The Washington Post’s Cheney Series

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The Washington Post today begins a four-part series on the extraordinary and unprecedented role that Dick Cheney has played as Vice President. There is plenty of new information in the first installment by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker. One big revelation is the way in which Cheney engineered the presidential order that denied terrorism suspects access to courts, and then made sure that it was not subjected to review by anyone else:

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.

A second piece of new information is that the now-famous memo declaring the Geneva Conventions “quaint,” ostensibly authored by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, was in fact written by Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington:

Powell asked for a meeting with Bush. The same day, Jan. 25, 2002, Cheney’s office struck a preemptive blow. It appeared to come from Gonzales, a longtime Bush confidant whom the president nicknamed “Fredo.” Hours after Powell made his request, Gonzales signed his name to a memo that anticipated and undermined the State Department’s talking points. The true author has long been a subject of speculation, for reasons including its unorthodox format and a subtly mocking tone that is not a Gonzales hallmark.

A White House lawyer with direct knowledge said Cheney’s lawyer, Addington, wrote the memo. Flanigan passed it to Gonzales, and Gonzales sent it as “my judgment” to Bush [Read the memo]. If Bush consulted Cheney after that, the vice president became a sounding board for advice he originated himself.

The story also contains accounts of enormous behind-the-scenes battles in the White House, including an episode in which then-Attorney General John Ashcroft is enraged to discover that his own subordinate, John Yoo, is working with Cheney to prevent the Justice Department and the courts from having any say in the tribunal process.

But it is also striking to see how the post-9/11 Cheney mode of operation contradicts what the pre-9/11 Cheney had advocated:

When James A. Baker III was tapped to be White House chief of staff in 1980, he interviewed most of his living predecessors. Advice from Cheney filled four pages of a yellow legal pad. Only once, to signify Cheney’s greatest emphasis, did Baker write in all capital letters:

BE AN HONEST BROKER

DON’T USE THE PROCESS TO IMPOSE YOUR POLICY VIEWS ON PRES.

Cheney told Baker, according to the notes, that an “orderly paper flow is way you protect the Pres.,” ensuring that any proposal has been tested against other views. Cheney added:

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to get an ‘oh by the way decision’ — & all have to understand that. Can hurt the Pres. Bring it up at a Cab. mtg. Make sure everyone understands this.”

As the Post demonstrates, Cheney himself would turn out to be the ultimate practitioner of “oh, by the way” decision-making.

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