked furtively and ferociously to expand during his years in government, Cheney turned the occasion into an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, decorated with dime-store clichés.
In trying to fathom how Cheney accumulated, maintained and gradually lost power within the executive branch, Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Washington Post, proceeds as a clinician rather than a prosecutor. Consequently, Angler touches only lightly on decisions of Cheney’s involving potential conflicts of interest. (The title of Gellman’s book refers to another Cheney moniker, one coined by the Secret Service and inspired by his passion for fly-fishing.) Acknowledging that the former vice president granted special and secretive access to business groups with substantial stakes in government policy, Gellman draws no damning conclusions about the long-term no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton in Iraq, even though Cheney, before helping to steer his country into war, had been that controversial company’s CEO. After thoroughly investigating the matter, Gellman reports that he found “no evidence of self-dealing behavior in office, involving Halliburton or anything else.”
For tenacious Cheney watchers, this may be an aggravating conclusion, but for the purpose of examining Cheney’s hold on power in the Bush White House it may also be beside the point. Whether or not Cheney profited financially from the policies he promoted, his concept of the national interest was and remains clearly aligned with the economic interests of his onetime business associates. Gellman makes this point, indirectly, by claiming that the vice president “was fundamentally honest about his objectives.” Such allusions to Cheney’s candor seem baffling until we realize that the objectives in question boil down to liberating business from regulation, cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and responding to foreign threats by swelling the power of the presidency vis-à-vis Congress and the courts. Honesty about goals, we soon learn, was accompanied by a lusty embrace of dishonesty in their pursuit.
Gellman lavishes most of his attention on the fabrications Cheney used to enable the executive branch to circumvent constitutional checks and balances. One of the boldest involved the Bush administration’s ongoing program for intercepting domestic communications without a judicial warrant, which Gellman describes as an “operation conceived and supervised by the office of the vice president.” When briefing the Republican and Democratic heads of Congress’s Intelligence Committees about this program in early 2004, Cheney (with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden and others) connived to hide the fact that high-ranking lawyers from the NSA and Justice Department had expressed grave doubts about the program’s legality. “Cheney, who chaired briefings for select members of Congress, said repeatedly that the NSA’s top law and ethics officers had approved what their agency was doing,” Gellman explains. Cheney was not vague about the facts of the case but conveyed inaccurate information about the legal opinions of others. To thwart Congressional oversight and thus eliminate outside review and potential criticism of a favored White House program, Cheney knowingly misled key members of a constitutionally coequal branch.
Cheney’s “major role in bringing war to Iraq” likewise required a strategic twisting of the truth. Gellman details a private briefing in late September 2002 that Cheney provided to Republican Congressman Dick Armey, then majority leader of the House. Armey opposed an invasion of Iraq on the reasonable grounds that the United States should not attack a country that had not attacked it. Usually hawkish, Armey presented an embarrassing hurdle to the war party in the administration. As Gellman says, “If Armey could oppose the war, he gave cover to every doubter in waiting,” making him “the center of gravity of the political opposition.” Something had to be done, and Cheney did it. According to Gellman, Cheney, brandishing top-secret satellite photos, made statements about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear arsenal and ties to Al Qaeda that he knew to be erroneous: “In the privacy of his office, for this one crucial vote, Cheney leveled claims he had not made before and did not make again.” Some of these claims “crossed so far beyond the known universe of fact that they were simply without foundation.” Gellman concludes that Cheney deliberately told Armey “things he knew to be untrue,” bamboozling a Congressional leader of his own party just long enough to extract a go-ahead vote. Having been preapproved on false pretenses by a gullible or complicit Congress, the misbegotten invasion was launched six months later.
