Most people are far too young to remember the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy. But everyone should have seen this coming, and seen it more than three years ago, as many saw it clearly (the item linked here was in these pages, from April 4, 2004). The White House had said on the previous Tuesday that that the 9-11 commission had agreed to terms that would allow then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to give sworn public testimony on the September 11 attacks, and to allow President Bush and Vice President Cheney to meet in private with the full panel – but the president refused to testify alone. This requirement for a joint appearance – Cheney sitting beside Bush – led some to conclude the Bush was afraid to face the ten questioners without Cheney by his side to tell him what he was thinking back then and to tell him what he did back then, and to remind him of why he did whatever it was that he did – so the president could then coherently answer the questions posed to him. The problem was that this just made Bush look as if he could not think for himself, or couldn’t explain himself in a tight spot. He never was much of a thinker, and proud of that. Was he Cheney’s puppet – the wooden dummy? Many sensed that might be true, as there seemed no alternative explanation. It was very odd, and looked bad, but then no one thought of it again.
Now in the first weekend of the summer, the Washington Post launched a four part series by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker that explains what has been going since day one – day one being the first day of the Bush administration, in this case. Cheney runs the government and the president is more of a hopeless and clueless empty suit than anyone even imagined. There’s hardly another way to read what’s here.
Here’s what was available at the time of this column, Monday evening, June 25 – so you can decide yourself.
Sunday: Part 1
A master of bureaucracy and detail, Cheney exerts most of his influence out of public view.
Monday: Part 2
Convinced that the “war on terror” required “robust interrogations” of captured suspects, Dick Cheney pressed the Bush administration to carve out exceptions to the Geneva Conventions.
Sidebar: Cheney on Presidential Power
Tuesday: Part 3
Working behind the scenes, Dick Cheney has made himself the dominant voice on tax and spending policy, outmaneuvering rivals for the president’s ear.
Sidebar: Expanding Authority for No. 2 Spot
Sidebar: Taking on the Supreme Court Case
Wednesday: Part 4
Dick Cheney steered some of the Bush administration’s most important environmental decisions — easing air pollution controls, opening public parks to snowmobiles and diverting river water from threatened salmon.
So why are we hearing this now? Laura Rozen posts some observations on that from a newspaper editor who is a friend –
A careful reading of the story of Cheney’s coup against a feeble executive reveals that paragraphs 7 through 10 were written and inserted in haste by a powerful editorial hand. The banging of colliding metaphors in an otherwise carefully written piece is evidence of last-minute interpolations by a bad editor whom no one has the power to rewrite.
After the textual analysis we get this –
That in turn suggests that this piece has been ready to run for some time. Insertions like the one about the veep’s office not being part of the executive branch and seriatim “softenings” show that jamming it into the paper at the end of June, when only cats and the homeless are around the read the paper, was made at the last minute.
Rozen adds here comment –
My guess is that this series ready to go during the debate over the supplemental funding of the Iraq war and that Downie [the Post’s managing editor] or someone at the top held it back until Gellman and others started carrying snub-nose .38s to work under their seersuckers.
A key element of the coup is also ignored: the role of the press as revealed in the Libby scandal … Note in particular paragraph seven the phrase that Cheney’s subversive roles “went undetected.” The correct verb is “unreported.”
This series is a landscape of an internal war. Parts of it are still smoking and some reputations are visibly dying – anonymously, for the moment. The journalistic graves registration people will go in later and tag the corpses.
So there was a silent coup d’état (well, maybe not the term, as now it seems Bush was never in control of anything in the first place, nor intended to be) – and the press was in on it? That’s not likely.
Still, at Media Bistro this is odd – it looks like the Post series has been “in the can” for a more than a few months. Its co-author Jo Becker has already moved to the New York Times and published a long-investigated enterprise piece now running there, on another matter, Rupert Murdoch and what that fellow is up to –
Becker recently left the Post to join the Times after she finished work on the Cheney series (her husband, Serge Kovaleski, a former Post reporter, went to work at the Times about a year ago… Apparently the NYT doesn’t have the Post’s anti-nepotism policy – they can’t hire someone who’s married to someone who already works there).
