Without a doubt, Vice President Dick Cheney thought that his actions inside the walls of his office would never be revealed to the public. The trial of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, threatened to change all that, but without the vice president’s testimony, the private Cheney will remain private. The public is left to speculate just what the Libby affair does or does not reveal about the vice president. But there is a chapter in Cheney’s own past that mirrors the behavior of Libby so closely, it becomes necessary to ask: Did a tone and strategy of forgetfulness in the vice presidential office come from the top?
Under the cover of a special-access, “black” program, we can see the secret Cheney in action as he worked as the secretary of defense for President George H.W. Bush. In a series of particularly telling incidents, we can see how he misled Congress, shifted the blame to a subordinate and made false statements to his own president. Black programs, or super-secret compartments buried within the classified parts of the defense budget, can tempt officials to think: “no one will ever find out if I shave the edges off doing what’s right.” But we did.
The A-12 program, which involved a stealth bomber designed to replace the Navy’s venerable A-6B, is an example of a “black” program that caused trouble for Cheney during his tenure with the first Bush Administration. It was so secret that when the senior naval aviator associated with the program, Vice Admiral Robert Dunn, was shown a memorandum exposing his improper behavior with the program, he said, “You know, when I signed that, I never thought that it would see the light of day.” These same A-12 documents revealed the unseen Cheney.
In January 1991, Cheney terminated the A-12 contract. In response, contractors McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics sued the U.S. government. Through the discovery process, the court declassified many “special access” documents. Here’s what they showed:
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, ending the Cold War and perhaps the need for many defense programs, Cheney issued a memorandum asking his staff to perform an analysis of the Pentagon’s major aircraft programs, a task dubbed the Major Aircraft Review, or MAR. Cheney wanted this information for an April 1990 briefing to Congress.
During a six-week period leading to his congressional appearance, Cheney received at least four warnings about the A-12 research and development (R&D) contract. They included verbal and written alerts that the A-12 contract had significant cost and schedule problems. In an April 5 briefing, John Christie and Frank Kendall, two prominent DOD acquisition officials, told Cheney that the cost to complete the A-12 contract was $1 billion over the $4.8 billion fixed-price contract. Kendall recalled Cheney asking, “Did you say a billion?” Cheney subsequently denied that he ever heard that warning. However, the person Cheney assigned to run MAR, Undersecretary for Acquisition John Betti, told me, “that’s impossible.”
A week prior to Cheney’s planned April 26 testimony to Congress, Betti informed Cheney again-this time in writing-that of all the major aircraft programs, the one he had the most concern with was the A-12. Betti wrote: “The bottom line is that only the A-12/ATA is assessed as having a cost or schedule risk . . . [T]he work progress versus the cost incurred indicates a cause for concern. . . .”
In spite of these warnings, Cheney then testified to Congress on April 26 that the A-12 contract had been “well handled” and that there were no impediments to the successful completion of the contract. However, he also told Congress that he was cutting the quantity of the Navy’s planned production of 858 aircrafts to 620, and he effectively eliminated an Air Force purchase of 400 of the aircraft.
Distressed, the A-12 contractors met with Pentagon officials the following June to tell them they could not finish the revised A-12 program without more money. After the meeting, Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett escorted the two CEOs from General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas to see Cheney. They personally apologized to him for having to ask for more money. Cheney stated later to investigators that he had no recollection of that meeting. In fact, Cheney claimed to investigators from the Naval Investigative Service that he did not become aware of the $1 billion contract overrun until after both the April 5 briefing (when he was first told about the problem) and after the meeting he had with the corporate CEOs who apologized to him. On June 21, after the meeting with the corporate CEOs, the press asked Cheney about information they had about problems with the program. Cheney told the press, “That’s a question I’ve asked, and I don’t have all the answers yet.”
It wasn’t just the press and Congress that Cheney was not open and honest with. He had been routinely sending weekly reports to the president. His November 30 report, written in 1990 subsequent to the April and June warnings, sought to blame others for not warning him about the program’s problems. Cheney wrote to the president that the Defense Department’s Inspector General had determined: “Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition John Betti made a mistake in not bringing to the attention of my Deputy, or me before I testified to Congress, information on a billion dollar cost overrun and a substantial slip in the schedule for developing the aircraft.”
A few weeks later, on Jan. 5, 1991, Cheney met with senior Pentagon officials to decide whether to cancel the A-12 contract for the full-scale development phase. Betti’s replacement, Don Yockey, told Cheney the cost to complete the contact would be $7.5 billion. Armed with this figure, Cheney cancelled the A-12 contract. Cheney then told Congress six weeks later that he cancelled the program because, “no one could tell me how much the program was going to cost even just through the full-scale development phase . . .”
We don’t know what Cheney would have said at the Scooter Libby trial if he had been called to testify. It’s possible that more secrets will be revealed down the road, perhaps some pertaining to the Iraq War. What we do know from history, however, is that when it helped to preserve his reputation with Congress, the press and his own president, the vice president has had memory problems of his own. Sound familiar?
JAMES P. STEVENSON is the former editor of the Navy Fighter Weapons School’s Topgun Journal and author of The Pentagon Paradox and The $5 Billion Misunderstanding. He is also an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.