The World Dick Cheney Built

The vice president had spent most of his career trying to lift the restraints on presidential authority. After 9/11, he did just that.

Dick Cheney peering over a globe
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

As soon as the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Dick Cheney began to take charge. At first, the role he assumed was related to the circumstances of that particular day: President Bush was not in Washington but in a classroom event in Florida, and then, for the remainder of the day, under protection at U.S. military bases in Louisiana and Nebraska. Cheney was the man on the spot. And almost immediately, a second factor came into play: Cheney not only happened to be present in Washington, but he also knew the drills and the protocols to prepare American leaders for an attack on the United States, having participated in the continuity-of-government exercises during the 1980s.

Inside the White House, the Secret Service rushed Cheney to the Emergency Operations Center, inside a bunker beneath the White House, where he assumed command. One of his first actions was to call Bush and tell him not to return to Washington. Over the next couple of hours, he concentrated on stopping further attacks by hijacked planes. In the confusion that prevailed that morning, it was reported for a time that another passenger plane was getting close to Washington, and Air Force officials wanted to know whether to shoot it down. Cheney told them to go ahead. Later on, both Bush and Cheney would claim that it was the president who made this decision, after Cheney referred it up to him, but close examinations of the evidence have established that Cheney made the shoot-down decision first, on his own, and then cleared it with Bush afterward.

Late that night, after Bush had returned to Washington and met with the National Security Council, Dick and Lynne Cheney flew to what official White House statements called an “undisclosed location.” Here again, Cheney was following the protocols of the continuity- of-government exercises: that the vice president should generally not be in the same place as the president, to avert the possibility of their both being killed in a single attack. It was a guiding principle that the nation should not be deprived of leadership during a crisis.

There was also a third factor at work to explain the powerful role Cheney exerted starting on September 11: He had vastly greater experience than Bush in the workings of the federal government—how policies were made and how they were blocked, how the paper flowed, how Congress could be used or circumvented. Cheney was not alone in having this degree of governmental experience; Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld did, too, but Rumsfeld had his hands full running the Pentagon, and Powell was similarly occupied at the State Department. Cheney had no large bureaucracy to manage, and so it was he who had the time, the energy, and, above all, the intense desire to spearhead the administration’s responses to September 11. And so it was Cheney, more than anyone else, who drove the way toward the post-9/11 world.

The Bush team’s first reaction to the attacks was one of stunned fury. That night, after the immediate threat of further attacks was eliminated, and just before Cheney departed for the “undisclosed location,” all the top officials (including Bush, Cheney, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Rumsfeld) gathered in the White House bunker for their first meeting to decide how to respond. CIA Director George Tenet, who was also there, wrote in his memoir that there was “more raw emotion in one place than I think I’ve ever experienced in my life: anger that this could have happened, shock that it had, overwhelming sorrow for the dead, a compelling sense of urgency that we had to respond and do so quickly.” Robert Gates, who later conversed privately with others on the Bush team, suggested that there was another, unarticulated emotion: guilt for not having stopped al-Qaeda. “I think there was a huge sense among senior members of the administration of having let the country down, of having allowed a devastating attack on America take place on their watch,” he said.

Everyone on the Bush team agreed on one intellectual proposition: that the event was of historic importance and America had entered a new era. But what exactly did a “new era” mean, and how should the United States respond?

This article was condensed and adapted from The Great Rift: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and the Broken Friendship That Defined an Era by James Mann.