We also hear that the Post had to have some carefully negotiated deal when Becker left about how she couldn’t work on any Cheney stories at the Times until the Post series she had worked on was in print.
The Cheney thing is hot, and someone sat on it, and the editors clumsily added crap about how Cheney isn’t all that powerful as he doesn’t always get his way. Yeah, right, or as Digby says –
When I read it this morning, I also thought that stuff about Cheney not really being the de facto president and how he’s lost some battles with the big guy seemed pasted on to the story. I ignored them. Certainly this first part of the series gave no examples of such a thing – quite the opposite. The portrait that was painted was of a secretive, megalomaniacal VP who has been running the country through underhanded and unaccountable means by manipulating his ridiculously stupid boss and exerting his power by any means necessary. You really can’t read the article any other way.
Try Joan Walsh and her even shorter version – “Cheney is behind all the most extreme and extra-legal Bush administration policies since 9/11, from torture to NSA spying.”
But some things just caught her eye and need comment –
Justice Department interrogation expert John Yoo actually had limits to what he thought the military could do to prisoners – and the rules as written by Cheney’s men exceeded them. What was too far for Yoo? Threatening to bury prisoners alive. Yoo says he also thought only the CIA, not the military, should be able to use the harshest techniques authorized by the August 2002 memo Yoo reportedly drafted and Jay Bybee signed. “I always thought that only the CIA should do this, but people at the White House and at DOD felt differently,” Yoo said. Now he tells us.
What was posted here about John Yoo back in late 2005 should be amended – he thought the “WE WILL BURY YOU ALIVE, YOU EVIL-DOER!” thing was a bit much. And he didn’t like the idea the whole military should be told the old rules were now gone and have fun, and send confessions – as confining that sort of thing to the CIA would be a whole lots safer. He lost that one, and we got Abu Ghraib and all the rest.
And Walsh is amazed by this –
Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice were comrades in outrage when they learned about the secret torture-authorization memo in the Washington Post two years later. Rice told Gonzales “very angrily” that “there would be no more secret opinions on international and national security law.” Powell reportedly admired Rice’s getting all “Nurse Ratched” on Gonzales, the Post says. That’s a sad way to pay Condi a compliment, since Nurse Ratched was the hated enforcer of psych ward protocol in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but it has a certain perverse logic to it.
Yeah well, international and security laws do fall under State, but then, when you’re cut out you’re cut out. There was the public State Department, and there was the parallel one, hidden, the real one. That was Cheney’s operation and he told the president to not mention the real operational policies to Powell or Rice. For Powell and Rice, to find out two years later that their jobs were just an empty joke – well, that can ruin your day.
Then there’s Ted Olson, the fellow who led the anti-Clinton Arkansas Project and later became solicitor general under Bush –
It’s not that Olson particularly wanted U.S.-citizens-declared-enemy-combatants like Jose Padilla or Yaser Esam Hamdi to have lawyers, either; he just felt certain U.S. law required them to, and that the rules Cheney aide David Addington was proposing would not get by the courts. Alberto Gonzales overruled Olson and other Justice Department staffers to side with Cheney, but Olson was right, and the rules as written have suffered numerous setbacks, all the way to the Supreme Court. Less than two weeks after the high court declared in June 2004 that Hamdi and others must have lawyers and Guantánamo is not beyond the reach of U.S. laws, Olson resigned.
The Post does not report if Cheney laughed. So the Post says in its four-part series that the vice president and his legal team purported to gut the rules on how the United States treats detainees in 2001 – and that neither then Secretary of State Colin Powell nor then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice even knew what had happened until nearly two years later. Asked about the charge Monday, June 25, at the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino “pulled off an incredible hat trick of spin.” She simultaneously declined to comment on the report, insisted that it wasn’t true and declared that she knew nothing about what had actually happened. Read the transcript excerpt here – it is amazing.
Tim Grieve sums up the ten things we now know from the first two installments of the Post item –
1. The vice president’s “understanding” with the boss. Just after Cheney took office, former Vice President Dan Quayle warned him about the ceremonial nature of the job. Cheney smirked and told Quayle: “I have a different understanding with the president.” Quayle says Cheney saw himself as what Quayle calls a “surrogate chief of staff.” Bush’s actual chief of staff, Josh Bolten, says Cheney’s deal with Bush guarantees him a seat at “every table and every meeting” and the right to make his voice heard in “whatever area the vice president feels he wants to be active in.”
