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Cheney: an extraordinary Vice President


Whatever one's opinion of VPOTUS may be, admiring or grudging, Cheney is singularly one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful vice president that the US has had. Joan Didion has recently done a substantive article, Cheney: The Fatal Touch, drawn from sixteen books all of which are listed in her review (a process that I approve and have used for quite some time as I like readers to be able to skim the cited sources).

As the promised Cheney expansion from Demeanor aside, it's hard to imagine Gates being less than incendiary in regards to Iran, I have excerpted text under four themes important to me: extending executive privilege, marginalizing congress, intelligence shaping and maintaining emcon (emission control): While Didion's review is far longer, and both admirers and detractors will find much of interest, these themes typify the scope and intensity of Cheney, his office and his appointees in the policy and defense community. If your course of action is not to his liking, you have your work set out for you.

On extending executive privilege:

The question of where the President gets the notions known to the nation as "I'm the decider" and within the White House as "the unitary executive theory" leads pretty fast to the blackout zone that is the Vice President and his office. It was the Vice President who took the early offensive on the contention that whatever the decider decides to do is by definition legal. "We believe, Jim, that we have all the legal authority we need," the Vice President told Jim Lehrer on PBS after it was reported that the National Security Agency was conducting warrantless wiretapping in violation of existing statutes. It was the Vice President who pioneered the tactic of not only declaring such apparently illegal activities legal but recasting them as points of pride, commands to enter attack mode, unflinching defenses of the American people by a president whose role as commander in chief authorizes him to go any extra undisclosed mile he chooses to go on their behalf.

"Bottom line is we've been very active and very aggressive defending the nation and using the tools at our disposal to do that," the Vice President advised reporters on a flight to Oman last December. It was [Cheney] who maintained that passage of Senator John McCain's legislation banning inhumane treatment of detainees would cost "thousands of lives." It was [Cheney's] office, in the person of David S. Addington, that supervised the 2002 "torture memos," advising the President that the Geneva Conventions need not apply. And, after Admiral Stansfield Turner, director of the CIA between 1977 and 1981, referred to Cheney as "vice president for torture," it was the Vice President's office that issued this characteristically nonresponsive statement: "Our country is at war and our government has an obligation to protect the American people from a brutal enemy that has declared war upon us."

Addington, who emerged into government from Georgetown University and Duke Law School in 1981 [is] an instructive study in the focus Cheney favors in the protection of territory. As secretary of defense for [Bush41]. Bush, Cheney made Addington his special assistant and ultimately his general counsel. As vice-president for [Bush43], Cheney again turned to Addington, and named him, after the [Libby] indictment [in] connection with the exposure of Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife as a CIA agent, his chief of staff. "You're giving away executive power," Addington has been reported to snap at less committed colleagues. He is said to keep a photograph in his office of Cheney firing a gun. He vets every line of the federal budget to eradicate any wording that might restrain the President. He also authors the "signing statements" now routinely issued to free the President of whatever restrictive intent might have been present in whichever piece of legislation he just signed into law. A typical signing statement, as written by Addington, will refer repeatedly to the "constitutional authority" of "the unitary executive branch," and will often mention multiple points in a single bill that the President declines to enforce.

Signing statements are not new, but at the time Bill Clinton left office, the device had been used, by the first forty-two presidents combined, fewer than six hundred times. George W. Bush, by contrast, issued more than eight hundred such takebacks during the first six years of his administration. Those who object to this or any other assumption of absolute executive power are reflexively said by those who speak for the Vice President to be "tying the president's hands," or "eroding his ability to do his job," or, more ominously, "aiding those who don't want him to do his job."

On marginalizing congress:

"I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job," the Vice President said after one year in office. "We are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last thirty to thirty-five years." "Watergate—a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both, in the '70s, served to erode the authority, I think, the President needs to be effective," he said to reporters accompanying him on that December 2005 flight to Oman...

On intelligence shaping:

What the Vice President was doing with the intelligence he received has since been characterized as "cherry-picking," a phrase suggesting that he selectively used only the more useful of equally valid pieces of intelligence [but the reality was rejecting the intel and] replacing it with whatever self-interested rumor better advanced his narrative line. "Cheney's office claimed to have sources," Ron Suskind was told by those to whom he spoke for The One Percent Doctrine.

And Rumsfeld's, too. They kept throwing them [at the CIA]. The same information, five different ways. They'd omit that a key piece had been discounted, that the source had recanted. Sorry, our mistake. Then it would reappear, again, in a memo the next week.

The Vice President would not then or later tolerate any suggestion that the story he was building might rest on cooked evidence. In a single speech at the American Enterprise Institute in November 2005 he used the following adjectives to describe those members of Congress who had raised such a question: "corrupt," "shameless," "dishonest," "reprehensible," "irresponsible," "insidious," and "utterly false." "It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence," he is reported by Suskind to have said in the November 2001 briefing during which he articulated the doctrine that if there was "a one percent chance" of truth in any suspicion or allegation, it must be considered true. "It's about our response."

On maintaining emcon (emission control):

Cheney leaves no paper trail. He has not always felt the necessity to discuss what he plans to say in public with the usual offices, including that of the President. Nor, we learned from Ron Suskind, has he always felt the necessity, say if the Saudis send information to the President in preparation for a meeting, to bother sending that information on to Bush… Since November 1, 2001, under this administration's Executive Order 13233, which limits access to all presidential and vice-presidential papers, Cheney has been the first vice-president in American history entitled to executive privilege…

His every instinct is to withhold information, hide, let surrogates speak for him… He runs an office so disinclined to communicate that it routinely refuses to disclose who works there, even for updates to the Federal Directory, which lists names and contact addresses for government officials. "We just don't give out that kind of information," an aide told one reporter. "It's just not something we talk about."…

By Paul Starobin, Reply by Joan Didion
In response to Cheney: The Fatal Touch (October 5, 2006)
Volume 53, Number 17, November 2, 2006

Cheney: The Fatal Touch
By Joan Didion
New York Review of Books
Volume 53, Number 15, October 15, 2006

Gordon Housworth

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