For Powell, the fact that America had entered a new era was true simply by definition. The continental United States had not been successfully attacked by a foreign entity since the War of 1812. Now a terrorist organization had done that, and therefore it was a new era. And yet Powell did not believe that America should change its approach to the world in any fundamental ways, and so he did not try to sketch out any new strategy. Instead, his response was to propose new diplomatic initiatives. But to some of Powell’s colleagues, “new era” had a much broader meaning. Rice had been a Soviet specialist, and so, not surprisingly, after September 11 she thought back to the beginning of the Cold War. The fear of Soviet domination of Europe had prompted the Truman administration not only to develop new concepts (containment, deterrence) but also to establish a series of new government institutions (the NSC, the CIA) to deal with the Soviet threat. Rice was laying the intellectual groundwork for the Bush administration to build new governmental structures after September 11, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Then there was Cheney. To the vice president, the “new era” thinking after September 11 meant much more than it did to either Powell or Rice. Cheney cared not about creating new institutions, like Rice, but about increasing the overall power of the executive branch of government. He had spent much of his career trying to lift the restraints on presidential authority. For him, the “new era” after September 11 meant this: The restraints were off. The limits that had been placed on the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI, and the Justice Department should no longer apply; the Bush administration should go all out in its pursuit of its adversaries.

At a time when other nations were rushing to express strong support for the United States—“We are all Americans,” a headline in Le Monde had declared—Cheney cautioned that America’s alliances should not limit its freedom of action. As he recalled in his memoir, he told his colleagues it was important “that we not allow our mission to be determined by others. We had an obligation to do whatever it took to defend America, and we needed coalition partners who would sign on for that. The mission should define the coalition, not the other way around.”

This movement toward “coalitions of the willing” was a roundabout way of downgrading the centrality of alliances, and it reflected the strong views of Cheney and, equally, of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld said he got this idea from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former and future prime minister, who had told him that “building any permanent alliance … would restrict our flexibility in the future.”

A few days after September 11, Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he said that as part of its response to the attacks, the United States would have to disrupt terrorist networks and develop intelligence programs aimed at them. The U.S. would have to work “sort of the dark side, if you will,” he added.

We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussions, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objectives.

These words captured the essence of Cheney’s view of the world—his preoccupation with intelligence gathering, his love of secrecy, the latent extremism contained in the expression “any means at our disposal.” Cheney would complain years later that this statement had been misinterpreted to suggest something sinister, but the phraseology that gave rise to this idea (“dark side,” “in the shadows”) was entirely his own.

Over the following months, the Bush administration adopted a series of antiterrorist measures without precedent in American history or law. It conducted a pervasive new surveillance program; it established an offshore prison; it opened “black sites” in several countries to interrogate detainees; and, ultimately, by any common definition of the word, it tortured some of those detainees through what it called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Cheney was not merely a proponent but in most cases the driving force behind these new measures.

Senior administration officials approved these programs in response to events as they unfolded. The surveillance program came before all the others because, immediately after September 11, the Bush team was worried about further terrorist attacks and preoccupied with the task of preventing them. One particular fear was that there might still be al-Qaeda members or teams at large in the United States. U.S. officials had discovered, to their chagrin, that the al-Qaeda operatives who had carried out the attacks had not only slipped into the United States without detection but had also been communicating with al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. On September 11 itself, before Bush had even returned to Washington, Cheney summoned his general counsel, David Addington, the former CIA lawyer who had been for 15 years his closest aide, and asked him to begin thinking about what new authority the president would need to respond to the terrorist attacks. Addington began consulting with other government lawyers, especially White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, though Addington took charge, much as Cheney did.

Cheney also asked George Tenet, the CIA director, and Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, about new measures for gathering intelligence on individuals who might be planning further acts of terrorism. The intelligence officials came up with a far-reaching program that was approved by Bush on October 4, only three weeks after September 11. It was given the code name Stellar Wind, although later on, when the administration needed an anodyne name to explain the program to Congress and the public, it became better known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Until then, the NSA had generally been barred from carrying out surveillance inside the United States. It could spy on suspected foreign agents inside the country, but only by obtaining a warrant from a special court; without a warrant, it could conduct its activities only overseas. Stellar Wind gave the NSA legal authority to monitor communications in the United States if one party to the conversation was overseas and one of the participants was believed to have some connection to al-Qaeda. These loose standards opened the way for the agency to begin collecting massive amounts of data. Previously, the NSA had to identify particular individuals to target; with the new data, it could discover individuals it had not previously known and subject them to surveillance. The program operated like a drift net.