2. How it works. The Post says Cheney “holds his purchase on an unrivaled portfolio across the executive branch.” Bush deals at the level of “broad objectives, broadly declared.” Cheney, on the other hand, “inhabits an operational world in which means are matched with ends and some of the most important choices are made. When particulars rise to presidential notice, Cheney often steers the preparation of options and sits with Bush, in side-by-side wing chairs, as he is briefed.”
Gee, it’s that Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy thing again.
3. The secrecy. The vice president’s Dracula-and-sunlight-like aversion to transparency is well known, but the Post adds two nice details: The “daily work” of the Office of the Vice President is stored in “man-size Mosler safes,” typically used by other government agencies only for classified material. And in Cheney’s office, just about everything is classified, or treated that way: The vice president apparently invented a new classification for pseudo secrets to be used even for not-so-secret documents like press talking points: “Treated As: Top Secret/SCI.”
That’s cool. Make up a new category of sort-of secrets – an “as if secret” category, and lock up everything. It’s no wonder the man has not reported for three years on how his office handles documents, and now claims he’s not part of the executive branch, so he doesn’t really have to – the president’s rules, in this case presidential executive orders, don’t apply to him. It all fits together. The president hardly matters.
4. The power. Even as the twin towers fell on 9/11, Cheney and his then legal aide, David Addington, began planning an expansion of presidential powers. The Post explains: “Down in the bunker, according to a colleague with firsthand knowledge, Cheney and Addington began contemplating the founding question of the legal revolution to come: What extraordinary powers will the president need for his response?”
And who is running things? That’s easy –
5. Cheney’s team. On matters of presidential power, it consisted of John Yoo, Tim Flanigan and Addington. “Gonzales, a former Texas judge, had the seniority and the relationship with Bush,” the Post says. “But Addington – a man of imposing demeanor, intellect and experience – dominated the group. Gonzales ‘was not a law-of-war expert and didn’t have very developed views,’ Yoo recalled, echoing blunter observations by the Texan’s White House colleagues.”
Well, there is what people think of as the government, and then there’s the real government. And you get things done one-on-one, of course –
6. The order. In the Post’s telling, Cheney and his team pretty much single-handedly came up with the plan to send detainees to military tribunals rather than civilian courts; they short-circuited a panel that was supposed to be considering the issue, rejected the complaints of Attorney General John Ashcroft, and kept their plan secret from Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. After ordering that the plan be kept out of any staff review, Cheney got Bush to sign it by hand-walking it to him at lunch in the private dining room near the Oval Office.
And now we know why we torture people –
7. Torture. The Post says Cheney’s office “played a central role in shattering limits on coercion in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration has since portrayed as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials.” How they did it: “Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, pioneered a novel distinction between forbidden ‘torture’ and permitted use of ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ methods of questioning. They did not originate every idea to rewrite or reinterpret the law, but fresh accounts from participants show that they translated muscular theories, from Yoo and others, into the operational language of government.”
8. More torture. Former Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee wasn’t the author of the infamous August 2002 memo that smashed through the limits to what the United States could or couldn’t do to people in its custody. Although the White House has attributed the work to Yoo, Yoo tells the Post that the other members of the Cheney team contributed. Addington, Cheney’s legal advisor, was behind what the Post calls the memo’s “most radical claim”: If the president authorizes an interrogation method, it can’t be illegal because … the president has authorized it. A second memo, also prepared by Team Cheney, approved of a long list of interrogation techniques the CIA wanted to use – including, the Post says, “waterboarding.”
9. And still more torture. The signing statement in which Bush all but eviscerated John McCain’s Detainee Treatment Act by saying its language would be construed “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief”? It came from Cheney’s office.
10. Guantánamo. Last week’s talk of a high-level meeting and an impending decision to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba? The Post says Cheney is actually in favor of expanding the facility. He’s almost alone in that view, the Post says, but he has succeeded so far in keeping Gitmo open.
