Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Angler - The Cheney Vice Presidency

Angler is the new book by Washington Post writer Barton Gellman detailing the behind the scenes activity of Dick Cheney's Vice Presidency. Angler grew out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of the same title that Gellman and Jo Becker (now of The New York Times) reported for The Washington Post in 2007.

Here are three reviews and interview with Gellman from Harper's.

Washington Post: Behind the Curtain

Once a generation or so, an individual comes to master the inner workings of Washington in such a way as to change history. Lyndon Johnson understood Congress like no one else, and the result was pathbreaking civil rights legislation. Henry Kissinger figured out the foreign-policy bureaucracy and altered the dynamics of the Cold War.

And so it is with Vice President Dick Cheney, who thoroughly dominated the executive branch after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He knew from long experience in Washington how decisions were made, how papers flowed, how meetings worked, how to get his way. The dark aspects of the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism, from Guantanamo Bay to waterboarding to domestic surveillance, all bear Cheney's imprint.

Until now, I assumed it would take decades, the eventual declassification of documents and considerably more historical perspective for an author (say, some future Robert Caro) to uncover and describe Cheney's secretive role. But Barton Gellman's outstanding new book, Angler, could well turn out to be the most revealing account of Cheney's activities as vice president that ever gets written.

Read the whole review.

Findlaw: Vice President Dick Cheney's Incredible and Deadly Lie: By Deceiving a Congressional Leader, Cheney Sent Us to War on False Pretenses And Violated the Separation of Powers - as Well as the Criminal Law

Last year, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman and Jo Baker, now of the New York Times, did an extensive series for the Post on Cheney. Now, Gellman has done some more digging, and published the result in a book he released this week: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. The book reveals a lie told to a high-ranking fellow Republican, and the difference that lie made. In this column, I'll explain how Cheney defied the separation of powers, and go back to the founding history to show why actions like his matter so profoundly.

Cheney's Bold Face Lie To Congress

According to Gellman (and to paraphrase from the Post story on his finding), in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the White House was worried about the stance of Republican Majority Leader Richard Armey of Texas, who had deep concerns about going to war with Saddam Hussein. According to the Post, Armey met with Cheney for a highly classified, one-on-on briefing, in Room H-208, Cheney's luxurious hideaway office on the House side of the Capitol.

During this meeting, the Post reports, Cheney turned Armey around on the war issue. Cheney did so by telling the House Majority Leader that he was giving him information that the Administration could not tell the public -- namely (according to Armey), that Iraq had the "'ability to miniaturize weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear,' which had been 'substantially refined since the first Gulf War,' and would soon result in 'packages that could be moved even by ground personnel.' In addition, Cheney linked that threat to Saddam's alleged personal ties to al Qaeda, explaining that 'we now know they have the ability to develop these weapons in a very portable fashion, and they have a delivery system in their relationship with organizations such as al Qaeda.'"

The Post story continues, "Armey has asked: "Did Dick Cheney ... purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue?" His answer: "I seriously feel that may be the case...Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end, and I believe I might have stopped it from happening."

In short, it was this lie that sealed the nation's fate, and sent us to war in Iraq. By lying to such an influential figure in Congress, Cheney not only may have changed the course of history, but also corrupted the separation of powers with their inherent checks and balances.

Cheney's monumental dishonesty, the news of which has been buried under the current meltdown of the nation's economy, did not strike me as a topic for a Constitution Day speech. But a realistic discussion of the working of the separations of powers did seem a fitting topic, for college students need to understand the basics of our system. After we remind ourselves of those basics, Cheney's great lie can be viewed not only as a great immorality and violation of the criminal code, but also and more fundamentally as the significant breach of his oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution that it is.

Read the whole review.

New York Times: How First Mate Shifted the Ship of State’s Course

In “Angler,” his forceful new study of Mr. Cheney’s tenure in office, the Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman writes that “the vice president shifted America’s course more than any terrorist could have done,” that while al Qaeda took a terrible toll on 9/11, “decisions made in the White House, in response, had incomparably greater impact on American interests and society.”

“Cheney freed Bush to fight the ‘war on terror’ as he saw fit, driven by a shared belief that the government had to shake off old habits of self-restraint,” Mr. Gellman writes. “With Bush’s consent, Cheney unleashed foreign intelligence agencies to spy at home. He gave them legal cover to conduct what he called ‘robust interrogation’ of captured enemies, using calculated cruelty to break their will. At Cheney’s initiative, the United States stripped terror suspects of long-established rights under domestic and international law, building a new legal edifice under exclusive White House ownership.”

At the height of his power, Mr. Gellman goes on, the vice president “made big things happen”: he “reshaped national security law, expanded the prerogatives of the executive branch, midwifed the birth of domestic espionage, rewrote the president’s tax bill,” shut down negotiations with North Korea and played a major role in bringing war to Iraq. Mr. Gellman also argues that Mr. Cheney, in trying to face down opposition from within the Justice Department, would “come close” to leading the Bush presidency “off a cliff.”

Read the whole review.

Finally, an interview with Gellman at Harper's.

Six Questions for Bart Gellman, Author of Angler
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.

Read all six questions.

No comments: