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Last June, Bart Gellman’s four-part series in the Washington Post gave us an extraordinary portrait of Dick Cheney, the most powerful vice president in America’s history. The series, called “Angler”–after the Secret Service’s codename for Cheney–was co-authored with Jo Becker and received this year’s National Reporting Pulitzer Prize (Gellman’s second Pulitzer). Now Gellman has furnished the definitive portrait of the Cheney vice presidency in a book released today, also called Angler. It’s full of new disclosures about Cheney’s extraordinary skills as a power broker and his peculiar but highly influential views about a government in which a balance of powers is replaced with a clearly ascendant executive branch. I put six questions to Bart Gellman about his new book.
1. You open the book by recounting the role Cheney played as manager of George W. Bush’s vice-presidential selection process. Cheney, you suggest, milked this position for all it was worth–he gathered compromising information on more than a half dozen figures at the pinnacle of the Republican Party. Do you consider Cheney’s handling of the vice presidential vetting process to cast any insights on Cheney’s later conduct as vice president?
A candidate for the presidential ticket expects to be put under a microscope. Even so, the process that Dick Cheney designed was strikingly intrusive. For one thing, he did not rely on trust. He asked people like Bill Frist, Tom Ridge, and John Kasich to give him direct access to their FBI files (ironically, by way of the Freedom of Information Act, which Cheney has never liked) and to sign waivers of privacy for all health records without exception. He asked the contenders whether there was something that would make them vulnerable to blackmail—and if so, what? (I imagine a sensible person would bow out rather than answer “yes” to that one.) All this has a certain logic: You don’t want a blackmailable commander-in-chief (or understudy), and campaigns don’t want unpleasant surprises.
The news in my book about this process is that Cheney never filled out his own questionnaire; that the heart surgeon who vouched for his health never met him or looked at his records; and that Bush and Cheney never interviewed anyone for the job until Cheney already had it nailed.
Frank Keating, a buddy of George Bush, disclosed to Cheney that a friend paid his kids’ college tuitions. Federal ethics lawyers had cleared the deal, but it could be made to look bad. (Keating shared his entire vetting file with me, so I’ve examined the circumstances closely.) Somehow a distorted version of this disclosure found its way to Newsweek. Keating tells me Cheney did it. He can’t prove that, and neither can I. But there are circumstantial points in his favor. One is that Keating’s vetting file was very closely held. Bush’s people were not allowed to see it. Besides Cheney, only his daughter Liz, his lawyer David Addington, and his old friend David Gribbin had access. Another point is that Cheney had a motive: friends at the Federalist Society were pushing for Keating to be named Attorney General, and Cheney preferred John Ashcroft. Finally, Keating is not the only one who holds Cheney responsible. John Engler, the former Michigan governor who was also on Bush’s short list for running mate, tells me he sees no way the file could have leaked without Cheney’s involvement.
The selection process was a kind of prologue to the play of the Bush-Cheney years. Bush gave broad guidance; Cheney handled the details. The two of them kept their counsel to themselves, leaving even Karl Rove and Karen Hughes out of the picture. Cheney worked in strict secrecy and sidestepped the scrutiny he imposed on others. And the ersatz “interviews” with people like Frist and New York governor George Pataki, days after Bush settled on Cheney, showed a willingness to use deception to manage the news.
2. In the uncertain weeks following the 2000 election, you show Cheney focused on the process of building the new administration, with a particular attention to filling key cabinet posts. Who were the key figures that Cheney brought into the Bush Administration, and how did this build his influence as vice president?
Donald Rumsfeld has to be top of the list, because the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis dominated national security policy for the first six years of the Bush administration. Bush knew he wanted Colin Powell, who at the time, according to Gallup polls, was the third most popular man in America. (Bonus points if you knew the first two were Bill Clinton and the pope.) Cheney wanted a counterweight.
The other obvious power posts are at Justice and Treasury. Cheney brought in Ashcroft and Paul O’Neill, though as it happened he wound up clashing with both of them. He cared a lot about regulation and so he had a large hand in appointments at Agriculture, Interior, EPA. He would have liked to have a big say over the White House Counsel, for obvious reasons, but Bush had his own man in Alberto Gonzales. Cheney brought in Tim Flanigan to be Gonzales’s deputy. Flanigan was a former head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at Justice, a much more high-powered and bureaucratically savvy lawyer. Deputies have very big influence all over government, so Cheney put close allies and former employees in the number two spots in places like the Office of Management and Budget.
Dick Cheney simply knew the back channels of government better than anybody else. You don’t need to go to the cabinet officer if you can find the right deputy assistant secretary–for instance, Paul Hoffman at Interior, the former head of Cheney’s Wyoming congressional office–to make a decision that never reaches the level of the cabinet.
