The recent four-part series about Vice President Dick Cheney in the Washington Post, by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker is, I think, of great significance. Much of its content will be familiar to the sort of person who reads Counterpunch regularly, but this is high-profile mainstream corporate journalism. For this series to appear where it does indicates how deeply the power elite itself has become divided over the direction of the country, with some in powerful positions within the Fifth Estate deciding it’s no longer necessary or useful to defer so abjectly to the administration.
35 years ago this month Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story about the link between the Watergate break-in and the Republican Party. That spelled the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. (Cheney was Assistant Director of the Cost of Living Council at the time. In 1971 he had been a White House Staff Assistant, and Nixon’s resignation to avoid impeachment made a big impact on him. He thought it was all so unfair to the executive branch.) May the highly detailed series by Gellman and Becker serve similarly.
It begins with a description of events on November 13, 2001. Cheney arrives at his weekly private White House lunch with the president. He brings a four-page paper “written in strict secrecy” by his lawyer. After the lunch, the paper goes through four hands, “with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review” and within an hour is returned to the Oval Office for Bush’s signature.
“Bush,” write Gellman and Becker, “pulled a felt-tip pen from his pocket and signed without sitting down. Almost no one else had seen the text. Cheney’s proposal had become a military order from the commander in chief. Foreign terrorism suspects held by the United States were stripped of access to any court — civilian or military, domestic or foreign. They could be confined indefinitely without charges and would be tried, if at all, in closed ‘military commissions.'”
Secretary of State Powell, learning of the order from CNN, and National Security Adviser Rice were outraged and demanded to know what had happened. But Cheney kept his own role discreet: “Even witnesses to the Oval Office signing said they did not know the vice president had played any part.”
Gellmen and Becker call this episode “a defining moment in Cheney’s tenure as the 46th vice president of the United States,” a post to which, they remind us, the Constitution gave little authority. This secretive figure, living in an undisclosed location after 9-11, locking away office paperwork in huge Mosler safes, refusing to share information about why he classifies so much information even when required to do so by executive order, may have a great deal to hide. More than Nixon did perhaps. But the cowardly mainstream press has done little to shine the spotlight on him—until now.
The Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the Congressional investigations and reforms they spawned struck the young Cheney (31 in 1972 when the scandal broke) as diminishing the power of the presidency. He has sought since 2001 to strengthen the presidency and more specifically transform the formerly largely ceremonial Office of the Vice President into a center of stealthily wielded power. Given his considerable sway over the trusting Bush, he has been allowed to do so with impunity, often circumventing other officials. The Post series relies on interviews with over 200 persons “who worked for, with or in opposition to Cheney’s office.” They include men and women in positions of delegated authority who resented being left out of the normal loop, shocked by Cheney’s methods and objectives, or fed disinformation. They are not exactly whistle-blowers at this point but their collective memories about the OVP are damning.
The authors indicate that Cheney is not calling all the shots in the administration, and does not determine the Decider’s decisions at every luncheon meeting. That’s been apparent. In particular, first Colin Powell and then Condi Rice have sometimes persuaded Bush to override Cheney’s objections to (for example) seeking a UN resolution to justify the attack on Iraq; firing Rumsfeld; or engaging in talks with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad. But when Cheney suffers a setback, he makes the best of it and considers how to use it towards his ultimate objectives.
On the Iran attack issue, recall that Cheney has insisted repeatedly that Iran, with all its oil, can have no other purpose for its nuclear program than to produce nuclear weapons. (That raises the issue of why the administration of Gerald Ford, whom Cheney served as Chief of Staff, encouraged Iran under the pro-U.S. shah to develop a nuclear program in the 1970s.) It seems clear to me that Cheney decided long ago that the Iranian regime must be toppled and it’s just a matter of finding justification for military action that will find some popular acceptance. Hence all this fear-mongering about a nuclear Iran hell-bent on annihilating Israel or turning over nukes to terrorists to attack the U.S.