Cheney has been deservedly criticized for overestimating the efficacy of military force, for giving no thought to the aftermath of military victory and, generally, for failing to anticipate the risks and costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His failure to perform due diligence before leading Halliburton into a financially disastrous merger with Dresser Industries in 1998 earned him a subsequently hushed-up reputation for managerial ineptitude, which, despite his brilliance at bureaucratic manipulation, he amply displayed as an architect of war as well. But the issue of incompetence isn’t central to the point Gellman makes about Cheney’s role in launching the Iraq War. However poorly he understood the bloody battlefield onto which he was leading the country, Cheney sincerely believed that the 2003 invasion was both desirable and necessary. Yet he helped President Bush take the United States to war without revealing to the Congressional leadership, much less to the public at large, his genuine reasons for thinking so.
For Gellman, such behavior provides additional proof, if any were needed, that Cheney’s “concept of democracy was at the far elite extreme.” The vice president’s rationale for the invasion of Iraq, as Gellman and others have reconstructed it, was shared only with like-minded colleagues in and around the White House. It was based on the assumption that, after the cold war, the principal threat to national security was a “nexus” of terrorist organizations, illegally proliferated weapons of mass destruction and rogue states. Decentralized and clandestine, this nexus remains dauntingly difficult to destroy. Given the sheer elusiveness of terrorist organizations and illegal weapons-smuggling channels, US counterterrorism forces had to concentrate after 9/11 on the third link in the chain: rogue states. Unlike smuggled nuclear matériel or clandestine terrorist operatives, rogue states are easy to pinpoint on a map and vulnerable to overwhelming firepower. Yet most of the rogue states consorting with terrorists or known to possess WMD are unappealing candidates for an American attack. Launching a “pre-emptive” war against North Korea, Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, as the decision-makers in Bush’s inner circle understood, risked destabilizing economically vital and politically precarious regions of the world.
By process of elimination, they concluded, the only rogue state with some observable ties to WMD and terrorist groups, and where a hostile government could be successfully toppled without triggering a major international crisis, was Iraq, a country ruled by a widely detested homicidal clan. Removing Saddam would not automatically strengthen the hand of the United States against the dreaded nexus, but it would “send a powerful message” to the genuinely dangerous rogue states. The message was that the US military could, at a moment’s notice, physically annihilate any ruling group that failed to bring under control weapons proliferation and terrorism within its country’s borders.
If the immediate purpose of the invasion was exemplary punishment of Iraq for behavior vaguely analogous to behavior that, if it occurred, would truly threaten the United States, it’s no wonder that such a rationale was never made public. Cheney’s assumptions about a multistage, regionwide and even global intimidation effect were so tenuous and speculative that they might never have survived an open public debate. The same, or worse, can be said about his numerous public insinuations that Saddam was intimately involved in 9/11. (It now appears that in April 2003, Cheney urged American interrogators to waterboard a captured Iraqi intelligence officer, not to extract intelligence for preventing a future attack but to provide evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link to justify a war that had already been launched.) Whatever Cheney was thinking or plotting at the time, his actions reflected a characteristic principle of Bush-league raison d’état: duplicity is a small price to pay for the chance to go to war.
To explain the workings of Cheney’s power, many commentators have focused on his eccentric understanding of the Constitution rather than his predilection for sordid tactics of deceit. On multiple occasions since 1974, when as a member of the White House staff he witnessed the humiliating denouement of the Nixon presidency, Cheney has publicly endorsed the theory that the president, relying on his powers as commander in chief and head of the executive branch, can “defy explicit prohibitions of law.” That is, when the United States is at war in a legal sense, the president may disregard as unconstitutional any statute he finds cumbersome. According to this expansive view of presidential discretion, statutory restrictions on executive authority, although they are especially abhorrent in times of national crisis, are nearly always detrimental in ordinary times as well. As Gellman explains, David Addington, Cheney’s fabled consigliere in the Bush White House, played a pivotal role in sharpening and implementing this farfetched constitutional doctrine: “Addington’s formula may have been the nearest thing to a claim of unlimited power ever made by an American president.” But not much legal innovation was required on Addington’s part. It sufficed to disinter the immoderate claims for unilateral executive power made by earlier administrations, especially by the partisan lawyers who worked under Richard Nixon.
