"Angler": The Rise and (Finally!) Fall of Dick Cheney
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
March 10, 2009
Reading Barton Gellman's "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency" (Penguin Press, 2008) is yet another reminder that all too often those who were right early on about the massive dangers facing American society under the CheneyBush Administration were ignored, marginalized, reviled, often punished.
There were scores of us in the media, most on the internet but a healthy handful inside corporate mainstream journalism, who from the very beginning were warning of a power-hungry Administration out of control, with terrible consequences to our foreign/military policy and to the integrity of the Constitution. (See this one, for example, from December 2001.) Eight long years were lost to this catastrophically wrong turn in American politics, while the corporate mass-media in the main served as an effective lapdog for the neo-conservative madness.
But Bart Gellman's voluminously-researched volume, along with recent revelations by Obama's Department of Justice about the run-amok legal philosophy in the Bush White House has demonstrated the incontrovertible truth that no longer can be ignored:
The United States came justthisclose to an irreversible militarist coup, and leading the charge at every step of the way was Dick Cheney. I think virtually everyone outside the 30% GOP base, at least by 2006 or so, sensed there was something deeply wrong with the guy and/or in how he operated. Gellman, who (along with Washington Post co-writer Jo Becker) won a Pulitzer Prize for this reporting, nails it. In so doing, he provides an object lesson for how Obama and future presidents might want to treat the Constitution, the separation-of-powers tradition, the rule of law, transparency in governing, etc.
If you haven't read "Angler," do so: It's extraordinary history and a great read. But be prepared: Cheney's actions are worse, more wide-ranging and more scary that you might even have imagined.
THE SEARCH FOR HIMSELF
It seemed fairly clear how much of an influence Cheney had on Bush, especially, say, in the first five or six years. Bush was not prepared, informed, curious, sufficiently intelligent, and, since politics like nature abhors vacuums, Cheney flowed into all the holes. He had appointed himself Vice President precisely to fill that role. How Cheney maneuvered himself into the #2 job is deliciously told by Gellman. Cheney in effect organized "a nationwide search for himself," and made sure that neither his medical records nor his policies and connections would ever be vetted, by anyone.
Cheney, after his decades in the federal structure, knew the byways and little-known corridors to information and power, and used all that knowledge and collected on favors-owed. He also placed cohorts in key positions of power around the capitol, from Cabinet members to sub-Cabinet and even middle-grade officials. Cheney, in charge of appointments, believing that "personnel was policy," installed his guys into these linchpin positions and began to manipulate the levers of power. The result was that Cheney, in effect, was running his own government within the government.
Sometimes, he kept Bush informed, but often he withheld key information from his boss, and moved the chess pieces himself, sometimes with disastrous results. (For some major such withholdings, see what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind reported in his book "The One Percent Solution.")
The Vice President's two chief lieutenants, Scooter Libby and David Addington, provided the enforcing muscle and the cut-outs to keep Cheney's fingerprints off the various controversial policies being enacted and promulgated. (No wonder Cheney was so upset that Bush in his final days would not grant a full pardon to Libby for taking the fall for him in the spy-outing case of CIA agent Valerie Plame.)
Nothing escaped Cheney's notice. One of his underlings said that Cheney held the view that "everything should run through his office." While all power would appear to flow from the Chief Executive/Commander in Chief, Cheney would exercise a good share of that power, if not most, in the areas that counted: war and peace, the economy, natural resources, homeland security, appointments, intelligence, negotiations with Congress -- in short, the brief of a President. Cheney even made sure to review the daily CIA briefing that Bush would receive later each morning; in the interim, Cheney did his homework, contacted folks in high place, and was thus armed with arguments in case Bush was leaning the "wrong" way on something raised by the briefing.
Cheney was the true eminence grise who exercised power from behind the throne. He may not have had ambition for higher office, but he certainly had an agenda for the accretion of power, and he knew this was probably his last chance to exercise that power; no wonder he didn't give a flying fig for what anyone else thought, not the least the public. He was quite aware that as the elected V.P., he could not be fired, and that the Democrats were too wimpy to even consider taking him on. Cheney was so all-powerful and intimidating that mere mention that he was interested in a topic could freeze bureaucrats, even Cabinet officers, in their tracks, and policies often changed -- or else.
