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Cheney Role in Bush Administration Draws Fire

June 27, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, how Dick Cheney created the power of his vice presidency. Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: Dick Cheney’s political career has come full circle. Thirty two years ago, he was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. Now, after six years at President George W. Bush’s side, he is once again a commander-in-chief’s right-hand man, but with vast new powers as vice president.

Cheney left his first tour at the White House in 1977 and went on to serve in Congress from his home state of Wyoming. He spent five terms in the House, rising in 1988 to House leadership. But his first executive branch role left its mark.

He returned to that inner circle in 1989, when the first President Bush named him secretary of defense. While in that role, he oversaw the planning and execution of the first Gulf War.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: Thank you for undertaking this very complicated and difficult assignment.

GWEN IFILL: After leaving the administration in 1993, he joined a conservative think-tank, then was recruited to become chief executive officer of Halliburton Corporation, one of the world’s largest engineering and energy companies. But Cheney returned to politics in 2000, when the current President Bush asked him to run a vice presidential search, then named Cheney as his running mate instead.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I believe you’re looking at the next vice president of the United States…

GWEN IFILL: Cheney’s role quickly outpaced that of any previous vice president, especially after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. One month after the attacks, the U.S. led an invasion of Afghanistan, where the perpetrators of 9/11, al-Qaida, were believed to be hiding. Eighteen months later, what the Bush administration called the “war on terror” expanded to Iraq. Cheney was a chief architect of the war.

DICK CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: We are here, above all, because the terrorists who have declared war on America and other free nations have made Iraq the central front in that war. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants believe they can wear down the United States, that they can force us out, to make Iraq a safe haven for terror.

GWEN IFILL: Cheney also played a key role in devising and defending U.S. policies on interrogating detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Cheney rejected critics who said the U.S. was stretching the international rules on prisoner treatment.

DICK CHENEY: You can get into a debate about what shocks the conscience and what is cruel and inhuman. And to some extent, I suppose that’s in the eye of the beholder.

Cheney as a dominant player

Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
I don't think there's any doubt that he's the most powerful vice president there's been and that he is the dominant player among all the president's advisers and operators in this government wherever he chooses to play.

GWEN IFILL: Cheney and his legacy on domestic, international and legal matters have been the focus of a four-part series published in the Washington Post, which concluded today.

We are joined now by the co-author of that Washington Post series, Barton Gellman, and also by one critic and one defender of the vice president, California Democrat Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- that committee is investigating the vice president's office -- and Lee Casey, a former Justice Department official during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He practices law and writes opinion columns for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

Barton Gellman, I want to start with you, because you've spent a lot of time working on this very exhaustive project. I think you called it "Angler," which is the vice president's Secret Service code name. How powerful did you discover -- after all your reporting, how powerful would you say this vice president is?

BARTON GELLMAN, The Washington Post: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that he's the most powerful vice president there's been and that he is the dominant player among all the president's advisers and operators in this government wherever he chooses to play. He is influential across a much broader span of government policy than we knew going into this.

GWEN IFILL: What did you find out in this reporting that surprised you the most?

BARTON GELLMAN: Oh, I think what surprised us the most is the extent to which he operated in economic policy, in environmental policy, in nominations and appointments of major jobs, from cabinet secretaries to Supreme Court nominees, and also some of his methods. He's an exceptionally good bureaucratic insider, and he has found ways of getting around and over people who disagree with him that he was never able to do before as secretary of defense, as chief of staff, or in other roles.

GWEN IFILL: Now, people often say that really the only vote you need on your side is the vote of the president. How would you define, based on what people were able to tell you, what the relationship is like really between the vice president and President Bush?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, you have to admit to begin with that there's a piece of that you'll never get to when they're one on one. But he is not only clearly the president's closest adviser, what we found is maybe more meaningful, is that, in many cases, he is the one who is sifting the options.

He's the one who's sort of narrowing down the potential options for the president to a very small number. And so, when the president's deciding, for example, on Supreme Court nominees there are only five names that get to him. And those are the ones that have passed an extensive vetting by Cheney.

Role in shaping Guantanamo

Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
It is exceptional and unusual the extent to which the vice president has attempted to shield his advice and his operations from scrutiny elsewhere in the executive branch, by Congress, by the public.

