Close observers of Cheney and those who have worked with him offer their impressions of his personality, management style and talk about his longtime interest in intelligence matters.
- Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with
- Vincent Cannistraro
- Richard Clarke
- Carl W. Ford, Jr.
- David Kay
- Richard Kerr
- James Mann
- F. Michael Maloof
- Lawrence Wilkerson
- Related feature
- In His Own Words
These excerpts from Cheney's writings over the years reveal a remarkably consistent view on presidential power and the use of force.
Carl W. Ford, Jr.
Director, State Department Bureau of Intelligence, 2001-2003. During the first Gulf War (1991), he worked on intelligence in the Pentagon under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
... Help me understand that Defense Department under Secretary Cheney back in the early 1990s. What was Cheney like?
Cheney was very, very smart, very interested in his job. He was organized in a way that made it easier for the people that worked for him to do the job. I can remember early on a session with Cheney. I was a principal deputy. I was three or four levels down from him, but I had a conversation with him in which he explained that in areas that I was responsible for, there were these certain set of issues that he was extremely interested in.
He was basically saying: "These issues -- I don't want you to do anything without talking to me first. If anything happens, let me know about it. These are things that any time of day, any time of night, let me know." Then he went through another series of issues, and he said: "These are ones that are very important, and here is the way I would like you to move on these. If there is a problem, come back to me. Don't freelance on this."
We are talking now probably 10 or 12 issues that he had talked about. He then said, "And the rest of them, just don't get me in trouble." So I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, what my priorities should be, how far I could go, how far I should [go], how many risks I could take.
It didn't stop there, because he would also make sure that I, along with all the other people, knew what was going on, so that he would go over to the White House and have a meeting with the president --
Most bureaucracies, when the secretary comes back trying to find out what happened, even for an undersecretary [it] is sometimes very difficult. So he would come back, and he would debrief his military assistant: "Here is what happened. And tell Carl these two things. Tell John those four things," whatever it was. We would know, one, that these were the issues that we should be aware of. This is where the president was; this is where Cheney was.
We found that invaluable, because we would go over to State or to the NSC [National Security Council]; we would find out that we actually knew more of what was going on in the government and where our bosses were than they did.BACK TO TOP »
Author, Rise of the Vulcans
... When Rumsfeld and Cheney were in the Ford White House in the mid-70s, Rumsfeld as chief of staff and Cheney his deputy, what were they like? How did Cheney compare to Rumsfeld -- his aspect, his demeanor?
It seems to me Rumsfeld was exactly then as he is now. Same guy. Aggressive, outgoing. Cheney was self-effacing, quiet. He is now. But respectful — again, this is a low level official, very respectful of others. No question ever that Rumsfeld is the dominant figure in the relationship in the 60's and 70's. Cheney is discreet. That's one reason that he ends up having intelligence given to him as an issue. He's sort of a jack of all trades.
When he gets to the Ford White House as deputy chief of staff, I've looked in those archives, you can find memos to and from Cheney about fixing the White House plumbing, fixing the toilets, what kind of salt shakers should they have at congressional dinners. He did a little bit of everything.
Details. And also the guy who showed up earliest in the morning, and went home latest at night. That was significant for the Ford White House because there was a glamour side to part of the White House that was Henry Kissinger. So you had a little division between the Kissinger crowd—the people who were not part of the Kissinger crowd saw the Kissinger people off to Georgetown parties. They were the guys who did the work. And Cheney was the last guy out of the office. Because he was so self-effacing and discrete, he had handed to him, among other things, intelligence issues.
Tell me about the intelligence.
Well, he was at first deputy White House chief of staff under Rumsfeld. And the White House itself would handle issues relating to intelligence. Cheney was a guy who could keep a secret then and now; loved to keep secrets. So if you look at the files of those four years, you find things like there were leaks to the press, not dissimilar from now. Seymour Hersh had a story in the New York Times about—it was called The Glomar Explorer, a major CIA operation to pull up a Soviet submarine and look at how it worked. The story leaked to the front page of the New York Times. The question was, what should we do?