Presidential say-so and self-oversight are the central tenets of Cheney’s constitutional philosophy, if we can call it that. It follows that transparency statutes, such as the Freedom of Information Act, are unconstitutional infringements on presidential power. As Gellman summarizes this view, “Congress had no enforceable right to demand any information from the executive branch that was not already available to the public.” Withholding information in the name of executive privilege is apparently legitimate even if it would thwart an ongoing criminal investigation. Important legal rulings to the contrary exist, admittedly, but they belong, in Cheney’s view, to the fundamentally illegitimate Watergate-era assault on executive power.
Only a short step separates the brazenly asserted right of the president to defy the will of Congress and the courts to the tacitly insinuated right of the president to mislead Congress and the courts. Cheney’s sovereign executive, in fact, may be inherently and inescapably duplicitous. Given the proclivity of Congress and the courts to ask embarrassingly probing questions, the executive branch can defend its “near-hermetic secrecy” only by resorting frequently to deliberate untruths, delivered preferably in informal settings, not under oath. This dubious constitutional argument is supplemented with a dubious contextual one. The president has the right and responsibility, as part of his national security powers, to mislead hostile foreign powers. But it is sometimes impossible to conduct an effective disinformation campaign against enemies without subjecting Congress and the courts to the very same deception.
Gellman’s account of executive branch mendacity raises several intriguing questions. Was Cheney’s devotion to unrestrained executive power, including the right to mislead supposedly coequal branches, partisan or nonpartisan? Is Cheney a man of rigid principles, heedless of political consequences, or an opportunist, embracing and dropping principles as expediency demands? Was his zeal to restore the Imperial Presidency, as it had been fully imagined but incompletely realized by Nixon, an expression of factional loyalty or of constitutional conviction? Did he do it for the sake of Bush and his political goals, or for the sake of the executive branch, present and future?
Politicians sometimes act for the reasons they allege. But expressed justification does not always open a window onto private motivation. That Cheney’s prettifying rationales for his own actions needn’t always be taken seriously is a conclusion strongly suggested by Angler. Cheney’s public position on executive branch secrecy is a case in point. He regularly defended the right to withhold important information from Congress and the courts, by invoking the need to receive candid or unvarnished advice from people who would be intimidated and inhibited by the thought that their private communications might someday become public. Yet Cheney’s practice of leaking confidential information in order to injure rivals and adversaries, detailed by Gellman, raises doubts about the sincerity of this defense of secret government. It seems more likely that Cheney favored hiding the ball for a tactical reason: it is easier to win if your political and bureaucratic rivals inside government do not even know a deadly game is afoot.
The same is true of Cheney’s claim that the threat of nuclear terrorism revealed by 9/11 justifies his spirited defense of unchecked executive power. This claim is disingenuous for several reasons. First, Cheney’s commitment to extreme executive discretion didn’t originate with 9/11. Since 1974, in fact, his driving passion had been to restore the president’s power to escape liability for actions undertaken in the name of national security and without legislative or judicial oversight. Second, while serving as vice president, Cheney regularly invoked presidential prerogative for purposes with little or no connection to national security, such as allowing snowmobiles into national parks and the construction of coal-fired power plants in their vicinity. Finally, the notion that the executive branch needs extraordinary powers to enable it to react rapidly in a crisis, especially when thousands of American lives are at stake, is undermined by the response of the Bush administration in general, and the vice president in particular, to the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The paralysis the government displayed as a major American city was being destroyed suggests that Cheney’s desire to monopolize power reflects just that, and not a serious commitment to emergency preparedness or the preservation of American lives.
Cheney also relished the presidency’s independent power of action because it allowed him to push a hardline agenda without having to make compromises with the opposition. Even after he and Bush eked out their contested victory in 2000, he refused to seek common ground with the party that had won the popular vote. This obstinacy was perfectly in character. Cheney had been suggesting for decades that the Republican Party was the natural party of power, just as the Democratic Party, if not a fifth column, was emboldening America’s enemies by its post-Vietnam reluctance to deploy overwhelming military force abroad. And once in office, Cheney set about designing a national security policy that could be sustained only if the other party were permanently excluded from the presidency. That the Democrats do not deserve to occupy the White House seems self-evident to Cheney, who, with Limbaughesque vulgarity, has slandered unnamed members of Obama’s team as “people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans.”
