Bush's Cheney Problem

Dick Cheney has become a problem for George W. Bush. Don't be surprised if Cheney's influence suffers.

"We make no allegation that the vice president committed any criminal act," Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said at his October 28 press conference. Maybe not, but the American people have drawn their own conclusions.

Was Vice President Cheney aware of the actions that got his chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, indicted? The public believes he was, by 55 percent to 29 percent, in last weekend's Gallup poll for USA Today and CNN. The public's view of Cheney is 51 percent unfavorable and 42 percent favorable—the lowest rating for Cheney ever, and the first time a majority of Americans have expressed a negative view of the vice president.

That may not be a problem for Cheney. Nearly every vice president for the past 70 years has run for president. But Cheney has expressed no interest in running for president, so there is little talk about damage to his political future.

Nevertheless, Cheney has become a problem for President Bush. The Gallup poll shows that Bush took his biggest hit on the question of whether he can manage the government effectively. Fifty-six percent say no. Time for a shake-up in the White House. As it happens, the vice president is the only White House official who can't be fired; he was elected by the American people. And since Bush is a second-term president, he can't even threaten to drop Cheney from the re-election ticket.

What the president can do is move to diminish the vice president's influence and reduce his policy-making role. "The president doesn't want to make changes," a White House adviser told Time magazine, "but he's lost some of his confidence in the three people he listens to the most"—namely, Cheney, Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

Cheney is the administration official most clearly identified with making the case for the war in Iraq. Fitzgerald insisted that his grand jury investigation had nothing to do with Iraq. "Anyone who's concerned about the war and has feelings for or against shouldn't look to this criminal process for any answers or resolution of that," Fitzgerald said at his press conference.

One person who did look to the criminal process is former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whom Libby and Rove had attempted to discredit. The day after Fitzgerald announced Libby's indictment, Wilson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "They did it as part of a clear effort to cover up the lies and disinformation used to justify the invasion of Iraq. That is the ultimate crime." In last weekend's Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans endorsed the view that the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public" about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Most Americans feel misled about Iraq, and they view Libby's actions, and what they see as Cheney's complicity, as part of the effort to mislead them.

Why did high-level White House staffers see Wilson as a political threat to the president? You have to recall the political climate surrounding the campaign to discredit Wilson. It was

the summer of 2003. The major fighting in Iraq had ended only two months before. Cheney's August 2002 claim had been central to the administration's case for war. "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said.

In his January 2003 State of the Union speech two months before the invasion, Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Wilson wrote in his July 6, 2003, op-ed article that CIA officials had sent him to Africa to investigate that claim. His conclusion? "It was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."

A year later, a Senate Intelligence Committee report called Wilson's findings inconclusive. But at the time that Wilson went public in 2003, the president faced a growing insurgency in Iraq, the failure to find evidence of any weapons of mass destruction, and his own upcoming re-election campaign.

So White House officials adopted an approach that had proved effective in their political campaigning. They played hardball. They went after Wilson's background, his politics—and then, it seems, his wife. In the account written by Time reporter Matthew Cooper, Rove informed him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and was responsible for sending Wilson to Africa, although Cooper did not report that Rove used Valerie Plame's name. Columnist Robert Novak subsequently revealed the name.

The summer of 2003 was also a time of tension between the White House and the CIA. Cheney's office was particularly disdainful of the CIA for having been too skeptical of the Iraqi threat. Shortly after Wilson published his criticism, then-CIA Director George Tenet issued a statement that the CIA should have ensured that the claim about Saddam's seeking uranium in Africa was removed from Bush's speech. Prewar intelligence failures loomed as a major political controversy in the president's re-election campaign. Administration officials were worried that the CIA would blame the White House for those failures.

Who asked the Justice Department on July 30, 2003, to probe the leak of the identity of Wilson's wife? The CIA. The investigation was, in many respects, a turf battle between the CIA and the vice president's office.

It was a skirmish that Cheney appears to have lost.