Remembering Why Americans Loathe Dick Cheney

By Conor Friedersdorf

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.

Jane Mayer has an account of how the relationship began: 

Cheney was hired by Halliburton in 1995, not long after he went on a fly-fishing trip in New Brunswick, Canada, with several corporate moguls. After Cheney had said good night, the others began talking about Halliburton's need for a new C.E.O. Why not Dick? He had virtually no business experience, but he had valuable relationships with very powerful people. Lawrence Eagleburger, the Secretary of State in the first Bush Administration, became a Halliburton board member after Cheney joined the company. He told me that Cheney was the firm's "outside man," the person who could best help the company expand its business around the globe. Cheney was close to many world leaders, particularly in the Persian Gulf, a region central to Halliburton's oil-services business. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were so friendly with Prince Bandar, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., that the Prince had invited the Cheney family to his daughter's wedding. (Cheney did not attend.) "Dick was good at opening doors," Eagleburger said. "I don't mean that pejoratively. He had contacts from his former life, and he used them effectively."

After Cheney enriched himself by exploiting contacts with various corrupt Arab autocrats that he made while drawing a public salary, he returned to public life as vice-president. Halliburton donated to his campaign, and got numerous lucrative contracts during the Bush Administration's tenure, even as it was discovered to have overcharged the U.S. for prior services rendered.

There's also this:

The United States had concluded that Iraq, Libya, and Iran supported terrorism and had imposed strict sanctions on them. Yet during Cheney's tenure at Halliburton the company did business in all three countries. In the case of Iraq, Halliburton legally evaded U.S. sanctions by conducting its oil-service business through foreign subsidiaries that had once been owned by Dresser. With Iran and Libya, Halliburton used its own subsidiaries. The use of foreign subsidiaries may have helped the company to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

In some ways, the Libya and Iran transactions were consistent with Cheney's views. He had long opposed economic sanctions as a political tool, even against South Africa's apartheid regime. During the 2000 campaign, however, Cheney said he viewed Iraq differently. "I had a firm policy that we wouldn't do anything in Iraq, even arrangements that were supposedly legal," he told ABC News. But, under Cheney's watch, two foreign subsidiaries of Dresser sold millions of dollars' worth of oil services and parts to Saddam's regime. The transactions were not illegal, but they were politically suspect. The deals occurred under the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, at a time when Saddam Hussein chose which companies his government would work with. Corruption was rampant. It may be that it was simply Halliburton's expertise that attracted Saddam's regime, but a United Nations diplomat with the Oil-for-Food program has doubts. "Most American companies were blacklisted," he said. "It's rather surprising to find Halliburton doing business with Saddam. It would have been very much a senior-level decision, made by the regime at the top." Cheney has said that he personally directed the company to stop doing business with Saddam. Halliburton's presence in Iraq ended in February, 2000.

There is no better example of the problematic "revolving door" relationship between government and private enterprise than Dick Cheney and Halliburton. 

AHMED CHALABI

Once again, Hylton makes the case against Cheney most succinctly:

(1) During the months preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the vice president, acting personally and through his subordinates, granted special access to the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, relying on Chalabi for intelligence about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, despite an outstanding warrant for Chalabi's arrest on charges of bank fraud in the nation of Jordan, grave concerns from the CIA about Chalabi's credibility, and a 2002 British assessment that Chalabi was "a convicted fraudster."

(2) As the initial stage of the war concluded and Chalabi's claims proved false, the vice president nevertheless continued privately to champion Chalabi as a leader for the new Iraqi government, ignoring a litany of troubling accusations and events, including: (a) May 19, 2004: The Department of Defense discontinues monthly payments to Chalabi, pending charges of fraud. (b) May 20, 2004: U.S. troops, along with Iraqi forces, storm Chalabi's home, seizing documents and computers for a criminal probe. (c) June 2004: The New York Times reports that Chalabi has disclosed U.S. secrets to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

(3) When an employee of the Coalition Provisional Authority named Thomas Warrick voiced concerns about Chalabi to his superiors, the vice president intervened to demand that Warrick be fired, causing Warrick's unique contributions to the occupation--including a series of prescient written warnings about the rise of insurgency--to be lost, and the nation's ability to function at war compromised. (4) As late as November 2005, the vice president continued to offer public support and safe harbor to Chalabi, inviting him to visit the White House and providing personal welcome to a known criminal. In all of this, Richard B. Cheney has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as vice president and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

INSTRUMENTAL IN DETAINING INNOCENTS FOR YEARS ON END

In "A Different Understanding with the President," Barton Gellman relates how early post-9/11 decisions about detainees were made:

Just past the Oval Office, in the private dining room overlooking the South Lawn, Vice President Cheney joined President Bush at a round parquet table they shared once a week. Cheney brought a four-page text, written in strict secrecy by his lawyer. He carried it back out with him after lunch. In less than an hour, the document traversed a West Wing circuit that gave its words the power of command. It changed hands four times, according to witnesses, with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review. When it returned to the Oval Office, in a blue portfolio embossed with the presidential seal, Bush pulled a felt-tip pen from his pocket and signed without sitting down. Almost no one else had seen the text.