At one point Gellman suggests that aggrandizement of executive branch power for its own sake, regardless of which party occupies the White House, was Cheney’s true agenda. Cheney did occasionally seem more obsessed with means than with ends, as if his sheer hunger for power might be leading him to discover or invent justifying missions. But Gellman also makes the opposite case: that Cheney sought limitless power to achieve purely partisan aims. It was his “sense of mission” that drove him “to seek power without limit,” Gellman says. Cheney’s allegedly nonpartisan commitment to executive discretion, on neutrally institutional grounds, has recently been thrown into doubt by his serial attacks on the president as soft on terrorism. Not only has he trash-talked Obama, calling him “someone who would ‘never make it in the major leagues,'” as The New Yorker recently reported; he has also denounced Obama for using executive discretion to close Guantánamo, wind down the Iraq War and outlaw waterboarding, not to mention for imposing ethics standards on government officials and regulating businesses for the sake of the environment. It is easier to see the partisanship than the principle, especially in his requests for the administration to declassify still-secret memos, however pernicious a precedent such a release might set.
But identifying partisan zeal and personal arrogance as the wellsprings of Cheney’s extraordinary theory of the sovereign executive does not explain his success in concentrating unprecedented power in the traditionally weak Office of the Vice President (OVP). How was Cheney, at least during Bush’s first term, able to outmaneuver serious rivals and seize, in Gellman’s words, “a brief so wide-ranging and autonomous that he was the nearest thing we have had to a deputy president?” As Gellman demonstrates, the key to answering this question lies in palace intrigue.
The most proficient bank robber is no doubt the one who once supervised the bank’s security system. As President Ford’s chief of staff in 1975-76, Cheney possessed an insider’s knowledge of the White House protocols and procedures designed to prevent policy-making from being captured by a narrow faction or clique within the executive branch. Some sort of statutory interagency process, managed by the chief of staff, has existed for decades to ensure that the president can benefit from the conflicting counsel of his various cabinet officers and major advisers. A central component of this system is the circulation of drafts of major policy initiatives to make sure that all parties with a substantial stake in the outcome have a chance to make comments about potential drawbacks and lodge objections before a policy is made official. An orderly paper trail, managed by the chief of staff, increases the chances that the evidence and arguments driving policy will be tested against contrary views. This staffing system was systematically short-circuited in the Bush White House by former chief of staff Cheney and his inner circle. To strengthen their stranglehold on policy-making, they made sure that neither political rivals nor “career civil servants, unbeholden to the White House,” in Gellman’s words, were “read in” when policies were being made. As a consequence, dissenters had little or no opportunity to present an alternative case to the president.
To circumvent the interagency process in the Bush White House, Cheney first had to take charge of appointments. He began during the 2000 presidential campaign by securing control of the vice presidential selection process, collecting damaging information on potential candidates and getting himself named to the spot. Even before the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner of the election in December 2000, Cheney had begun to dominate the coming presidency. On the principle that “personnel is policy,” as Gellman tells the story, Cheney managed to seed the entire executive branch with loyalists who could help him effect his will informally, regardless of official titles or chains of command: “Cheney worked through proxies, and proxies of proxies.” He detailed these devotees to second- and third-tier positions, especially in agencies concerned with national security and energy policy. This covert network of surrogates allowed him to pursue a highly partisan agenda while avoiding the critical scrutiny and backlash that might have been triggered by any policy advocated aggressively by the high-profile vice president himself. Indeed, Cheney was able to double his effectiveness by feigning open-mindedness about a range of options during initial discussions and, when the moment of decision arrived, coming down in favor of policies that, in reality, his proxies had initiated under his whispered instructions.