GWEN IFILL: There are so many examples that you cite in the series. I want you to expand on one, which is how he handled the question of how detainees would be treated at Guantanamo Bay and how he maneuvered, I guess, around the process as it was to get right to the president on that.

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, late fall, early winter of 2001, the Afghan war is going, and the question arises, what do you do with Taliban and al-Qaida fighters that are captured? There's an interagency group appointed to figure this out, under an ambassador named Pierre Prosper. Every major player is invited to -- every office is invited to send a representative.

The vice president doesn't do that. He knows what the answer is, as far as he's concerned. He has his lawyer draft a secret draft of a military order by the president. He hand-carries it into the president at a lunch on November 13th; the same day, within the hour, the president signs it. And Colin Powell, Condi Rice find out for the first time when they're watching it on cable television that evening.

GWEN IFILL: Today we heard that some members of the Senate committees of the Senate are going to subpoena the vice president's office for documents which it says have not been turned over to it. There has been a dispute over the past several days about how the vice president's office defines itself, whether it is exempt from legislative oversight. And I wonder, in your reporting, as you see these latest developments unfold, whether there is a penchant, an undue penchant, almost, for secrecy in the vice president's office?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, I'm not going to judge dueness. It is exceptional and unusual the extent to which the vice president has attempted to shield his advice and his operations from scrutiny elsewhere in the executive branch, by Congress, by the public.

He has created, apparently, a pseudo-classification, which he'll say on documents stamped inside his office that they will be treated as if they were sensitive compartmented information, which implies a very high level of protection, and that extends even sometimes to press guidance for media officers.

He has declined to participate in all kinds of oversight mechanisms. And, for example, when the Washington Post and other organizations asked to see the logs of his visitors -- because we were curious who he was talking to -- after a certain point, and not unlawfully, but when he found an opportunity, he asked the Secret Service to destroy those logs.

Transparency in Cheney's office

Rep. Henry Waxman
D-Calif.
The biggest threat [to our system of government] is that, as we have seen, the government is more likely to make serious mistakes unless they're transparent, unless they're accountable.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you talk about how the vice president deals with oversight. Let's talk to Congressman Waxman about that, because a big part of his job, of course, is oversight of the executive branch.

Congressman Waxman, you heard Barton Gellman talk about the exceptional lengths to which the vice president's office goes to maintain its separateness, I suppose, from a lot of the oversight issues. What is your reaction to that?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D), California: We have no question that Vice President Cheney is powerful, but our system is not geared to making a concentration of power in any one branch of government. Vice President Cheney believes that the executive branch is the predominant power, but our framers of our Constitution wanted checks and balances, because when people get too powerful, they get arrogant.

And I think that's what's happening to Vice President Cheney. He doesn't feel that he has to make information available. He doesn't feel his actions have to be transparent to the Congress or to the American people. It's as if the government belonged to him and not to the people.

And transparency is so important for accountability; in a democracy like ours, that is fundamental. And so the oversight that has not been there to provide checks came because of the Republicans' control of the Congress for 12 years. They didn't want to do oversight that might embarrass the president or the vice president.

And even when we have systems like the power of the Archives to check on the mechanisms for protecting national security information that's in the hands of the vice president and other executive branch agencies, according to the president's executive order, Vice President Cheney said, "Well, I'm not a member of the executive branch," which is, of course, ludicrous. Then he went on to say, "We ought to fire these people. They shouldn't be allowed to ask these questions."

So I think it's a real threat to our system of government, and the biggest threat is that, as we have seen, the government is more likely to make serious mistakes unless they're transparent, unless they're accountable, unless they get feedback from others, not just from those who agree with them.

GWEN IFILL: Lee Casey, what about this transparency issue? Do you think that the vice president's office has been as transparent as it needs to be?

LEE CASEY, Former U.S. Staff Attorney: Well, I do. The vice president has no independent executive authority. Whatever authority he is exercising has been delegated to him by the president. The president seems to be pleased with his job. I mean, obviously, George Bush is a man of strong opinions who knows how to express them, and he has continued the vice president in this role throughout his term in office.

