A Law Unto Himself

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This, we now know, is how the U.S. came to endorse the torture of military and CIA detainees. It was done by stealth, with none of the customary legal and constitutional safeguards. It was done by vice-president Dick Cheney in what may by historians be regarded as an internal coup - against the country, and against the law:

Three days after the Ashcroft meeting, Cheney brought the order for military commissions to Bush. No one told Bellinger, Rice or Powell, who continued to think that Prosper's working group was at the helm.

After leaving Bush's private dining room, the vice president took no chances on a last-minute objection. He sent the order on a swift path to execution that left no sign of his role. After Addington and Flanigan, the text passed to Berenson, the associate White House counsel. Cheney's link to the document broke there: Berenson was not told of its provenance.

Berenson rushed the order to deputy staff secretary Stuart W. Bowen Jr., bearing instructions to prepare it for signature immediately - without advance distribution to the president's top advisers. Bowen objected, he told colleagues later, saying he had handled thousands of presidential documents without ever bypassing strict procedures of coordination and review. He relented, one White House official said, only after "rapid, urgent persuasion" that Bush was standing by to sign and that the order was too sensitive to delay.

And so the US effectively withdrew from the Geneva Conventions. Enemy combatants would never have been granted full POW Geneva status, but they would have been assured minimal Article 3 protection, which would have safeguarded them from the torture Cheney was clearly determined to conduct. As it happened, of course, the torture did not only occur at Gitmo, and it did not only occur to those detained in Afghanistan. It spread throughout the theater of war, in Iraq and beyond - in part because torture, once approved, always spreads, and in part because of the anonymous and unaccountable way in which it was initiated.

No vice-president has the right to do this, to change the basic morality of the United States, to undermine its laws, withdraw from its treaty obligations, and do so without even consulting other individuals within the executive branch, let alone the Congress.

And yet Cheney, in a vice-presidential power-grab unparalleled in U.S. history, didn't only do it; he did it in such a way as to deny his own accountability and responsibility.

Stealth 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. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped "Treated As: Top Secret/SCI." Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to "sensitive compartmented information," the most closely guarded category of government secrets. By adding the words "treated as," they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

The phrase "law unto himself" comes to mind.

(Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty.)