3. You describe a small coterie of figures very close to Cheney who were behind the most controversial and radical decisions of the Bush era–the circumvention of the Geneva Conventions and the gutting of the surveillance limitations in FISA. These figures occupied three redoubts: the office of the vice president, the office of the secretary of defense, and the office of legal counsel inside the Justice Department. How could these three posts effectively wield such vast power?
Brad Berenson, an associate White House counsel, described a “triumvirate”–David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and Tim Flanigan. Among the three, nobody in government doubted that Addington was dominant. There are a lot of reasons for that: he was highly experienced, preternaturally swift in cutting through paperwork. He knew more than any other senior lawyer about national security law, and he was highly opinionated. He’s also a big, loud, forceful man, and he intimidated rivals.
If you widen the circle you add Jim Haynes, the general counsel at the Pentagon and an Addington protégé and John Yoo at the OLC in Justice. OLC’s role is hard to overstate: ordinarily the Office of Legal Counsel is the final authority in the executive branch on what is and is not legal. It’s akin to the Supreme Court on questions that do not reach the judiciary. If OLC said the government could do something, or had to do something, or could not do something–that was binding. So the back channel from Addington to John Yoo in the first couple of years was critical. Yoo wrote the opinions that permitted things like warrantless domestic surveillance and the deliberate use of cruelty in interrogations, and Addington wrote the words (in military and executive orders, for instance) that gave operational force to the new policies. Gonzales’s role was mostly to digest and explain the new policies to the president.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy to keep secrets. Some of the things they did were codeword-classified, and on questions like domestic surveillance Addington had de facto control of who had the requisite “need to know.” There were times when Gonzales, at Addington’s behest, simply ordered John Yoo not to tell his own superiors what he was doing. After a couple of years, other legal arms of government started pushing back, but as Will Taft at the State Department told me, it was a long time before they even knew there was a fight to be fought.
4. When Cheney acted, you tell us, his hand frequently was undetected even by the most experienced Washington insiders. Scooter Libby and David Addington carried out his orders, but until the last years of the Bush term neither of these figures was known to other than real Washington insiders. How could aides to a vice president wield such power? What was their secret?
Even people who despised them–and Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, has to be counted in that group–said those two men were the most effective team in government.
I’ve already talked about Addington. He is unusually capable, and he is a zealot. I don’t mean that insultingly. Addington is one of those people who are entirely unbending on principles. He refused a government limousine; he fought a big campaign to prevent the personal use of frequent flier miles earned on government travel. Everyone knows someone like this. Jack Goldsmith, a very conservative lawyer who nonetheless battled Addington on torture and domestic espionage, told me Addington is principled to the point of being stupid. What Goldsmith meant is that Addington pushed his positions so far that they became self-defeating, or simply defied common sense. But there were very few people in government who were prepared to cross him.
Scooter Libby had three hats: chief of staff and national security adviser to Cheney, and also assistant to the president. That last part was very important: it’s the highest rank in the White House, and it gave Libby equivalent stature to Condi Rice and Andy Card. No one save Cheney and the president himself was his superior. Assistants to the president get to see, and can demand changes in, every important speech and decision brought to the president. Libby had an unrivaled vantage point over policy. Like Cheney, Addington and Libby knew exactly what they wanted. That’s a huge advantage in any organization. Most people, on most hard questions, will spend some time on the fence. The ones who are sure of themselves, and know how the machinery works, can make things happen.
5. You describe the Bush White House’s struggle with the Justice Department over a special NSA program that authorized trawling through the communications of millions of Americans, when Bush, surprisingly, reversed one of his own decisions. What made him do so in this case?
This is a fascinating episode. It takes up two full chapters of my book, because there are so many layers to the story. (Excerpts.) The warrantless domestic surveillance program was conceived and overseen by Cheney. His lawyer, David Addington, wrote the presidential orders for the NSA, and Addington stored those orders in a vault in his own office–Room 268 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Authority for the program had to be renewed every 45 days, and each renewal required a sign-off from Justice. The trouble began when John Yoo left the OLC, about a year and a half after the domestic espionage began. Cheney and Addington had to choose a new lawyer to bless the program. They settled on Patrick Philbin, who seemed to be a reliable choice, and then Jack Goldsmith took over the account when he arrived to head the OLC in October 2003. Philbin and Goldsmith developed strong doubts about the legality of the program, which were amplified when David Addington angrily rejected a request from NSA lawyers to see how John Yoo had justified it in top-secret memos.