The vice president's job is to advise the president. And that, by and large, is best done in private. A president wants to know what people really think. He doesn't want to know what they want on the front page of the Washington Post on Monday.

GWEN IFILL: Are there balance-of-power issues which come into play here?

LEE CASEY: Well, I don't think so, because, again, the vice president here is exercising presidential authority. His own authority under the Constitution is very limited. Indeed, it is true he is not obviously a member of the executive branch; he's not obviously a member of the legislative branch. He straddles the two.

And the framers understood this, and it bothered some of them. But they felt that that was the best role for this very unique figure, who really is in waiting, does not exercise executive authority unless something happens to the president, and who presides over the Senate, has something of a legislative role, but isn't actually a legislator. He's not permitted to vote unless they're equally divided. He can't participate in debates.

Interpretation of executive power

Lee Casey
Former Justice Department Official
It's just that the fact is, Vice President Cheney does understand how the executive branch works a lot better than many of his predecessors. He really knows the field.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Waxman, what do you think of that interpretation of executive power?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: I don't think it makes any sense. The vice president is refusing to comply with the order of the president. It's an executive order of the president. He complied with it when he first came into office and then decided he didn't want to be bothered any longer.

And the whole reason for the president's executive order was to make sure that we protected national confidential classified information from leaks. Now, the truth of the matter is that we've had leaks from this vice president's office, including most recently the leak of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, by Scooter Libby. But that wasn't the only situation where classified information got out. So we should expect the vice president and the president, when they conduct their activities, to do it in a responsible way, not a reckless way.

And, in fact, I have to tell you that I've even take an exception with the way the president has handled some of this classified information. We recently wrote to him, because his own internal systems, not the archive system, but his own internal systems have not seemed to have been working according to information we've been getting from people that worked in White House. They've done no investigations that we've found of leaks. Even inadvertent leaks are not reported according to their rules.

It's as if the president and the vice president think there's no law that applies to them, they can do whatever they want. And maybe they can, but I think that's a real problem for our country and our security.

GWEN IFILL: I wanted to give Mr. Casey a chance to respond to that.

LEE CASEY: Well, there's no question here that the vice president understands that the law applies to him. With respect to the executive order, every time the vice president is mentioned in this executive order, he is treated the same as the president, who is exempt from this National Archives function of it.

The vice president could have been covered, but he wasn't, and there is a presumption in interpreting these orders, which was actually articulated first by the Clinton administration Justice Department, saying that Vice President Gore was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, because of the vice president's unique status.

If you want to cover him with something like this -- and you can -- you just have to say so specifically. And it was not said specifically here. And that is what Vice President Cheney has based his view on. It's not a suggestion that he's somehow not covered by the law; it's just that this particular rule was not drafted to cover him.

GWEN IFILL: But why this vice president now? Why haven't we seen this kind of power exerted by previous vice presidents?

LEE CASEY: Well, I think it has been a long time in coming. We have seen a growth in the vice presidential office over the last several administrations, both in the first President Bush, and President Clinton, and this president, and even before, under President Reagan. I'm not sure that the president is relying so much more on Vice President Cheney. It's just that the fact is, Vice President Cheney does understand how the executive branch works a lot better than many of his predecessors. He really knows the field.

GWEN IFILL: Barton Gellman, I want to end with you, because I want to ask you whether, after doing all this reporting, you have concluded in any way that Vice President Cheney has changed the vice presidency in the way that Mr. Casey perhaps was just suggesting?

BARTON GELLMAN: It's a fascinating question to contemplate what is going to become of the next vice president. The next vice president will have a tough act to follow. It will depend entirely on the wishes of the next president.

There have not been many presidents who wanted to give as much power to their number-two as Bush has, and I would say actually there have been none. What Mr. Casey said is quite correct about the vice president as adviser, but what's principally different in this administration is that Dick Cheney has been an operator.

He has had operational responsibility. He has chaired the Budget Review Board. He has acted on the president's behalf, as much as he has advised the president in the Oval Office. And that is a role we've not seen very much before.

GWEN IFILL: Bart Gellman, Congressman Henry Waxman, and Lee Casey, thank you very much.