Instead of abolishing the interagency process, Cheney gamed it, creating a parallel process that mimicked the one it undermined. Such was the homage Vice paid to virtue. His back-channel parody of multiagency consultation was “the key to Cheney’s dominance of the ‘war on terror,'” Gellman says. A pre-eminent player in this shadow process was John Yoo, the conservative and controversial University of California law professor who served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from 2001 to 2003. As Cheney’s and Addington’s most valuable proxy, Yoo was, in Gellman’s phrase, “the fulcrum of the lever that Cheney pulled to move the world.” It is true that Cheney and Addington “manipulated the legal advice they sought” from the like-minded and eager-to-please young lawyer. But Cheney needed Yoo for a procedural reason: “With the OLC’s writ, any federal agency could do as the vice president asked.” And Yoo copiously complied: “In a prolific run of opinions that fall and winter, Yoo claimed without limitation that the president could disregard laws and treaties prohibiting torture, war crimes, warrantless eavesdropping and confinement without a hearing. The breadth of the language was stunning.”
Perhaps the “most jarring claim” contained in the memos was one that is again much in the news: “that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it indisputably constitutes torture.” Treaties and statutes forbidding torture, including the practice of asphyxiating a subject of interrogation until his pulse and blood pressure drop to life-threatening levels, were declared nonbinding on the president during wartime. An August 1, 2002, memo only recently declassified and therefore not discussed by Gellman states that “the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death” but nevertheless “would not constitute torture within the meaning of the [anti-torture] statute.” While questions about the true authorship of this memo are unresolved (it is signed by Jay Bybee, at the time an assistant attorney general at the head of OLC), its arguments and claims are consistent with the memos about interrogation written principally by Yoo beginning in November 2001. Prominent members of the administration later protested that Yoo’s memos, crafted with Addington’s guidance, never served as a basis for the harsh interrogation of detainees. But as Gellman comments, “That claim was breathtaking in its dishonesty.”
Gellman goes on to say that “Addington insisted on strict secrecy, preventing the circulation of drafts to agencies that might challenge Yoo’s analysis.” The clandestine and therefore amateurish nature of this rule-making went so far that Yoo’s memos were “sometimes kept secret from Yoo’s own superiors” at Justice. Indeed, as Gellman explains, the “new legal framework was meant to be invisible, unreviewable–its very existence unknown by legislative or judicial actors who might push back.” Growing executive branch reliance on secret, and therefore untested, readings not only of statutes but of the Constitution was not a dilemma, from Cheney’s point of view, but an asset.
Such a wanton embrace of secrecy reveals the hypocrisy of another argument, commonly advanced by Cheney’s supporters, for expansive executive power in time of crisis: Congress and the courts must defer to the executive in national security affairs because they lack the expertise needed to evaluate executive branch decisions. This argument sounds vaguely plausible at first. But according to Gellman’s persuasively documented account, one important reason Cheney concealed sensitive information from Congress and the courts was to conceal it from executive branch experts who disagreed with his policies and the legal analyses or empirical claims on which they were based.
The “unitary executive” celebrated by Cheney’s defenders is not an executive that reaches policy consensus by hammering out differences through spirited debate among knowledgeable parties but rather an executive that can be seized and dominated by a single uncompromising internal faction. In such a system, any dissenters throughout the sprawling executive branch’s many agencies may be silenced by fiat. (Gellman quotes a “close ally of Cheney” who waggishly referred to the State Department as “basically an al Qaeda cell.” Labeling the foreign service of one’s own country as treasonous may not seem especially funny; but this sort of Cheneyland “joke” has a lineage within the right wing of the Republican Party going back to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s speech on February 9, 1950, accusing the State Department of being “thoroughly infested with Communists.”) Secrecy and dispatch served not national security but interagency guerrilla warfare. Cheney’s view, as sketched by Gellman, seems to have been that obligatory consultations, rather than improving on balance the quality of decisions, merely increased the level of random noise within the system while impeding fast-track decision-making by those who knew best.
