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During the history of Japan, for various periods the power of the emperor was checked as military dictators called “shoguns” ruled the country. The term “shogun” in fact meant “supreme general of the samurai.” The legal rationalization for the shogunate was that the land faced a grave external threat requiring the transfer of power and authority to a military ruler who was given absolute power over life and death of the Japanese people.
Will historians refer to America, in the period starting on January 20, 2001, as the Cheney Shogunate? As is becoming increasingly apparent, the country has an intellectually and morally enfeebled president who serves as a sort of display piece, while actual executive power – indeed, far greater power than any president has ever wielded – is exercised by Dick Cheney.
Let’s remember exactly how Dick Cheney came to that position. Before the Republican 2000 nominating convention, Cheney was asked by George W. Bush to head a team reviewing possible vice presidential candidates. He used this position to destroy all prospective rivals for the position and then to put his own name forward to be vice president. Yes, that’s just the kind of man Dick Cheney is. For him, life is all about power, and no power play is too unseemly to be excluded – provided that it works.
The Washington Post has now published the first two installments of a four-part series by Bart Gellman and Jo Becker examining Cheney and his style of governance. These reports are extremely important journalism of the sort that has made the reputation of the Post as the nation’s premier reporter on national security issues. The first part, entitled “A Different Understanding With the President” describes Cheney’s position as that of a chief-of-staff on steroids, in addition to the normal vice presidential duties. But I think anyone studying the allocation of powers and the process of decision-making would be hesitant to call Cheney a “chief-of-staff” by any measure. In fact it is increasingly clear that the president’s decisions are formed by Cheney; Bush’s execution of these decisions is a mere formality. And indeed, nothing could be a clearer indicator of this than the decision to embrace torture as a policy.
Gellman and Becker give us some important new insights into this process:
Three days after the Ashcroft meeting, Cheney brought the order for military commissions to Bush. No one told Bellinger, Rice or Powell, who continued to think that Prosper’s working group was at the helm.
After leaving Bush’s private dining room, the vice president took no chances on a last-minute objection. He sent the order on a swift path to execution that left no sign of his role. After Addington and Flanigan, the text passed to Berenson, the associate White House counsel. Cheney’s link to the document broke there: Berenson was not told of its provenance.
Berenson rushed the order to deputy staff secretary Stuart W. Bowen Jr., bearing instructions to prepare it for signature immediately – without advance distribution to the president’s top advisers. Bowen objected, he told colleagues later, saying he had handled thousands of presidential documents without ever bypassing strict procedures of coordination and review. He relented, one White House official said, only after “rapid, urgent persuasion” that Bush was standing by to sign and that the order was too sensitive to delay.
Note the hallmarks: secrecy; evasion of protocol; operating behind the backs of those responsible for the issue; evasion of law. The normal bands of government are broken. And in their place emerges a code of conduct centered around a heavyweight boss – a series of rules much like the ones that govern organized crime families. Except, of course, that this is the White House.
The second installment is entitled “Pushing the Envelope on Presidential Power.” And again, center stage is held by the question of torture. (See how much this government revolves around torture? Like the magic talisman of Nordic lore, it begins as a tool which brings benefit to men, but then it begins to possess those who possess it; they become its slaves. This was, I believe, the source of the concept of the ring in the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.) As we see, the core advocacy group pushing for the introduction of torture consisted of Cheney and Alberto Gonzales. Of course, they recognized immediately the peril of their position – under American law, torture was a felony. They could therefore at some point face prosecution for what they were doing. Two key tactics were settled upon: invoke presidential authority and discretion; and keep everything secret. Moreover, the most effective means of keeping these secrets was to lie about them. Lie to the public. Lie to other members of the Administration. Gellman and Becker report:
Geneva rules forbade not only torture but also, in equally categorical terms, the use of “violence,” “cruel treatment” or “humiliating and degrading treatment” against a detainee “at any time and in any place whatsoever.” The War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of those restrictions a U.S. felony. The best defense against such a charge, Addington wrote, would combine a broad presidential directive for humane treatment, in general, with an assertion of unrestricted authority to make exceptions.
The vice president’s counsel proposed that President Bush issue a carefully ambiguous directive. Detainees would be treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of” the Geneva Conventions. When Bush issued his public decision two weeks later, on Feb. 7, 2002, he adopted Addington’s formula – with all its room for maneuver – verbatim.
In a radio interview last fall, Cheney said, “We don’t torture.” What he did not acknowledge, according to Alberto J. Mora, who served then as the Bush-appointed Navy general counsel, was that the new legal framework was designed specifically to avoid a ban on cruelty. In international law, Mora said, cruelty is defined as “the imposition of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” He added: “Torture is an extreme version of cruelty.”
Of course, the Addington formulation is complete nonsense. Under American military tradition, set down from 1863, “military necessity” was defined always to exclude torture. As President Lincoln had ordered: “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture.” In essence, what Addington was doing was recrafting a 140-year old American military doctrine – causing it to stand on its head. And his purpose in doing this was deceit. He intended to convince the public that the country was not going to use torture techniques, when in fact he was charging ahead to do exactly that.
In the end, we learn that Dick Cheney has every reason to be compulsively concerned about the secrecy of his dealings. He is engaged in deceit. Felonies. Abuse of office. Usurpation of power from Congress, the Courts and from the President.
There is only one proper response to Cheney’s conduct: outrage and a demand for accountability. But in America today, while only 13% of Americans have a favorable view of Cheney, there is no outrage. That’s reserved for the latest episode from the antics of Paris Hilton. Still, the Constitution provides a remedy for Cheney’s conduct. It’s called impeachment.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Hours per day that a death-row inmate in China wears hand and ankle restraints:
A multidisciplinary team detected cardiac arrhythmia in the works of Beethoven.
There was a run on cases of 5.56mm M855 green-tip rifle bullets, after the White House moved to ban their manufacture and sale because they can pierce police armor.
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“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”