Who was in charge of what to do? Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney. What did he want to do? He was looking at prosecuting Hersh. He was talking about obtaining a warrant to search Seymour Hersh's house. He was the leak plumber back then, much as in some ways he's been today.
So, mild mannered on the outside, steel on the inside?
Mild mannered yes. Very aggressive in pursuing his policy aims. And those aims involved intelligence or foreign policy, yes, he could be very steely. ...BACK TO TOP »
National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, National Security Council, 1998-2001
... How would you describe the manner in which he exercises power?
I thought his style was always very quiet. He never seemed to lose his temper, he never seemed to be really angry, he was always very even-tempered -- prior to 9/11. And after 9/11, I think the record speaks for itself. He does not deal with things deftly. He is no longer persuasive. He, in fact, gets to be something of a caricature. ...
One of the things some people seemed happy about was that Cheney was elected with George W. Bush -- a grown up was there and potentially in charge. Was 9/11 such a moment?
I thought so. I thought, here was a man who knew how the Pentagon worked, and knew what we had to do with it that day. And there are lots of other people who I've worked with who would have gotten very agitated that day, and they would have been running around, sweating, screaming, yelling. He wasn't. He was very firm. Calm, cool, making decisions clearly. ...BACK TO TOP »
... I had a lot of contact with Cheney when he was a congressman on the oversight committee, when he was secretary of defense and I was the deputy director [of central intelligence]. My view of him was he was a good, thoughtful critic, and that's exactly, from my perspective, what you wanted: You wanted someone who was interested, and he was very interested. He would take time out when he was on the House Permanent Select Committee [on Intelligence] to come to the agency and spend a Saturday talking to analysts about a subject or problem. Not very many congressmen do that.
Why would he do that?
Because he was interested in it. He was interested, in this case, in the Soviet Union, arms control. ... I don't think he was critical of intelligence in a fundamental way. He was questioning of intelligence, asking and probing. And from an intelligence officer's point of view, the most impressive thing you can have is consumers that are interested in what you do, question it and test the system. Because then what you can say to that is somebody's paying attention to what we do. The worst thing that can happen to an intelligence officer, in my view, to be ignored. ...
You're talking about the period of the late '80s, I suppose?
I'm talking about when he was on the House Permanent Select Committee. And then he became, of course, secretary of defense. When he was secretary of defense, I was the deputy director of central intelligence. I used to meet with him, usually once a week for lunch, with [Director of Central Intelligence] Bill Webster, and we would talk about issues between CIA and Defense. In my view, he presented the least bureaucratic approach to organizational issues ... of anybody that I dealt with in Defense.
It's so fascinating, because the myth is that Cheney is this guy who ... will want to manipulate and push the Central Intelligence Agency?
You said two different words there: manipulate and push. Now, I never found in any situation that I dealt with of his trying to push you to do things you didn't believe, try to argue you into saying something that you didn't want to say. What you did find was the questioning of, "How do you know this? How confident are you? What about this source? Why did you choose to think about this particular information in one way and this in another? How did you make that choice, and how did you integrate those two ideas?"
So it was not an issue from my perspective of trying to manipulate, it was an issue of trying to push you to be as precise and clear, trying to get you to think about problems in a way perhaps you hadn't thought about. ...BACK TO TOP »
... [What was your view of Vice President Dick Cheney when you joined the State Department in the current Bush administration?]
... [M]y appreciation of Dick Cheney at the time was as secretary of defense while I served as special assistant to Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That was a very vivid impression of a secretary of defense who was probably as good an executive as I had seen in the department in my -- at that point -- 20-plus years in the military: a man who made decisions quickly; a man who, if ... you weren't briefing him properly, you were gone. If he couldn't get to a decision in 20 minutes or 30 minutes, then you were gone. You weren't doing your job; you weren't preparing adequately. ...
Dick Cheney was a very effective decision maker; he was not the kind of man you want to put your arms around and hug. He evinced a sort of coldness, but he was a good decision maker, and I would have classified him as a very good secretary of defense. ...
[National Security Adviser under George H.W. Bush Brent] Scowcroft said recently in The New Yorker, "I don't recognize my friend Dick Cheney anymore." What do you say?