To skip time-consuming consultations, Cheney’s team erected a series of impenetrable barriers between executive branch agencies that hindered multiagency cooperation, assured that knowledgeable parties with a stake in the outcome had no voice in decision-making and prevented the ultimate decision-makers from hearing objections before setting unvetted policies in motion. This was a highly paradoxical strategy. For one thing, the vice president’s defenders have frequently blamed the government’s failures in the run-up to 9/11 on the “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence gathering. So why did it make sense, from a national security perspective, to set about building more walls within an executive branch determined to combat terrorism? Why overcompartmentalize policy-making and stonewall executive branch experts who happened to disagree with the president’s objectives of the moment, especially during emergencies?
While repeatedly outfoxing rivals within the executive branch, Cheney also made sure that those who disagreed with his policies could not return the favor by ambushing him or pulling off faits accomplis of their own. “In the first term most White House staff members were unaware than many of their e-mails were blind-copied to Cheney’s staff,” Gellman writes. This curious practice of intraexecutive spying by the OVP, incidentally, also displays Cheney’s opportunistic and unprincipled attitude toward the confidentiality of communications.
And Cheney’s deviousness did not end here. According to Gellman, the vice president sometimes even “blindsided” the president–“the Decider”–himself. There were “moments when Cheney took the helm…without the president’s apparent awareness,” even though, as Gellman remarks, Bush’s legendary impatience with detail made him morally complicit in his vice president’s usurpations of power. In May 2003, as Gellman reports, Cheney even succeeded in getting a capital-gains-tax reduction passed against Bush’s explicit directives. As usual, Cheney achieved his aims by the secretive use of surrogates. Gellman says that “Cheney needed proxies because it would be bound to get out if he lobbied for the capital-gains cut directly. He was backing a substitute for the president’s proposal. Hardly anyone, in or out of the White House, knew that.” He exalted the unity of the executive branch in theory, in other words, but was quite willing to disregard the hierarchical organization of that unity in practice. The same lack of deference toward his nominal former boss has resurfaced in Cheney’s acerbic commentary on the Obama administration, which contrasts sharply with Bush’s respectful post-presidential silence.
Cheney’s strategies of anonymity and deniability, executed through his network of enablers, also betray the flimsiness of the autocratic philosophy he and his defenders have invoked to support his bureaucratic power games. As Gellman notes, Cheney repeatedly cited Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist No. 70” as an authority for his belief that the executive branch, to exploit its institutional capacities for secrecy and dispatch, must be freed from interference by Congress and the courts. Cheney’s reading of “Federalist No. 70” is curiously selective, however. The essay’s principal focus is the importance of designing government institutions to prevent executive officers from shirking responsibility by acting anonymously. Hamilton argued that having a single president, rather than a multiheaded executive, will make it possible “to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or series of pernicious measures, ought really to fall.” The parallel government that Cheney established in OVP, by contrast, is a classic example of undemocratic pluralism within the executive. Just as Hamilton surmised, such a multiheaded arrangement fatally obscured the authorship of calamitous policy failures: we still do not know who made the disastrous decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army.
Eventually, Cheney’s power began to wane. During Bush’s second term, Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates as secretary of defense, and the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, launched a diplomatic initiative toward North Korea. Gellman tries to explain this gradual unraveling of Cheney’s mystique by invoking Nemesis, who in Greek tragedies punishes those who suffer from hubris. The uncanny lack of self-doubt that gave Cheney a tactical advantage over his rivals may, indeed, have defeated him in the end. His manipulation of evidence and argument as tools for working his will on others may have over time led him to undervalue the role of evidence and argument as checks on himself.
