Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

The two things that everyone knows about Dick Cheney are that he was once the CEO of Halliburton and that he has for the past six and a half years been the most powerful vice-president in American history. In four long articles published in the Washington Post at the end of June, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker revealed much that was previously unknown, if not entirely unsuspected, about the way Cheney operates.

Gellman and Becker’s series was more concerned with Cheney’s methods than with his motives (Halliburton is mentioned only once), and this was surely the right emphasis: what politicians do is generally more significant than their reasons for doing it. But it’s also the case that speculation about Cheney’s motives is unlikely ever to get very far, given the vice-president’s dedication to secrecy. ‘Stealth,’ Gellman and Becker observe, ‘is among Cheney’s most effective tools. Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice-president.’ He has invented a new classification for documents, ‘Top Secret/SCI’ (SCI stands for ‘sensitive compartmented information’), which he’ll stamp on anything and everything within reach, even documents as mild as ‘talking points for reporters’. ‘Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs.’ It makes you wonder what he’s like at home; Lynne has presumably learned not to bother asking Dick how his day was when he gets home from work.

It’s a day that begins early: unlike his boss, Cheney doesn’t need eight hours of sleep a night. According to his Secret Service detail he’s often up at 4.30 a.m., ‘reading’, and has a regular ‘private intelligence briefing’ between 6.30 and 7 before sitting in on the president’s briefing an hour later. ‘Proposals and information flow into the vice-president’s office from around the government, but . . . almost nothing flows out,’ White House officials told the Post’s reporters.

Gellman and Becker focus on three areas of policy in which Cheney has made his considerable presence felt: defence, the economy and the environment; in other words, torture, tax cuts and pollution – all of which he has worked tirelessly to promote.

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, Cheney assembled a crack team of White House lawyers, David Addington, Timothy Flanigan and Alberto Gonzales, with support from John Yoo at the Justice Department, who set about granting the president as many extraordinary powers as Cheney thought he needed. First up was intercepting, without a warrant, communications to and from the United States (an action forbidden under federal law since 1978), which was soon followed by the decision to try terrorist suspects in military commissions under the jurisdiction of the executive branch. The next step was to deny the right of detainees to be treated as prisoners of war. The Bush administration ‘fought one of its fiercest internal brawls’ – Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld on one side, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice on the other – ‘before Bush ratified the policy that Cheney had declared: the Geneva Conventions would not apply to al-Qaida or Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield.’

Since the War Crimes Act of 1996, breaching the Geneva Conventions has been a US felony. ‘The best defence against such a charge,’ Addington wrote in January 2002, ‘would combine a broad presidential directive for humane treatment, in general, with an assertion of unrestricted authority to make exceptions.’ On 1 August 2002, the Justice Department released a classified memo that defined torture as inflicting pain ‘equivalent in intensity’ to that experienced during ‘organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death’. This clearly left interrogators plenty of elbow room. The same day, Yoo

signed off on a second secret opinion, the contents of which have never been made public. According to a source with direct knowledge, that opinion approved as lawful a long list of interrogation techniques proposed by the CIA – including waterboarding, a form of near-drowning that the US government has prosecuted as a war crime since at least 1901. The opinion drew the line against one request: threatening to bury a prisoner alive.

Since then, as what was going on at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib emerged, Cheney has been defeated by various Supreme Court rulings and by John McCain’s Detainee Treatment Act, which the Senate passed by 90 votes to 9 in October 2005. But the CIA still detains suspects in secret prisons overseas, and the Military Commissions Act, passed in September 2006, exempts CIA case officers and other government employees from prosecution for past war crimes or torture; it withstood its first Supreme Court challenge earlier this year.