Influential neoconservative Norman Podhoretz states—and prays—that in using diplomacy (“appeasement”) to deal with Iran the Bush-Cheney administration is just “giving futility its chance.” Cheney, who has declared that the U.S. doesn’t negotiate with evil but defeats it, may indeed be willing to allow more months of diplomatic activity to go by before declaring, “Time’s up. No more talking.” At some point the Iranians, who insist that they as an NPT signatory under IAEA monitoring have the right to enrich uranium for civilian energy purposes will state that one last time. And then it will indeed be time to (as John McCain famously sang to a Beach Boys’ tune) “Bomb bomb bomb Iran.”
Bush will declare that Iran is in defiance of UNSC resolutions. (IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei himself suggests these may have been “overtaken by events.” Anyway how do these differ from the dozens of UN resolutions against Israel that Israel with U.S. support simply ignores?) Then, Podhoretz hopes, Bush will before leaving office “order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities from the three U.S. aircraft carriers already sitting nearby. . .”
That is very possible. Two years ago former CIA agent Philip Giraldi, writing in the American Conservative, reported: “The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons. Within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. . . . As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States.” Cheney, the neocons’ favorite senior administration official, shares with them a willingness to link unconnected events and exploit fear to achieve world-changing objectives.
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I’ve often wondered about the Bush-Cheney relationship. Gellman and Becker indicate that it is little understood. This may partly result from the fact that Cheney’s evolution since 9-11 is little understood. (Brent Snowcroft, Chairman of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2005 and longtime friend of the Bush family, told the New Yorker last year: “I don’t recognize my friend Dick Cheney anymore.”) It is pretty clear however that he has been the godfather of the neocons, whom he had placed in key roles at the outset of the Bush administration, and facilitated their plans for the Middle East by advocating them to the president.
I’m not saying Bush is Cheney’s dupe, although I’ve raised the issue in the past. Sometimes I tend to suppose that Bush truly believed the things that Cheney and the mysterious neocon-packed Office of Special Plans was telling him and us before the invasion of Iraq: that Saddam was working with al-Qaeda, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. A lot of politicians claim they were deceived, although not many were inclined to question or do any minimal research. But if so, why did Bush not, immediately after the IAEA exposed the Niger uranium claim he’d made in his January 2003 speech, and before his March assault on Iraq, order a review of what have been plainly exposed subsequently as bogus claims? Why has he shown no resentment towards the neocon crowd that dished out the disinformation?
I’m more inclined to think Bush knew that the “mushroom cloud” claims were hype but has been able to integrate into his particular religiosity and moral framework the sense that it’s okay for a God-chosen leader like himself to lie strategically to the masses about such matters. After all, in early 1999 he told Mickey Herskowitz, a former Houston Chronicle sports columnist who was ghostwriting his autobiography, “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade [Iraq]—if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”
That comment, from the born-again Governor of Texas, suggests that Bush sees himself as very special, divinely appointed, and obliged to use such chances as he’s given to show his greatness. That may mean using what some followers of Leo Strauss (in a tendentious reading of Plato) call the “Noble Lie.”
Imagine a lunch conversation between Bush and Cheney after 9-11 in which Bush asks, “How can we use this situation?” (Rice at the time was openly asking that question in front of reporters.) Perhaps Cheney responds, “Well, we should attack Iraq, as we’ve been wanting to do.” They discuss how al-Qaeda has no clear connection with Iraq and how the CIA people keep annoyingly reiterating that fact. Bush asks (as he in fact did ask his top terrorism expert Richard Clarke) if we can find some links—just to explain to Americans why a war on Iraq might be a proper response to 9-11.