The Terrorist Surveillance Program would engender years of intense controversy. The order establishing the program required that it be reauthorized by Bush roughly every 45 days. At one point in early 2004, Justice Department lawyers, along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and Assistant Attorney General James Comey, objected to one part of the secret program and threatened to resign on the grounds that Bush had no constitutional authority to authorize such surveillance without congressional approval. The following year, The New York Times revealed the existence of the program, prompting Cheney to say that the newspaper should be prosecuted for publishing classified information.

Nevertheless, the program survived for years in one form or another, largely because of Cheney’s dogged support and personal involvement. Nervous intelligence officials insisted that the administration should at least tell a few congressional leaders what it was doing, and the administration agreed to conduct regular briefings at the White House for the leaders of the congressional intelligence committees. At least twelve such briefings were held—in Cheney’s office, with Cheney presiding, together with CIA and NSA officials. It was, to say the least, an unusual hands-on role for a vice president of the United States.

The new surveillance program was merely one part of a larger trend: Under the rationale that September 11 had “changed everything,” Cheney was seeking to reverse what he considered the harmful legacy of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. One of the congressional reforms of the 1970s had been the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the law that restricted NSA operations inside the United States. The new Terrorist Surveillance Program dramatically weakened that law, but Congress was not asked to approve that weakening.

By November, as the war in Afghanistan was reaching its peak, the Bush administration faced a new series of questions. U.S. forces had captured a number of prisoners, from al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The issue was what to do with them: Where should they be held, how should they be treated, should they be put on trial? Here again, Cheney proved to be the driving force, at one point obtaining Bush’s approval for a decision even before Powell and Rice (among others) had had a chance to weigh in.

Unlike the earlier controversy over surveillance, several government agencies and Cabinet officials were involved in the detention questions, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice (trials), the Defense Department (holding the prisoners), the State Department (dealing with the international community), and the NSC, which was supposed to coordinate all these bureaucracies. Still, the vice president, who had no direct constitutional or statutory responsibility for these issues, managed to exert his will.

In the earliest of these disputes, the administration had to decide on the legal process for handling the new detainees. Should al-Qaeda members be considered prisoners of war or international criminals? Should they stand trial in U.S. civilian courts, charged with the deaths and destruction of September 11? Should they instead be tried in some other kind of court? Powell had appointed one of his aides, Pierre Prosper, to oversee an interagency task force addressing this question. But Prosper’s group was working extremely slowly, and Cheney decided to bypass it. He assigned Addington to draft an order under which the detainees would have none of the rights or legal protections allowed in civilian courts or regular military courts. Instead, they could be held indefinitely without trial, with their fates to be decided by secret military commissions similar to those established in World War II to try Nazi saboteurs. Some officials, including John Bellinger, a lawyer for the NSC, tried to argue that this precedent no longer applied because it had been invalidated by a series of subsequent laws and treaties. But in bureaucratic warfare, Bellinger “was no match for David Addington,” Rice later recalled in her book No Higher Honor. Her own staff, she said, “was at times cut out of the process.”

On Saturday, November 10, Cheney presided over a small session inside the White House to refine Addington’s draft and put it in final form. There were no participants from the State Department or the NSC. Three days later, Cheney hand-carried Addington’s draft to a private lunch with the president, and Bush signed it. Rice hadn’t seen it beforehand, and Powell first heard about it from CNN. Rice told Bush that if this happened again, she might resign. Among the many unforeseen consequences of the new order was the creation of intense friction with Britain, America’s closest military ally. Eight of the detainees captured in Afghanistan were British citizens; the British government protested for years that these military commissions set up by the United States did not meet the standards of international law. Thus a pattern was set that would be repeated on other occasions: Cheney would initiate new antiterrorism programs, and Powell would find himself trying to defend them when they incurred the wrath and opposition of other countries.