More specifically, his stealthy end runs around Attorney General John Ashcroft in March 2004 (orchestrated without Bush’s knowledge) fueled a “near-calamitous rebellion at Justice,” Gellman writes. While Ashcroft was being hospitalized for acute gallstones, the acting attorney general, James Comey, Ashcroft’s deputy, refused to reauthorize Cheney’s cherished program for warrantless domestic surveillance. Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card, Bush’s White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively, went to Ashcroft’s hospital room and tried to badger him into reversing Comey’s decision. Ashcroft refused. More than thirty attorneys at Justice threatened to resign over the White House’s treatment of Ashcroft, a scandal averted only when Bush made some unspecified concessions on domestic surveillance. This skirmish is one example of how during the Bush years conflicts between and among executive branch agencies had a greater impact on national security than conflicts between the executive and Congress or the executive and the courts. Arrogance also triggered a backlash when the vice president’s politically unsustainable assertion of “absolute presidential discretion to declare a U.S. citizen an enemy and lock him up without a lawyer or a hearing” shocked an otherwise deferential Supreme Court into issuing a handful of decisions that, in Gellman’s opinion, spelled “a calamity for Cheney’s war plan against al Qaeda.”
But perhaps the most telling example of fatefully self-destructive overreaching was Cheney’s attempt to punish former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for insinuating publicly that the vice president had fabricated evidence in an attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq. The story, a revenge tragedy, is well known. On July 6, 2003, four months after the invasion of Iraq, Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times disputing the claim that Saddam had tried to purchase enhanced uranium yellowcake from Niger. Bush, Cheney and others had made this claim in the course of arguing that Saddam’s WMD posed a serious threat. To tarnish Wilson, and intimidate anyone else who might be tempted to challenge publicly the vice president’s good faith, Cheney arranged for his politically savvy deputy, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, to leak the confidential information that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent (seeking out WMD, no less) and to insinuate that Wilson’s evidence of Cheney’s dishonesty was tainted and discredited by nepotism.
Having stiff-armed Ashcroft’s deputy attorney general, James Comey, one too many times, Cheney was helpless when in December 2003 Comey appointed the hard-driving federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the Plame leak. More generally, although he was vividly aware of the risks of inaction, Cheney failed to think clearly about the risks of action or the unintended consequences of the demonstrative use of power. By dispatching Libby on a covert operation to discredit Wilson, he set in motion a process that led to Fitzgerald’s indictment of his right-hand man and, eventually, to Libby’s conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice. It was a self-inflicted wound caused by a disproportionate, not to say obsessive, focus on a secondary danger. (Why Bush rebuffed Cheney’s last-minute pleas to pardon Libby has still not been publicly revealed. That the president may have been rebelling belatedly at his nominal subordinate’s devious and imperious style cannot be excluded, however.) Nemesis seems to have been triggered by oversimplification; condescension; intolerance of criticism; an irresistible need to act; a fatally selective picture of a highly complex threat environment; and an intuitive, basically irrational, setting of priorities.
Gellman says that Cheney “liked to hear a lot of competing views,” not in order to prepare his rebuttals but because he was serious about governance and wanted to learn “what would work and what would not.” But the general portrait of Cheney that emerges from Angler does not fully support such a charitable interpretation. Cheney repeatedly scoffed at the idea of national security officials being “second-guessed by congressional committees, inspectors general, and the FBI,” as if statutorily required oversight, including military-style after-action reviews, could never improve executive branch performance. Cheney’s circumvention of due process and constitutional checks may have reflected his visceral dislike of sharing power with people he could not control. But it also seems rooted in a deep intellectual lapse.
According to Gellman, “Cheney and Addington often said that fear of the law had neutered intelligence agencies since the 1970s.” The prospect of personal liability for war crimes, written into law by liberals, unmanned the wielders of America’s hard power, they argued. Rather than being assets in the “war on terror,” legality and due process were therefore liabilities. The obligation to obey the law indirectly helped America’s enemies by reducing “battlefield” options and promoting timorousness and an excess of caution. From this flawed analysis, it followed that the most favorable terrain on which the United States could conduct its struggle with jihadism was the domain of illegality. The power to fight terrorism effectively included, above all, the power to indemnify executive branch operatives from any criminal penalty for violating laws purporting to regulate interrogation, detention or domestic surveillance.
