Remembering Why Americans Loathe Dick Cheney

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As the former vice president releases his memoir, it's useful to recall the many reasons why the vast majority of Americans disapproved of his tenure

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When Vice President Dick Cheney left office, his approval rating stood at a staggeringly low 13 percent. Few political figures in history have been so reviled. As his memoir, In My Time, hits bookstores today, and he does a series of friendly interviews in the press, some Americans with short memories might wonder, "Why is it that so few were willing to endorse his performance in office?"

This is a reminder.

THE WAR IN IRAQ

President Bush bears ultimate responsibility for the War in Iraq, as do the members of Congress who voted for it. But Dick Cheney's role in the run-up to war was uniquely irresponsible and mendacious. And after the invasion he contributed to the early dysfunction on the ground. Even Iraq War supporters should rue his involvement.

9-11 Ten Years LaterThe most succinct statement of his misdeeds comes from "The People Vs. Dick Cheney," a 2007 article by Wil S. Hylton. The piece recounts how Cheney undercut the CIA by instructing subordinates in that agency to stovepipe raw intelligence directly to his office. He also worked with Donald Rumsfeld to establish an alternative intelligence agency within the Pentagon. Both of these actions directly contributed to the faulty information that informed the decision to go to war.

Hylton then lays out his most powerful argument:

(1) During the several months preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and thereafter, the vice president became aware that no certain evidence existed of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a fact articulated in several official documents, including: (a) A report by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, concluding that "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has--or will--establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities." (b) A National Intelligence Estimate, compiled by the nation's intelligence agencies, admitting to "little specific information" about chemical weapons in Iraq. (c) A later section of the same NIE, admitting "low confidence" that Saddam Hussein "would engage in clandestine attacks against the U.S. Homeland," and equally "low confidence" that he would "share chemical or biological weapons with al-Qa'ida." (d) An addendum by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, asserting that Hussein's quest for yellowcake uranium in Africa was "highly dubious" and that his acquisition of certain machine parts, considered by some to be evidence of a nuclear program, were "not clearly linked to a nuclear end use." (e) A report by the United States Department of Energy, stating that the machinery in question was "poorly suited" for nuclear use.

(2) Despite these questions and uncertainties, and having full awareness of them, the vice president nevertheless proceeded to misrepresent the facts in his public statements, claiming that there was no doubt about the existence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and that a full-scale nuclear program was known to exist, including: (a) March 17, 2002: "We know they have biological and chemical weapons." (b) March 19, 2002: "We know they are pursuing nuclear weapons." (c) March 24, 2002: "He is actively pursuing nuclear weapons." (d) May 19, 2002: "We know he's got chemical and biological...we know he's working on nuclear." (e) August 26, 2002: "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons... Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." (f) March 16, 2003: "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

(3) At the same time, despite overwhelming skepticism within the government of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda--resulting in the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission that "no credible evidence" for such a link existed, and the CIA's determination that Hussein "did not have a relationship" with Al Qaeda--the vice president continued to insist that the relationship had been confirmed, including: (a) December 2, 2002: "His regime has had high-level contacts with Al Qaeda going back a decade and has provided training to Al Qaeda terrorists." (b) January 30, 2003: "His regime aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. He could decide secretly to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for use against us." (c) March 16, 2003: "We know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the Al Qaeda organization." (d) September 14, 2003: "We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s, that it involved training, for example, on biological weapons and chemical weapons." (e) October 10, 2003: "He also had an established relationship with Al Qaeda--providing training to Al Qaeda members in areas of poisons, gases, and conventional bombs." (f) January 9, 2004: "Al Qaeda and the Iraqi intelligence services...have worked together on a number of occasions." (g) January 22, 2004: "There's overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government" (h) June 18, 2004: "There clearly was a relationship. It's been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming."

The piece also charges that "as the war devolved into occupation, the vice president again sabotaged the democratic system, developing back channels into the Coalition Provisional Authority, a body not under his purview, to remove some of the most effective staff and replace them with his own loyal supplicants -- undercutting America's best effort at war in order to expand his own power."

TORTURE

In December 2008, Dick Cheney acknowledged what many had long suspected or known: that he was instrumental in initiating the Bush Administration interrogation tactic in which detainees were blindfolded, strapped to a board, and held down as water was pored into their cavities until their lungs began to fill up with it. The intent was to trick the detainees into believing that they would drown. Almost sounds like a mock execution, doesn't it? Christopher Hitchens gamely subjected himself to the procedure, knowing he could stop it at any time. His conclusion: "If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

ILLEGALLY SPYING ON INNOCENT AMERICANS

Barton Gellman, who wrote one of the definitive books on Cheney, gives the background in a Time magazine piece:

Cheney had devised, and Bush approved, an NSA operation to monitor the phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens without a warrant, part of which later became known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program. After more than two years of going along with "the vice president's special program," the Justice Department concluded that parts of it were illegal. Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey later told Congress, and authoritative sources confirmed privately last week, that Ashcroft decided on March 4, 2004 to stop certifying the surveillance as lawful unless the White House scaled it back.

Cheney admits he was behind the spying in his memoir. But Gellman makes a compelling case that he lies about a confrontation with an ailing John Ashcroft to make himself look better. In any case, it is beyond dispute that at Dick Cheney's urging, the federal government spied on millions of non-terrorist Americans without a warrant. And that Cheney wanted the program to continue even after it was declared illegal.


HALLIBURTON

After his initial stints in government under Republican Administrations, including time as George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney entered the private sector, where he used contacts he made during his time in government to enrich himself. All told, he would earn more than $44 million from Halliburton.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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