The next question was where to put the hundreds of foreign fighters who had been captured. The military didn’t want to keep them in Afghanistan, where any facility in which they were held could become the focus of al-Qaeda attacks. The administration toyed with the idea of holding the detainees on Navy ships, but that didn’t seem like a long-term solution. There were various secure facilities in the United States, such as Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and military brigs, but these options were rejected, too, for a reason that extended beyond security: The administration’s overriding consideration, not always mentioned in public, was the need to get the detainees to talk, particularly about any plans for future attacks, and this was less easy to do if they were on American soil. As one Bush administration official, Douglas Feith, put it in his memoir, America’s spy satellites, which during the Cold War had been able to monitor Soviet troop deployments for signs of an impending attack, were of far less use against a small and nimble enemy like al-Qaeda. Instead, Feith wrote, “the most promising source of intelligence was the terrorists already captured.”

Bush himself said that he didn’t want the detainees to be given constitutional protections such as the right to remain silent. For that reason, the administration didn’t want to hold the detainees inside the United States, or even in an American territory such as Guam, where they would still enjoy enough constitutional protection to have access to American courts and file writs of habeas corpus. Finally, a solution emerged, and from a familiar source. “The Vice President was, as I remember it, the one who suggested that we find an ‘offshore’ facility,” Rice would recall. In such a place, the detainees would have no access to the courts or other constitutional protections. Cheney maintained later that it was the Defense Department that suggested the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay as the “offshore facility” that would work best. Guantánamo was remote, on the eastern end of the island of Cuba. It was entirely under the control of the U.S. military. And it enjoyed one other advantage over a facility in, say, Thailand or Egypt: “Its use would not further complicate diplomatic relations with a host nation, since our relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba were poor at best,” Rumsfeld would later explain in his memoir. In January 2002, the first prisoners began to arrive at Guantánamo. The Pentagon press office released photographs of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, some with their hands tied behind their backs, with barbed-wire and chain-link fences in the background.

There would be two more policy changes before the administration’s Cheney-led journey to “the dark side” was complete.

First, the establishment of Guantánamo was, by itself, insufficient. Run by the Pentagon, it served the purpose of housing hundreds of ordinary, unexceptional fighters. But the CIA required other special locations, even more remote, where it could interrogate the most important detainees—the al-Qaeda members known or suspected of having been involved in the September 11 attacks—who might provide information about al-Qaeda’s future plans.

Gonzales set forth one major problem with questioning these “high-value detainees” at Guantánamo. “Historically, our soldiers have long abided by the interrogation methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manuals,” he explained in his memoir. The field manuals set limits on what actions could be taken against the person being questioned. “The al-Qaeda training manual, however, taught their recruits how to defeat or resist the well-known U.S. interrogation techniques.”

With this in mind, the administration decided to turn over its most important captives to the CIA. Before September 11, the CIA had from time to time dealt with the interrogation of prisoners who refused to talk by employing a technique called “rendition”—transferring these prisoners to the intelligence services of countries friendly to the United States, such as Egypt and Jordan, which had the latitude to conduct tough or brutal interrogations with few, if any, limits. But after September 11, the CIA wanted to do the questioning itself. And so, over the following three years, it set up a series of black sites at secret locations around the world (in eastern Europe and in Thailand, for example), where CIA operatives could interrogate captives in ways that extended beyond the limits of the Army field manuals.

Through its decision on military commissions, the Bush administration had made sure that detainees could be held indefinitely without trial. By establishing Guantánamo and the black sites overseas, it had barred detainees from having any recourse in the U.S. court system. Through its decision on the Geneva Conventions, it had stripped the detainees of the protections to humane treatment under international law. By authorizing the CIA rather than the military to question the detainees, the Bush administration had enabled interrogations that would go beyond the limits of the Army field manuals. The Bush administration was now ready to address one last question: What could the CIA do to the detainees in order to get them to talk?

The question of torture had already begun to be explored in the press. In a prescient Washington Post article on October 21, 2001, Walter Pincus, one of the newspaper’s most experienced reporters, quoted FBI and Justice Department officials as saying that “traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans.” The FBI wasn’t contemplating torture on its own, but Pincus’s sources suggested that one idea was “extraditing the suspects to allied countries where security services sometimes … resort to torture.” A couple of weeks later, Newsweek published a column by Jonathan Alter that was headlined, simply, “Time to Think About Torture.”