Cheney’s response to 9/11 was not limited to the reclassifying and legalising of torture. There was another enemy to be tackled besides al-Qaida: taxes. ‘Cheney has made the vice-president’s office a hub of tax policy,’ the Post revealed, ‘policy’ in this instance being a synonym for ‘cuts’. ‘In the weeks following the attacks,’ which damaged the economy as well as everything else, ‘as the White House was putting together an economic recovery package, Cheney gathered his kitchen cabinet, frequently interrupting the experts as he furiously jotted notes on a stack of cards embossed with the vice-presidential seal. What kind of tax cuts are needed? Cheney wanted to know. How big?’

Cheney’s old friend Alan Greenspan, the excessively revered chairman of the Federal Reserve, wasn’t so keen on the cuts. Large budget deficits lead to higher interest rates in the long term, which in Greenspan’s opinion would more than cancel out any short-term economic benefits to be gained from slashing taxes. And as far as Greenspan knew, the vice-president would take his side; the two had been close ever since they worked together in the Ford administration. Cheney didn’t say anything to Greenspan, but took the study on which his friend’s reservations were based and got one of his aides, Cesar Conda, to pick holes in it. Conda doesn’t know what Cheney did with his report, though he noticed that ‘Greenspan’s study did not gain traction inside the White House.’ The vote to cut capital gains tax was passed in the Senate by 51 votes to 50. Cheney exercised his only formal power under the constitution to cast the tie-breaking vote.

The vice-president seems to be what you might call a micromanager – in other words, a control freak. He ‘enjoys the nitty-gritty of economics, poring over charts of obscure data such as freight-car loadings and quizzing experts on the subtle ways the government can influence the economy’. And not just the economy, but the environment too. A few months into the new administration in 2001, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, an official at the Department of the Interior, received a phone message: ‘This is Dick Cheney. I understand you are the person handling this Klamath situation. Please call me at – hmm, I guess I don’t know my own number. I’m over at the White House.’ She thought someone was winding her up: if only.

The ‘Klamath situation’ was a stand-off between farmers and environmentalists in drought-stricken Oregon. The Klamath River was exceptionally low, and there wasn’t enough water to go round: according to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the suckerfish and coho salmon had priority over the farmers. Cheney thought that was wrong. He considered invoking a clause in the act that in extreme circumstances allows economic hardship to trump environmental protection, but decided instead to contest the scientific evidence. Shortly afterwards, the National Academy of Sciences said in a preliminary report that the fish might not need so much water as was claimed, and the farmers got to irrigate their fields.

And then the dead fish – 77,000 of them – started washing up on the riverbanks. As well as the two endangered species, chinook salmon, ‘the staple of commercial fishing in Oregon and Northern California’, were dying. ‘Last summer, the federal government declared a “commercial fishery failure” on the West Coast . . . opening the way for Congress to approve more than $60 million in disaster aid to help fishermen recover their losses.’

Cheney also overturned a ban on snowmobiles in national parks, and did his best to get rid of a provision in the Clean Air Act that requires old power and oil refinery plants to install new pollution controls when they are updated in a way that increases emissions. In 2003, Christine Todd Whitman resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, citing personal reasons. She has now told Gellman and Becker, however, that she quit because she disagreed with Cheney over the easing of air pollution controls.

This revelation gets to the heart not only of what’s so impressive about the Post’s series, but also what’s wrong with it. Had Whitman spoken up about her real reason for resigning at the time, perhaps it might have made some small difference. Had these articles been published in 2003, they might – who knows – have contributed to a different result in the 2004 presidential election. But one of the reasons so many former aides and officials are now coming out of the woodwork to talk to the press is surely that they need to distance themselves as much as possible from the current incumbents if they are to have any hope of a job in a Republican administration after the end of next year.

Gellman and Becker’s series is bound to bring to mind the Washington Post’s most famous piece of investigative reporting. But Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped to bring down a president mid-term, whereas Gellman and Becker are kicking an administration that’s already down (which isn’t to say it doesn’t deserve it). There’s no question that their investigation into Cheney makes for fascinating reading but, sadly, it’s no Watergate.