Cheney does his half-smile thing and tells his protégé that sometimes it’s necessary to go over to the “dark side.” (He did in fact on a “Meet the Press” interview five days after the 9-11 attacks state “We also have to work [on] . . .sort of the dark side, if you will. . . quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies. . .[using] any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”) Perhaps he says that in war, disinformation is a legitimate tool. Psychological operations are useful. The CIA—run by liberals who are fixated on their “objective reality” and research papers—uses disinformation abroad and against enemies in warfare situations. But it’s squeamish about using lies on the American people. That’s why the CIA doesn’t want to have anything to do with Ahmad Chalabi (then the darling of the neocons for providing all those false, fear-mongering reports out of Iraq). They can’t get out of their box and realize that inculcating fear among the people to procure their acceptance of a war is a powerful tool. If you can just get people to think they’re in danger of attack, they’ll let you do anything. The Nazis knew that, but they were bad people. We’re good people, so when we do the same thing, it’s different. And we have to use any means at our disposal, including planting false stories in the press.
Bush mulls this over. Cheney explains that if you keep repeating again and again some untruth it will dramatically change the political atmosphere. Even if disproved after it’s achieved its intended result, you or some of us can still keep saying it, confident that some of our support base will accept it completely and reject as “liberals” any who point out in detail why it’s untrue. Others will think we said what we did because of “flawed intelligence.” We can blame that “flawed intelligence” on people in the CIA whose resistance to the Noble Lie concept has been a persistent problem. Given their job situation—the very nature of intelligence work—they aren’t going to be able to defend themselves or openly protest. If people who know about the lies speak out, we’ll have friends in the media attack them. We’ll obtain our objectives against terrorism by any means necessary.
Cheney has of course persisted in alleging that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9-11 attacks. He may realize that historians will depict him as a liar and his office the hub of a cabal of liars who used 9-11 to attack several countries in the Middle East. Or he may think that in the next 18 months the world is going to change so much, his administration achieve so much, that historians will praise his wise use of skewed intelligence to obtain noble ends. The victors after all tend to write the history books.
This is a very dangerous man at a very dangerous time. But he is not invulnerable. Investigative journalism is weakening his position. So has the Libby Affair, and the controversy over his refusal to comply with the law on this matter of classifying information. According to law, agencies of the executive branch are obliged to report annually to the Information Security Oversight Office within the National Archives about the security procedures they are applying. That means, as I understand it, filling out a form concerning how much material is being marked secret, for what reasons, where the material is stored, who has access, etc. The law allows for on-site inspections of offices by oversight office personnel. In 1995 President Clinton signed Executive Order 12958 which established this procedure; Bush modified it in Executive Order 13292 of March 2003 to give the vice president the same powers to classify as the president. In other words, Bush signed the order to strengthen Cheney’s position and to cloak himself even more heavily in secrecy. But the law still requires cooperation with the oversight office.
In 2001-3, Cheney’s office did cooperate. But since 2004, Cheney has refused to answer the office’s questions. In that year he had his staffers physically bar overseers from conducting an on-sight inspection of his office. That was a first in the history of the oversight office and prompted its director J. William Leonard to protest. Cheney responded through his chief of staff David S. Addington (who has become Libby’s successor) that his office was not “an entity within the executive branch.” That claim, only recently publicized, has drawn statements of outrage and, perhaps more troubling for Cheney, outright hilarity. Last month Addington wrote Sen. John Kerry a new justification for Cheney’s refusal to comply: the OVP is not an “agency” such as those referred to the executive order’s text.
Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is very disturbed about this and reports that Cheney is even trying to abolish the bothersome Information Security Oversight Office itself. He has protested in a long detailed letter to Cheney and requested an answer to Congress by July 12 to a long list of pointed questions. A refusal to answer could lead to a constitutional crisis.
One would hope that the criminal war in Iraq would have produced some sort of showdown by now, but perhaps lawmakers will become more exercised about Cheney’s defiance of the law, and contempt for themselves, than about his role as architect of the war. Kings are as likely to be overthrown for disrespecting parliaments as conducting unpopular foreign wars.
