Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Cheney Vice-Presidency & the Bush/Cheney catastrophe - A four-part Washington Post series

The Bush administration used to be able to operate with a remarkable degree of impunity, secretiveness, and lack of accountability, effectively insulated not just from Congressional oversight but from serious investigation by most of the news media as well. Now that the spell has snapped, new skeletons keep falling out of the closet all the time. A number of them can be found in a must-read four-part series on The Cheney Vice-Presidency that appeared in last week's Washington Post.

It is not exactly breaking news that Cheney has been, by far, the most powerful and influential Vice-President in US history; that he has been a key figure in this administration's systematic assault on the rule of law, executive accountability, and the restraints of constitutional government, and that his fingerprints are on many of its key foreign and domestic policies. The broad outlines of Cheney's role within the Bush administration have long been clear enough to anyone who wanted to pay attention, and many of the specific elements have also been reported on before.

(So Brad DeLong is right to point out that people like the Post's political columnist David Broder, who claimed in his "Cheney Unbound" that he was shocked by all these unexpected revelations, are either being disingenuous or declaring their own incompetence as journalists. Actually, this is more a case of the rats trying to swim as far away from the ship as they can now that they see it's sinking.)

However, the authors of this four-part series did a good job of pulling a lot of pieces together into compelling overall picture, and in the process they also managed to pin down and/or confirm some especially striking details.

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency
Dick Cheney is the most influential and powerful man ever to hold the office of vice president. This series examines Cheney's largely hidden and little-understood role in crafting policies for the War on Terror, the economy and the environment.

Sunday: Part 1: Working in the Background
A master of bureaucracy and detail, Cheney exerts most of his influence out of public view.
Monday: Part 2: Wars and Interrogations
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: Dominating Budget Decisions
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: Environmental Policy
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.
Sidebar: Maintaining Connections

In the latest issue of the New Yorker (July 9 & 16, 2007), Henrik Hertzberg nicely captures the main features of this portrait. Some highlights:
For four days last week, the front page of the Washington Post was dominated by a remarkable series of articles slugged “ANGLER: THE CHENEY VICE PRESIDENCY.” (“Angler,” Cheney’s metaphorically apt Secret Service code name, refers to one of his two favorite outdoor pastimes, the one less hazardous to elderly lawyers.) The series, by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, occupied sixteen broadsheet pages and topped out at twenty thousand words. The headline over last Monday’s installment encapsulates the burden of the whole: “The Unseen Path to Cruelty.”

Some of the Post’s findings have been foreshadowed elsewhere [....] But many of the details and incidents that Gellman and Becker document are as new as they are appalling. More important, the pattern that emerges from the accumulated weight of the reporting is, as the lawyers say, dispositive. [....] [I]t is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” has been the most influential public official in the country [JW: after President Bush], and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law [....] but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable “war on terror.”

More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime [Etc.]

[....]The stakes are lower in domestic affairs—if only because fewer lives are directly threatened—but here, too, Cheney’s influence has been invariably baleful. With an avalanche of examples, Gellman and Becker show how Cheney successfully pushed tax cuts for the very rich that went beyond what even the President, wanly clinging to the shards of “compassionate conservatism,” and his economic advisers wanted. They show how Cheney’s stealthy domination of regulatory and environmental policy, driven by “unwavering ideological positions” and always exerted “for the benefit of business,” has resulted in the deterioration of air and water quality, the degradation and commercial exploitation of national parks and forests, the collapse of wild-salmon fisheries, and the curt abandonment of Bush’s 2000 campaign pledge to do something about greenhouse gases. They also reveal that it was Cheney who forced Christine Todd Whitman to resign as the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, by dictating a rule that excused refurbished power plants and oil refineries from installing modern pollution controls. “I just couldn’t sign it,” she told them. [....]

Cheney, Gellman and Becker report, drew up and vetted a list of five appellate judges from which Bush drew his Supreme Court appointments. [....]

[L]ast week, Cheney provoked widespread hilarity by pleading executive privilege (in order to deny one set of documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee) while simultaneously maintaining that his office is not part of the executive branch (in order to deny another set to the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives). [JW: See here.] On Cheney’s version of the government organization chart, it seems, the location of the Office of the Vice-President is undisclosed. So are the powers that, in a kind of rolling, slow-motion coup d’état, he has gathered unto himself.
For the overall story, read The Cheney Vice Presidency.

--Jeff Weintraub