He knows him far more intimately than I, but I don't recognize him either. He's not the secretary of defense that I saw for three years in the Pentagon. He's a different man.
What happened, sir?
9/11, I assume, and a certain degree of paranoia. I'll give you a good example. ... Carl von Clausewitz is a particular war theorist that I find very appealing and, in most cases, very accurate when he describes both the nature of war and the nature of conflict in general. One of the things that I think you would find agreement between even someone like Sun Tzu, an Asian war theorist, and Clausewitz, a German, is that you must make sure you identify the nature of the conflict you're in. You must. That's absolutely essential. If you misidentify that nature, you're not ever going to get back on the right sheet of music.
So with that as background, here we have [Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, 2001-03] John Yoo, for example, certainly total buy-in by the vice president of the United States, and I suspect total buy-in by the president of the United States also, [say] that this conflict we are now involved in is the equivalent of the conflict we were involved in with the Soviet Union; that is to say that Al Qaeda has the capability to destroy the United States of America, its institutions, its very being, much as a 20,000-plus nuclear-tipped missile had the capability to had we gone to war with the Soviet Union and everyone unleashed his full panoply of weapons. This is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous. It begins marching you down in your decisions this road that is full of dangerous and even inept decisions, because we're not in an existential conflict with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda doesn't even remotely have the capability to bring the United States down. ...
How powerful is Dick Cheney?
The most powerful vice president in the history of our country. ...
[Tell me about Cheney's network. How far does his reach extend?]
His network is positioned almost everywhere in the government that's important. It was marvelous to watch his network work. ... In the levels of meetings that were in the statutory process -- policy-coordinating committee meetings, ... and then the principals' meeting where only the secretary attended, or sometimes a plus-one, like on the detainee-abuse issues or the Geneva issues -- so if you look at those processes, Cheney attended them all through his surrogates. ...
His people attended, and rarely did they ever say anything; [they] just took good notes so that they could take it back and flummox the process wherever the vice president elected to flummox the process. ... Their modus operandi most of the time was to just be quiet, gather information and go back and tell the big guy. Then the big guy weighed in with the even bigger guy -- the president -- and generally speaking, got what he wanted.
When they had a policy -- for example, like Iran, where we couldn't even produce a presidential decision directive over the entire four years that I was in the State Department -- that was the vice president's desire. No bilateral relations with Iran, no negotiations, no talks, and oh, by the way, no support for the EU-3 [Britain, France and Germany] or any European or other activity that's going to talk to Tehran -- that was the vice president's position. So in this case, all he had to do was use that dysfunctional statutory process to mask the fact that the decision had already been made. It was a decision by default. You couldn't make a decision in the statutory process because everybody was always fighting, and so you got what [he] wanted, which was no decision.
This is what you meant when you called them a "cabal"?
Yes, because it uses the statutory process in which the entire bureaucracy has a voice to camouflage the real decision-making process, wherein the decisions are being made by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for certain key issues -- most often with the knowledge of the president, which is fine. The president discards the bureaucracy and has his two buds make his decisions for him. That's fine if the president wants to do it that way.
But when the president is not witting of that alternative process, I have problems with it, and it's my critique of those two decisions, the post-invasion planning for Iraq and the decision to allow the military to participate in this other-than-Geneva interrogation methods, [that] I am not at all sure the president was witting of. ...BACK TO TOP »
Iraq Weapons Inspector 1991-1992, Iraq Survey Group, 2003-2004
... I think it's fair to say that ... the vice president is a person who is drawn to dark interpretations, dangers as opposed to opportunities. And that's partly [based on] where you sit. It's easy when you're outside of government to see opportunities, whereas if you've got that fatal responsibility for the safety of the American people, dangers -- particularly after 9/11 -- will somewhat dominate your thinking.
And I think it's fair to say that the vice president was drawn by that. I think there's one other thing that influences him, at least in my conversations: He remembered as clearly as I remembered, how wrong intelligence had been in 1991 [on Iraq] because he had been secretary of defense. I had just been on the ground afterwards trying to clean up the mess. He had been briefed that there wasn't a [Iraq] nuclear program, there wasn't a biological program, and that the chemical program was considerably smaller than it turned out to be. So that's at the forefront, at least in my conversations with him about Iraq. "They were wrong before, they didn't get the evidence, how do we know what they know now?"