This is all clear enough. It was all true, that stuff about who’s really in charge.
Kevin Drum looks at it this way –
There’s nothing wrong with the fact that Dick Cheney is a powerful vice president. Jimmy Carter began the transformation of the vice presidency decades ago when he gave Walter Mondale more than just the veep’s usual ribbon cutting and funeral attendance duties, Bush Sr. continued the transformation, and Al Gore took it up yet another notch when he was Bill Clinton’s vice president.
That’s all fine. Since the vice president is the guy who takes over the country if the president dies, we’re all better off if the VP is deeply involved in the operations of the executive.
But then he notes we have a man who’s “not just involved, but nearly pathological.”
Drum focuses on a passage in the Post item that involves Condoleezza Rice, when she headed up the National Security Council, and her top lawyer, John Bellinger, on the matter of Cheney’s belief that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the war on terror –
At the White House, Bellinger sent Rice a blunt – and, he thought, private – legal warning. The Cheney-Rumsfeld position would place the president indisputably in breach of international law and would undermine cooperation from allied governments. Faxes had been pouring in at the State Department since the order for military commissions was signed, with even British authorities warning that they could not hand over suspects if the U.S. government withdrew from accepted legal norms.
One lawyer in his office said that Bellinger was chagrined to learn, indirectly, that Cheney had read the confidential memo and “was concerned” about his advice. Thus Bellinger discovered an unannounced standing order: Documents prepared for the national security adviser, another White House official said, were “routed outside the formal process” to Cheney, too. The reverse did not apply.
So the National Security Advisor and her aides, and State, are not allowed to exchange private memos in the Cheney White House. He’s watching. Somehow it’s all terribly French, the court advisors conspiring around behind the back of the of the boy king, but the ruthless Richelieu prevails.
The story of the Middle East debacle, like that of the pre-9/11 terrorism fiasco, reveals the inner workings of Bush’s White House: the president – aggressive and manipulated, ignorant of his own policies and their consequences, negligent; the secretary of state – proud, instinctively subordinate, constantly in retreat; the vice-president – as Richelieu, conniving, at the head of a neoconservative cabal, the power behind the throne; the national security adviser – seemingly open, even vulnerable, posing as the honest broker, but deceitful and derelict, an underhanded lightweight.
And to jog your memory (from March) –
For the record, Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642), was consecrated as a bishop in 1607 and only later entered politics, becoming a Secretary of State in 1616. Richelieu rose fast, becoming a cardinal in 1622, and King Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624 – and remained in office until he died. Cardinal Richelieu was known by the title of the King’s “Chief Minister” – he was sort of the world’s first Prime Minister in the sense we now use the term. And he saw his real job was rather basic – consolidate royal power and crush domestic factions. The French nobility was politically sidelined – no one got a say in anything – and France became a strong, centralized state. His big foreign policy objective was to check the power of the Austro-Spanish Habsburg dynasty – the bad guys of the day. And his time in power was marked by war, specifically the Thirty Years’ War that pretty much involved all of Europe. War and maintaining power go hand in hand.
Yeah, he was a patron of the arts and founded the Académie française and all that – and was a leading character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers – the heavy. He was one piece of work.
Cardinal Richelieu’s successes were extremely important to the next guy – Louis XIV. That king continued Richelieu’s work of creating an absolute monarchy – further suppressing the formerly advisory aristocracy, and utterly destroying all remnants of Huguenot political power. And the Thirty Years’ War helped establish French dominion in continental Europe – France finally became the most powerful nation in Europe during the late seventeenth century.
Richelieu’s legacy is clear – his ideas of a muscular nation-state with a hyper-aggressive foreign policy, with war as its method of getting things changed, pretty much created the modern system of international politics.
And after all, the king really was useless – Louis XIII ascended to the throne of France in 1610, when he was eight and a half (after the assassination of his father). His own mother acted as regent until Louis came of age at thirteen – but then she clung to power unofficially until, in petulant frustration, Louis took the reins of government into his own hands at the age of fifteen. Unfortunately he was always in way over his head. He needed his Richelieu.
That’s spooky. History has a way of repeating itself.
Hey, it was just a joke. It wasn’t supposed to really be true. Now what?