Cheney managed it, writes Gellman, so that he got "three bites at the apple" on every decision. He intervened early with any topic of his choosing, got the base information and understood the key decisions being considered long before others even knew what was going on, plus he had the final input to the President, should that be necessary. Sometimes, since he had kept Bush more or less in the dark on a topic, what Cheney spoon-fed him late was enough to get Bush on board. "By the time Cheney had Bush's ear," writes Gellman, "he was intimately familiar with opposing views," and dispensed with them easily. In the end, Bush thought he had made the decision, but, of course, it was really Cheney.
"In public," writes Gellman, "Cheney took Bush's lead, adopting the language of unity. But even as he spoke the words, he repositioned their meaning. ... There would be many reasons for Cheney's dominance in the Bush Administration, some of them subtle. One was as simple as could be. The vice president knew what he wanted. ... Cheney spotted strategic ground, and there he marched." In short, in those first five or six years, Cheney rarely lost a battle, always managing to turn the policy in the direction he sought.
THE ACCRETION OF POWER
During this period, Cheney was the person to go to to get things done, not Bush. Said HardRight Senator Phil Gramm: "Dick could make a deal. He didn't have to check with the President, not as far as I could tell. I'm sure at the end of the day, he would fill the president in on what had happened. But Dick had the agency of the president." Cheney, Gellman notes, often operated by practicing the art of UNODIR (military shorthand for "unless otherwise directed"); in other words, unless Bush himself raised an issue and explicitly told him not to do something, Cheney went full speed ahead on his own authority and did it. And, given his intimidating nature, he got away with it.
Cheney's over-arching goal, writes Gellman, "was enlargement of presidential authority," which, not incidentally, would provide Cheney himself with the same authority. The neo-con "unitary executive" principle of governance meant that the president's inherent functions -- command of the Army and Navy, direction of the cabinet, execution of the law -- were "beyond the reach, in principle, of legislative or judicial review." Cheney claimed that the commander in chief "may refuse to disclose his acts in office or disregard a law once it has passed" (the many hundreds of so-called "signing statements" Bush promulgated). The president could also rule by fiat, so to speak, through "executive orders" and "executive regulations."
Add all this up and you can see what the country endured for the past six to eight years: bluntly, something mighty close to a dictatorship. As long as the public didn't find out what the president and his officers (especially Cheney) were doing, there would be no problem.
On rare occasions, a governmental official did raise objections. Comptroller General David Walker. for example, said that Cheney's unitary-executive theory "seeks to work a revolution in separation of powers principles, one that would drastically interfere with Congress's essential power to oversee the activities of the executive branch...[Cheney's argument] would create a new and unbounded immunity from oversight based on constitutional provisions that have never before been invoked in an inter-branch dispute over documents. Indeed, [under Cheney's conception] of our 'government of separated powers'...no such disputes could ever again reach the courts."
But, because matters do on occasion leak in Washington, Cheney was a secrecy fanatic, be it on the makeup of his energy panel or on anything else. He "favored stealth, in part, because it gave him practical advantages in getting his way." On matters he cared most strongly about -- such as oil and gas, deflecting global warming initiatives, domestic spying -- "he brooked little compromise."
On those rare occasions when the Supreme Court shot down the overarching assertion of total authority lodged in the executive, Cheney made sure to find a way to delay implementation and, in the interim, to find a work-around that would get the administration to the same goal but via a different route.
MONUMENTALLY STUBBORN & WRONG
It wasn't just that Cheney, on these and other matters, was stubborn and locked into rigid ideological frameworks that didn't accord with reality. What's of even more import is that time and time again, Cheney was devastatingly wrong. Gellman includes illuminating chapters in the second half of the book on Cheney and 9/11, Cheney and Iraq, Cheney and global warming, Cheney and torture, Cheney and domestic spying, etc. He got them all wrong and by so doing did gross and impeachable violation to the country and Constitution.