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Then there’s the not unrelated issue of the Libby pardon. (Yes I know it wasn’t officially a pardon but a commutation of his jail sentence. Some think he’s been punished enough by the fine he still has to pay, but that will be paid by supporters. And he’ll lose his legal license. Gosh.) Here’s a man who conspired with his boss to discredit a man who had revealed one of the key lies behind the war on Iraq, and his wife who was one of the key CIA operatives actually investigating Iran’s nuclear program (rather than making up stuff about it). Bush commuted his sentence without even conferring with the Justice Department, a first for him and departure from procedure. The result of another White House private luncheon?
Only 20% of Americans polled support Bush’s decision to spare him jail time. Most of them presumably associate Libby closely with Cheney. Most too have to associate Cheney with Bush, although I don’t think enough people realize how much power he’s exerted in the administration. We may learn more about Cheney’s input into Bush’s decision about Libby’s fate in the coming days.
In any case more and more Americans have come to understand that Bush and Cheney feel themselves above the law. Hopefully they will act upon their mounting indignation. The problem is that that might swell to a certain point when the U.S. attacks Iran, the threat of terrorist retaliation is cited to justify cubs on dissent, the press holds off on criticism and Congress buckles.
The Washington Post series and accompanying commentary should have occurred long ago but fortunately occur two months after Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) submitted House Resolution 333 and the three articles of impeachment against Cheney. At this point co-signers of the bill include William Clay (D-MO), Janice Schakowsky (Dem-IL), Albert Wynne (D-MD), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), and Barbara Lee (D-CA). Perhaps the Post series and attendant popular swell of revulsion against Cheney will encourage more to sign.
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The neoconservatives sense that there is very little time for them to accomplish the attack on Iran. They are hedging their bets, courting the Democrats most prone to military adventurism and hoping that whoever becomes president in 2008—including Hillary—will bomb Iran if it hasn’t happened yet. The impeachment of Cheney, or Bush and Cheney both, won’t necessarily prevent the effort of a well-organized movement to exploit fear and bigotry to justify this assault. Respectable publications are publishing naked calls for what in the sober light of day any normal human ought to see as Nazi-like war crimes. But the neocons can take comfort in the fact that the House of Representatives recently passed a near unanimous resolution (with only Kucinich and Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul voting against) essentially validating such an attack.
So even as the Bomb Iran Headquarters comes belatedly under mainstream journalism’s crosshairs, the political class hijacked by the Bomb-Bomb-Bomb Iran war crowd rushes ahead. Mainstream politics will not by itself topple Bush and Cheney or abort their plans for more war. It’s too invested in those plans, too AIPAC-committed, too scared to take the serious actions towards change that Americans hoped for when they brought the Democrats to power last year. But mass demonstrations in the streets just might force politicians’ hands and help produce regime change. That would be change before the 2008 elections. Before the criminal assault on Iran. Before the declaration of martial law.
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The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies, that eloquent statement cited every Fourth of July, declares that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The “ends” mentioned here are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Declaration is a statement of eighteenth century Enlightenment political thought. I don’t think it’s perfect; it doesn’t note the class nature of society and the fact that “the People” are divided into people who under differing circumstances work to survive and people who comfortably manage and exploit them as master tradesmen, plantation owners, ships’ captains etc. Its reference to “the merciless Indian Savages” is deplorable. But with its “rights of man” framework and insistence that the people (a category that could be expanded over time to include the poor, people of color, women) should rule through democratic institutions it was rather revolutionary. I certainly uphold it for what it’s worth.
But there are Americans who’ll say they agree with it (to affirm that they’re real patriots) without understanding it very much and while rallying around the Bush-Cheney form of government. There are also those who will point out that the Cheney-Bush administration is massively denying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness this July 4, against a mind-numbing “proud to be an American, ’cause at least I know I’m free” backdrop. In my opinion, we the people have the right to drive Cheney and many around him from power.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org