Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

This is the first of two parts.

Part 2 Of This Story

When a president leaves office after eight years, journalists typically write retrospectives about his time in office. The vice president is barely mentioned, if at all. But President Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, is like no other in American history.

Before Cheney, discussion about the vice presidency focused on how to make the office stronger, more effective. Not any more.

"Vice President Cheney has been the most powerful vice president that we've ever had," said Joel Goldstein, author of The Modern American Vice Presidency.

In the first term, Cheney reshaped national security law, expanded the prerogatives of the executive branch and orchestrated secret, warrantless domestic surveillance, circumventing a court set up by Congress specifically to oversee such surveillance. He presented the president with options that led to a shutdown of negotiations with North Korea, and played a major role in persuading President Bush to go to war against Iraq.

On the domestic front, he screened potential Supreme Court nominees, presided over the budget, led the selection of personnel from Cabinet officers to key lower-level positions. Without the president's knowledge, he engineered the rewriting of the president's tax bill so it included a capital gains tax break that the president had initially rejected. With the president's knowledge, he led an industry-friendly revamping of energy and environmental regulations.

Assuming The Role Of Chief Operating Officer

From the beginning, Cheney had what former Vice President Dan Quayle called a different understanding with Bush. When the presidential election landed in the courts in 2000, Cheney did not wait for a high court decision. Working out of his house, he organized the transition. And once the team was installed in office, Cheney assumed the role of chief operating officer for a president who disdained details. Bush was the decider, but Cheney, by limiting options and sometimes suppressing information, often framed the decision.

Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman, author of Angler, an extraordinary book on the Cheney vice presidency, reports that Cheney was a sponge for details and a skilled bureaucratic infighter. And, at least in the first term, he drove policy on the issues he cared about. In the second term, with a more experienced and wary President Bush, Cheney's influence waned but hardly ceased.

On Capitol Hill, for the first time the vice president sat in on the Republican caucus meetings. Former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson tried to do that when he became vice president, but as former Vice President and Sen. Walter Mondale reports, Johnson was quickly rebuffed. Having the vice president attend, Mondale contends, undermines the notion of a separate and co-equal branch of government. It inhibits free discussion among senators and, he adds, "it's a tip-off to the executive branch about what the Senate's going to do."

Nothing better defines Cheney's influence than his domination of policy on the war on terror, setting up Guantanamo, getting waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized, and circumventing established laws on domestic surveillance.

"It all boiled down to two things, fundamentally," Gellman said. "It was: How do you spy on people who you think may be terrorists, and what can you do to them once you catch them?"

To do any of these things, he needed legal authority. So, he established a back channel to John Yoo, the No. 2 man in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Little known to the public, that office tells the president and his subordinates what they can and can't do under existing law. And with guidance from Cheney and his chief counsel, David Addington, Yoo wrote legal opinions that authorized everything from waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics previously considered torture, to domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency without first getting permission from the court set up to approve such surveillance.

Creating A New Doctrine

In establishing these programs, Cheney limited input from others who might disagree, including the top legal officers in the military, the top intelligence officials at the National Security Council and the State Department, and even the national security adviser herself, Condoleezza Rice.

"Cheney created a new doctrine in which the president was accountable to no one in his decisions as commander in chief," Gellman said. "What was new and innovative here, and quite radical, was the notion that the president's interpretation could not be challenged, that because the executive is a separate branch, courts and Congress could not tell the president, in any way, how to exercise his powers as commander in chief."

Indeed, so pervasive was Cheney's control that when lawyers from the National Security Agency, which was conducting the domestic surveillance, went to the Justice Department to look at the legal opinion authorizing the warrantless surveillance, Cheney's lawyer, Addington, showed up and angrily told them they had no right to see it.

Later, the secret domestic surveillance program would become the subject of a threatened massive resignation from the top ranks of the Justice Department. By then, there was a new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, who examined many of John Yoo's opinions and found them, in his words, deeply flawed. The torture authorization was finally revoked.

And the domestic surveillance authorization had big problems. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy Attorney General James Comey and others agreed that the president was exceeding his constitutional authority, and with Ashcroft critically ill in the hospital, Acting Attorney General Comey refused to reauthorize the program. That led to the now famous hospital scene with top White House officials pressuring a resistant Ashcroft to overrule Comey.

Keeping Bush In The Dark

In his book, Gellman describes how, before this face-off, Cheney kept President Bush in the dark for three months so that the president was unaware that his Justice Department believed the program was illegal. When Comey finally went to the White House after the hospital scene, both he and Bush were in for a rude shock.

"The president says to the acting attorney general, 'I just wish you weren't bringing this objection at the last minute,' " Gellman said.

Then Comey told the president it wasn't just he who was objecting, but the top ranks at Justice, and even the FBI director was about to resign. When Robert Mueller confirmed that in a meeting with the president, Bush reversed course.

"You had the FBI director, attorney general, the next five levels of officials — which is a couple of dozen people — in the Justice Department, the general counsel of the CIA and the FBI, were all going to resign, in principle because they believed this program was unlawful," Gellman said. "And George Bush didn't know it until an hour before it was going to happen."

Faced with a wholesale resignation that would have made the Watergate "Saturday Night Massacre" look like a picnic, the president relented, withdrew his authorization and told Comey to fix the program to make it legal. Had he not changed course, according to Gellman, some of Bush's top aides believe he very likely would have been impeached.

"I think from that moment, Bush understood more clearly than before that he had to take Cheney's advice at arm's length," Gellman said. "That was the beginning of a gradual loss of influence by the vice president over George Bush, because Bush realized Cheney could lead him off a cliff."

The Job Of The Vice President

Instead of promoting policies, Cheney now worked to prevent the undoing of policies already in place. He managed to stop the closure of Guantanamo, for instance, but the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners there have the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts.

Whereas in the first term Cheney managed to prevent negotiations with North Korea, in the second term, President Bush went ahead with them and negotiated at least a partial deal on nuclear weapons.

And this fall, when the president refused to give bunker-busting bombs to the Israelis for use against Iran's nuclear sites, the president's decision was made over Cheney's objection, according to a high-ranking former administration official.

In the last analysis, says former Vice President Dan Quayle, it is the president who decides how powerful the vice president is going to be.

"The job of the vice president is what the president wants it to be, pure and simple," Quayle said.

And by the end of the Bush presidency, Bush had come to trust his instincts more than his vice president's.

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