For the Bush administration, this issue came to a head at the end of March 2002, when Pakistani forces and the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaeda’s third-ranked leader, in a nighttime raid. He was the most senior al-Qaeda operative the United States had ever caught, and the CIA had been searching for him for a long time.

After the capture of Zubaydah, the CIA asked the White House and Justice Department for guidance. At their request, the CIA developed a list of 10 specific techniques that went beyond what was allowable under the Army field manuals. These ranged from slapping the face to sleep deprivation; from putting the detainee in a box with what he is told is a stinging insect to waterboarding him (binding the detainee to a board and pouring water over him so that he feels as if he is drowning). The CIA asked the Justice Department for a written memo affirming that these techniques were legal; it did so because the CIA and some of its individual employees insisted on having legal justification before they began any interrogations. In the past, the United States had treated waterboarding as a war crime; after World War II, several Japanese soldiers were convicted of war crimes for waterboarding American prisoners of war.

It took the Justice Department several months to come up with a written memo authorizing these techniques, while the CIA held Zubaydah. The techniques were refined: The insect-in-a-box ploy was eliminated, but the CIA added a couple of other techniques, such as the use of nudity and the manipulation of diet. Finally, in the summer of 2002, the CIA got what it wanted. The Justice Department declared in writing that these so-called enhanced-interrogation techniques did not amount to torture, according to Gonzales’s memoir, which would have been prohibited under both international and U.S. law. It narrowly defined torture as anything that causes extreme, excruciating pain, such as pulling out the prisoner’s fingernails or applying electric shock to the genitals. Given that the CIA’s techniques fell short of this, they didn’t amount to torture, the Justice Department maintained.

That August, the CIA interrogated Zubaydah using the newly approved techniques. He broke down and began to give information that led to the capture of other al-Qaeda members. Cheney, in his book, makes the claim that the questioning of Zubaydah led directly to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s operations officer for the September 11 attacks. This may have been an instance of Cheney selectively tailoring facts to fit his argument, because the memoir of CIA Director George Tenet makes no such claim. Tenet describes Mohammed’s capture in detail but says that human intelligence, including a tipster, led to the capture. Mohammed was then subjected to waterboarding, just as were Zubaydah and a handful of others in the custody of the CIA.

What role did Cheney play in the CIA’s new interrogation techniques? On the one hand, he was not the single driving force for them, as he had been in devising the new rules for warrantless surveillance. Other players were involved, too: The techniques were devised by the CIA and shepherded through the White House by Tenet; the memos approving them were drafted by the Justice Department; and Bush himself was directly involved in giving the go-ahead.

Nevertheless, Cheney was among the principal participants and supporters in the decisions that led to the harsh treatment up to and including waterboarding. Through Addington, the vice president was kept abreast of what was happening, and he was involved in drafting the permissive new rules. Gonzales later wrote that the decisions on how far the CIA could go with a detainee were drafted in meetings in his own office that included John Yoo from the Justice Department; a CIA lawyer; Gonzales’s assistant; and Addington.

Of even greater importance, once the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation techniques had been approved and used, Cheney emerged as their principal defender. He never wavered. He repeatedly proclaimed the value of harsh interrogations before Congress; he was also outspoken in the years after Bush left office. When Senator John McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, sought to introduce legislation in 2005 requiring that all U.S. government officials conduct interrogations under the rules of the Army field manuals, it was Cheney who tried to dissuade him. In the final years of the Bush administration, when Rice, as secretary of state, led a successful effort to persuade Bush to scale back the CIA’s interrogation program, Cheney passionately resisted.

In public statements, the Bush administration always held to the formulation that what it was doing was enhanced interrogation, not torture. “We do not torture,” Bush and Cheney both said on a number of occasions. But among themselves, and in their jokes or offhand remarks, administration officials were not always so careful. Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense during the final two years of the administration, recalled one conversation in which he was being urged by other officials to speak out in public forcefully against a ban on cluster munitions.

“So, you want me to be the poster boy for cluster munitions?” Gates asked at one meeting.

“Yes,” Cheney replied with a smile, “just like I was with torture.”