The notion that law and the procedures of the criminal justice system, as a general matter, reduce operational flexibility against terrorists stems from tunnel vision. Due process can make a positive contribution to counterterrorism, despite what American conservatives frequently allege, because it compels executive officials to give plausible reasons for their actions, thereby creating over the long run an incentive for executive officials to have plausible reasons for their actions, especially for their use of coercive force. Some prosecutors may be annoyed that public trials, evidentiary rules, independent judges, juries and the like make it harder for them to put away “obviously guilty” suspects. But an important purpose of the procedural architecture of due process is to compel law enforcement authorities to adapt to reality even when it flatly contradicts their pet hunches. If prosecutors could imprison suspects on the basis of undisclosed information or outright speculation, never vetted in a neutral forum or challenged by knowledgeable parties, their actions would not be flexible but arbitrary. Situational awareness and self-correction are products of institutional protocols, not of unrestrained executive discretion, which may–and in the case of the Bush administration, did–write a blank check to people with chronically inflexible minds.
Why would Cheney flatly deny that due process and other forms of government self-restraint, such as abstention from torture, can make a positive contribution to national security? One reason might be that he overestimates the probative value of hearsay and circumstantial evidence. A central function of due process is to prevent the criminal justice system from being manipulated by witness malice. Cheney rejects, or does not see, that evidentiary standards, notice, discovery rules and the right to confront adverse testimony help weed out false evidence and testimony introduced by people with illicit private agendas (think Ahmed Chalabi). Thus, he consistently argued that after 9/11, “the government had to shake off old habits of self-restraint” to be effective. Yet traditions of self-restraint have survived, in a dangerous and often unforgiving environment, because, on balance and over time, they make coercive measures more effective.
Why would a system designed to cauterize spirals of violence, by separating perpetrators from bystanders, be made obsolete by the emergence of international Salafi terrorism? After all, international Salafi terrorism is a movement that, whatever its spokesmen say about “cosmic war” and the clash of civilizations, is always fueled by a desire to retaliate for past crimes allegedly or actually committed by the West. But instead of favoring criminal justice, with its emphasis on individual culpability, Cheney embraced the “war model” of counterterrorism. He favored war-fighting over crime-fighting on the spurious grounds that the former is “more aggressive” than the latter. By “more aggressive” he apparently meant “less discriminating.” War fighters are much less likely than crime fighters to be held legally liable for killing and maiming innocent bystanders. As a result, law cannot “neuter” soldiers the way it does police officers, hamstrung by the imperative to sort the guilty from the innocent.
Through 2006, Cheney continued to claim that superior US firepower would crush the Sunni insurgency, then purportedly in its “last throes.” After force majeure had failed to quell the violence, Cheney finally acknowledged that, in the words of a US counterinsurgency specialist, “the war could not be won without driving a wedge between committed adversaries and ordinary POIs–short for Pissed Off Iraqis.” But he never seemed to have absorbed the underlying lesson that escalated military aggression has diminishing returns. Civilian casualties especially can be counterproductive, because killing innocent bystanders in a revenge culture like Iraq’s will reduce the eagerness of civilians to turn insurgents over to the authorities.
Cheney’s insistence that “history” will vindicate his actions, despite his off-the-charts unpopularity, also seems hubristic, if not delusional. As Armey told Gellman, this boast seems to be an important source of solace for the former vice president. It cannot be refuted, of course, because no one can foresee with certainty the retrospective judgments of future generations. It is a Cheneyesque belief–one that can never be tested by reality. By explicitly placing more trust in the unobservable than the observable, Cheney seems to be confirming the suspicions of those who see his exaggerated self-confidence as a symptom of chronic disconnection from reality.
Lincoln said, optimistically, that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. But a better epitaph for Cheney’s vice presidency comes from Joseph Schumpeter: even if you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, you can fool enough people long enough to do irreversible damage. Whatever hypotheses we entertain or reject about Cheney’s motives and mental states, the consequences of his serial duplicities continue to misshape our world and will not, by any means, be soon repaired.