For the next three months, Addington and Cheney tried to suppress a growing legal insurgency. Andy Card acknowledged to me that Bush was out of the loop. By early March, Jack Goldsmith ruled that parts of the program were unlawful. Ashcroft and Comey backed him. Bush did not learn until Wednesday March 10, 2004–the day before the program would expire–that Justice refused to certify its legality. As it happened, Ashcroft was in the hospital and Jim Comey was acting AG. Bush was allowed to believe that Comey raised last-minute objections to a program that Ashcroft had approved. That does a lot to explain why the president sent Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales to Ashcroft’s sickbed at George Washington University Medical Center. If Comey wouldn’t sign, the president had no reason to doubt that Ashcroft would.
The hospital visit became infamous when Comey testified about it in 2007. What he said then was that the attorney general sat up in bed and declared his support for Comey. What Comey did not disclose then, and what was not known until now, is that Ashcroft said he regretted certifying the program at all. He had not really understood it until Philbin and Goldsmith dug down. The next day, Thursday March 11, Bush renewed the program anyway. He signed new language–again written by Addington–declaring that he, the president, was the ultimate authority on what was legal. Bush signed that document without knowing, as Cheney, Card and Gonzales knew, that Mueller, Comey, and many more layers of the senior leadership at Justice were going to resign.
Bush hates second-guessing, and he very seldom reverses himself. But on Friday morning Condi Rice told the president that there was trouble at Justice, and she urged him to talk to Comey. An hour later, Comey and Mueller arrived in the Oval Office for the regular 8:30 terrorism briefing. They intended to resign that day. Bush knew just enough to be worried, but did not know what exactly was going on. He pulled Comey aside for a private meeting, and each of them got stunning news from the other. Comey was astonished to hear that Bush was unaware of the months of heated legal debate between Justice and the vice president’s office. (“Told him he was being misled,” Comey wrote on his BlackBerry just after the meeting.) Bush was astonished to hear that his FBI director and a lot of others were ready to walk. The president pulled back from the brink, reversing the order he signed the previous day, because he discovered that his government was about to melt down.
6. You tell us that suggestions that Cheney used his position and power for personal financial gain are unfounded. But you also document Cheney’s inconsistent views of the powers and prerogatives of offices. What does this say about Cheney’s attitude towards the Constitution, the law and notions of legal formality?
As chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Cheney insisted on an orderly process, with “decision loops” that gave all stakeholders a chance to review proposals before they reached the president. The term he used for what he did not want was an “oh, by the way” decision, without full vetting in advance. In his Pentagon years, as you say, Cheney stood firm against any incursion into the chain of command – which by law proceeds from the president to the secretary of defense. (In both cases, he was battling, among others, a vice president.) By the time he became vice president, he thought more highly of the office, noting that he was an independent, elected constitutional officer. At each stage, he had a broad interpretation of the powers and prerogatives of the job he held at the moment.
There’s no venality here. Cheney was not trying to aggrandize himself, to steer money to friends, or to set himself up for higher office. He simply believed that the stakes were high and he was more capable than others. He saw the world, he believed, as it truly is and was prepared to do the “unpleasant” things that had to be done to safeguard us. Cheney is a rare combination: a zealot in principle and a subtle, skillful tactician in practice.
A lot of critics call Cheney and Addington contemptuous of the Constitution. I think that’s completely wrong–a cartoon that misses something important, because it fails to take them seriously. The vice president has an unyielding conviction, to which he has devoted substantial thought, about what the Constitution means. He occupies an extreme position in the usual separation-of-powers debate, sometimes beginning with widely accepted tenets but carrying them beyond the bounds of accepted scholarship. In his own frame of reference, the Constitution not only permits but compels him to help Bush break free of restraints on his prerogatives as commander in chief and leader of the unitary executive branch. But where Cheney does show contempt is for public opinion, the capacity of the citizenry at large to make rational decisions.
Go back and look at what he says about “opinion polls.” Invariably his message is that a politician who pays them heed is failing to do his job. As Cheney sees it, public opinion is fickle, ill-informed, self-contradictory, emotional–nothing like his own conversation with himself and trusted aides. He speaks disdainfully of critics as “elites,” but his own view of democracy is at the far elite extreme. Voters are entitled to choose a president every four years, he said at the National Press Club, but then they need to let him do his job. The transaction is like hiring a surgeon; pick a good one, and don’t try to tell him where to place the knife. This “trustee” model of democracy is associated with Edmund Burke, the Old Whig philosopher in 18th century England. It is not the model that took root here when the Founders designed a plan of government that derived its authority from the people. If you take Cheney’s view, aggressive efforts at secrecy, for our own good, to prevent us from making the wrong choices or interfering with government’s important work, are a rational response.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”