Cheney's proposal had become a military order from the commander in chief. Foreign terrorism suspects held by the United States were stripped of access to any court -- civilian or military, domestic or foreign. They could be confined indefinitely without charges and would be tried, if at all, in closed "military commissions." "What the hell just happened?" Secretary of State Colin L. Powell demanded, a witness said, when CNN announced the order that evening, Nov. 13, 2001. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, incensed, sent an aide to find out. Even witnesses to the Oval Office signing said they did not know the vice president had played any part.

We now know that the U.S. government held innocent people at Guantanamo Bay for years on end, either because no one bothered to confirm their innocence, or because even after confirming it the government was reluctant to release them. Cheney, by insisting that the government had the power to hold any person for any period of time without any way for them to challenge their innocence, is directly culpable for these injustices.

RADICAL VIEW OF EXECUTIVE POWER

Whole books have been written about Dick Cheney's decades long project to give to the presidency powers in excess of anything the founding generation intended. Charlie Savage, who authored one of those books, summed up the history in this interview:

Dick Cheney has been the driving force behind the Bush administration's systematic and highly successful project to expand presidential power, a push that was articulated on their first day in office, long before 9/11, and whose first battleground was the fight over whether Cheney would have to comply with open-government laws that mandated that he tell Congress and the public whom his energy task force had met with.

Cheney's files from his days as Gerald Ford's chief of staff in the post-Watergate/Vietnam moment show the origins of this agenda. Day upon day, the Ford White House was confronting the Church Committee's investigations of intelligence abuses and a Congress that was determined to re-impose checks and balances on the "imperial" presidency. This seemed outrageous from Cheney's vantage point and he spent the next three decades trying, without much success at first, to roll back the changes of the 1970s and to restore presidential power to the level it had briefly, aberrationally, reached before Nixon fell. During his decade in the House of Representatives, he continuously argued with his colleagues that they ought to be giving the president more flexibility, not less, especially in matters of national security and foreign affairs - not just during Iran-Contra, but throughout that decade.

As Secretary of Defense to the first President Bush, he urged George H.W. Bush to launch the Gulf War without going to Congress for permission, like Truman had done, though his advice was rejected.  But the second President Bush adopted Cheney's view that they ought to use their time in office to strengthen presidential power as an end to itself - to leave the office stronger than it had been when they inherited it - and that is what they set out to do. On a day-to-day level in the White House bureaucracy, Cheney's top aide David Addington has been the most important bureaucratic force driving this policy. 

I'll bet you didn't know Cheney urged that the first Gulf War be waged without Congressional permission.

UNPRINCIPLED EFFORTS TO MAXIMIZE PERSONAL POWER

To review one example among many (here's another), I give you over to Jack Balkin:

Vice President Dick Cheney and his consigliere David Addington have long been associated with the doctrine of the "Unitary Executive," the notion that all executive functions are vested in the President of the United States of American and hence that the President has the right to direct all executive officers, who, in turn are required to obey his orders. All except the Vice-President, apparently. The New York Times reports that Cheney now takes the position that he is not bound by an executive order requiring all entities within the executive branch to report on how they obtain and use classified information because he is not just another part of the executive branch.

Yes, the vice-president claimed, opportunistically and absurdly, that he should be treated as part of the legislative branch... when it was convenient. "It is by now obvious, if any further proof were necessary, that Cheney and Addington have never been particularly interested in defending constitutional principles," Balkin concluded. "They do not seek to preserve executive power. They seek to preserve their own power. They discarded the canard of the unitary executive as soon as it became inconvenient."

CONCLUSION

Dick Cheney was a self-aggrandizing criminal who used his knowledge as a Washington insider to subvert both informed public debate about matters of war and peace and to manipulate presidential decisionmaking, sometimes in ways that angered even George W. Bush.

After his early years of public service, he capitalized on connections he made while being paid by taxpayers to earn tens of millions of dollars presiding over Halliburton. While there, he did business with corrupt Arab autocrats, including some in countries that were enemies of the United States. Upon returning to government, he advanced a theory of the executive that is at odds with the intentions of the founders, successfully encouraged the federal government to illegally spy on innocent Americans, passed on to the public false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and became directly complicit in a regime of torture for which he should be in jail.

Thus his unpopularity circa 2008, when he left office.

Good riddance.

Image credit: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/remembering-why-americans-loathe-dick-cheney/244306/