Things got extra heavy in some of those areas when Cheney began meddling with the all-important White House Office of Legal Counsel at the same time as Rumsfeld was carving out extra-constitutional powers for the armed forces. Cheney made sure Bush's lightweight consiglieri Alberto Gonzales didn't get the OLC post; instead, Cheney eased in a trusted aide, Tim Flanigan. With Flanigan in the White House under the influence of Cheney and David Addington, and John Yoo and his colleagues tearing up the Constitution at the Pentagon under the influence of Rumsfeld, there was no real countervailing power in the Administration's legal departments to stop the reckless policies on torture, violation of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition and so on. Often Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Andy Card and even George W. Bush were frozen out of the informational loop.
One of Yoo's earliest memos asserted in the most expansive terms that the commander in chief need take no account of restrictions set by the co-equal legislative and judicial branches. No law, Yoo wrote, "can place any limits on the President's determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make." Yoo, writes Gellman, went on to claim without limitation that the President "could disregard laws and treaties prohibiting torture, war crimes, warrantless eavesdropping, and confinement without hearing. The breadth of the language was stunning."
And, of course, to return to one of Cheney's bugaboos, everything decided in this manner was classified and secret. "The new legal framework was meant to be invisible, unreviewable -- its very existence unknown by legislative or judicial actors who might push back."
THE HOSPITAL CONFRONTATION
As to surveillance inside the U.S., even though the law clearly states that all such must be run through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, under Cheney the Administration "would not tell the FISA court. They would not seek legislation. They would rely on the president's asserted authority as commander in chief to defy explicit prohibitions of law." And off went the Administration with its "drift net" data-mining programs, "sweeping in emails, faxes, and telephone calls made by its own citizens, in their own country." Bush verified that Cheney "has the portfolio for intelligence activities."
Perhaps the dramatic highlight of "Angler," aside from Cheney's deceitful machinations getting the U.S. into the war in Iraq, is the chapter devoted to the infamous hospital scene with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, when Gonzales and Card attempted to convince the groggy, post-operative Ashcroft to sign an extension of a domestic-spying program that the Justice Department had concluded was illegal.
This hospital scene was high drama, with armed FBI agents, White House heavies, DoJ officials converging on the hospital with sirens blaring, an ailing AG, Ashcroft's wife spitting her rage at Card and Gonzales. I can't wait to see the movie version.
CHENEY LOSES TOTAL CONTROL
After the 2006 midterm elections, when the American people had seen enough and booted the Republicans out of the majority in the House and Senate, Cheney and Addington and Rove were inclined to continue on as before, rolling the CheneyBush juggernaut over the political landscape as if nothing had changed. Addington described the technique as: "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop." But the political realities had shifted. Cheney's star was beginning to wane.
Perhaps the beginning of that fall from unquestioned power came in mid-2005 when, at the height of the bloody civil war of the insurgency in Iraq, Cheney went on TV and said of the rebels: "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." Gellman notes that jaws dropped all over Baghdad and Washington. People wondered "how a man so smart could manage to be, as one of his top aides put it privately, so 'consistently wrong, unyielding and unbending on Iraq'." A key White House insider summed up the more general problem by saying that "the failing of this administration, because of a fear of admitting error, has been an unwillingness to evolve."
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court put another nail in Cheney's political coffin, by ruling that the legislature and judiciary could limit the president's exercise of inherent war power. "This was the Supreme Court's third and most important rebuff to his claim of unchecked authority for the commander in chief." Cheney and Addington tried to fight their way through the diminution of the vice president's power, but the die was cast.
New, more realistic, less ideologically-blinded advisers and staffers were added to the White House. Rumsfeld was long gone, Rove was headed for the door, Libby was a convicted felon, only Cheney hung in until the new administration took over. Toward the end, Cheney had an 13% approval rating.
Copyright 2009, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations in universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.