I think it's fair to say that he had as good an understanding as anyone in the U.S. government of the limitations of the U.S. intelligence, that they didn't have sources on the ground. Now, for a lot of us that made us think you can't depend on it and it might be less bad than otherwise. The vice president, he viewed those limitations as real dangers -- it could be much worse than we think it is. So he was formed at the crucible of 1991, the first Gulf War. The intelligence community was wrong about whether Saddam was going to invade Kuwait. They were wrong about the weapons that Saddam had. And they misread the interpretation after the war as to whether Saddam could survive the defeat.
... And so [Cheney] tends to view, at least in my perspective, the very darkest of possibilities as always being something you got to guard against. ...BACK TO TOP »
... Tell me, to the extent that you know, what you think was the vice president's orientation toward the CIA before 9/11?
... I think Vice President Cheney was one of several people from that kind of political current in the Republican party who had a fair degree of skepticism towards CIA and its intelligence product. I think that Cheney and a number of other people believed that the agency was really infested by liberals, even though that image really dated back to the 50's and maybe the origin of the CIA, where a lot of people from the Eastern liberal establishment actually were members of the CIA or its predecessor organization, the OSS.
But, in any event, a lot of people in that particular faction of the party had always thought of the agency as being too soft in its estimates, particularly on the Soviet Union. It was during that era -- when the first President Bush was the director of CIA -- that the conservatives in the party really forced the establishment of a red team-blue team to take an alternate view of the CIA's estimate on Soviet strategic capabilities, nuclear capabilities. So I think that's part of the background of that skepticism towards the agency.
It was basically [that] the agency provided soft estimates, estimates that weren't sharp edged, didn't have a great contrast to them, basically would say, "on this hand and on the other hand." Analysts, particularly older analysts at CIA, who had been brought up in the Sherman Kent [Center for Intelligence] Analysis, would say, "That's exactly how it should be. You should try and describe the world to the best of your ability, given the information that you have. And rarely can you form categorical assessments of the particular situation." There are always shades of gray. To some of the so-called "hardliners" in the Republican party, that was never really acceptable. ...BACK TO TOP »
... Is it a true story that the vice president wrote in the margins of something, "This is good stuff. This is so much better than the crap I get from the CIA", or whatever he said?
I've heard the same rumor. I don't know if it's true or not. But Cheney had every good reason to question and doubt what the agency was coming up with.
We had a specific case arise in 1990, in which he was then the secretary of defense. A colleague and I did analysis on Iraq's nuclear weapons development program. We went back to 10 years of information. And at that time, 1990 timeframe, the agency was saying that Iraq was five years out from making a bomb.
Well, we took 10 years of information, intelligence, even open source information, and from that we were able to conclude that in 10 identified areas that are essential for nuclear weapons development, all the boxes had been filled.
We then took that information up to the undersecretary [of defense], Paul Wolfowitz, at that time. Paul then sent the information to Cheney, as secretary of defense. Cheney immediately responded and sent our entire report off to the agency and asked for a re-evaluation.
Our estimate was they were not five years out, they were 18 months out. Based upon that, the agency came back a few months later, or a few weeks later, I forget what the timeframe was, and said, "Well, it's plausible that that might be true."
Then after the war, when David Kay and the inspectors went in, they reported that Iraq was only six months away. So even our estimates were conservative. At best intelligence gives you maybe 10 percent of what's going on out there in the real world. And my philosophy has always been, if you assume the worst in this business, it's probably true. And in this case, it turned out to be worse than we had thought. ...
So the nuclear thing was a real eye opener for the secretary of defense at the time, and as future vice president.
That's correct. ... So now you fast forward to 2001, he had every reason then to question whatever analysis they had. Because up to that time the majority of our information on anything having to do with proliferation was not from human sources. And so consequently the ability to have fairly reliable information was, in fact, lacking. And much of the work was based upon assessments, educated assessments, and some of them were dead wrong. ...BACK TO TOP »