Series Investigates Cheney's Influence From the war in Iraq, to the economy, to environmental issues, Vice President Dick Cheney has played a pivotal role in forming U.S. policy. Barton Gellman, co-author of the Washington Post series, discusses Cheney's unique approach to the vice presidency.
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Series Investigates Cheney's Influence

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

As Vice President Dick Cheney has wielded the kind of power and influence, past holders of the office could only imagine. From the war in Iraq to the economy to environmental issues, Cheney has played a pivotal role in forming U.S. policy all the while remaining in the background, a place he prefers.

Last month, The Washington Post ran a four-part series investigating the office of the vice presidency as shaped by Dick Cheney. One of the authors of that report will join us shortly.

Later, it's our weekly dose of the Political Junkie. If you have questions about the attorney general's grilling yesterday, Monday's YouTube debates or the rest of the week's news, you can e-mail them now. The address is talk@npr.org.

But first, the Cheney vice presidency. If you have questions about the roles of a vice president and the relationship between that office and the Office of the President, give us a call. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Barton Gellman co-wrote the series for The Washington Post. And he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Good to have you with us, Barton.

Mr. BARTON GELLMAN (Investigative Reporter, The Washington Post; Co-author, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency"): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Now, you write it from the very start, Cheney made it clear that he intended to approach the job of vice president very differently from his predecessors. And - he had to have the cooperation of the president in order to do that, didn't he?

Mr. GELLMAN: I think he had not only the cooperation, he had an understanding with - the permission of the president to do what he did. He worked out terms of the job early on with President Bush or president-elect Bush in which he would be free to intercede, as he saw fit, around the federal government, that he would be welcome at every meeting the president was at, and that he would be welcome at any meeting the president wasn't at that he thought important. And so, he was given a very broad brief, not to execute policy, but to see what was going on and to advise the president.

NEARY: The way you put it is that he was at every table and every meeting. And, of course, that's unusual for a vice president. But what effect did that have that he was so present?

Mr. GELLMAN: Well, even if he doesn't say much and even if he's not issuing commands, people have a tendency to want to please the number two constitutional officer. He is, as one person said who went to a lot of Cabinet-level meetings that Cheney attended and Bush did not, that Cheney is the only person who - when he walked in the room, everybody else stood up.

NEARY: And that indicates that they were ready to pay attention to what he had to say, or would they be watching all of his, sort of, body movements to get an idea of what he was thinking because he is very circumspect?

Mr. GELLMAN: He's very circumspect and - the sort of blankness of his face invites people to fill in what they think he wants and so you have sometimes with almost comic effect to people anticipating what they think he's trying to get at and then doing it. But the bottom line is there is an intimidating quality to his silence that has been observed over the years. Stephen Hadley, who's now national security adviser, used to work for him as an assistant secretary of defense back in the first Bush administration.

And he told a friend coming out one day of a meeting with Cheney, he didn't know why exactly because Cheney hadn't said anything bad to him, but he always just felt intimidated when he was in there with Cheney. And I think that remains the case with many people today.

NEARY: Well, you say that his influence is widely presumed but hard to illustrate. Why is that? How did he work?

Mr. GELLMAN: Well, he, as you mentioned earlier on, he likes to work out of the spotlight. That's obvious about Dick Cheney right now. He often works through cutouts, meaning that he finds allies or makes allies around the government, and they do the job for him.

For example, something that wasn't done until we wrote about it in our series was Cheney's role in the 2003 tax cuts.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GELLMAN: President Bush had decided he was going to seek an abolition of the tax on dividends and various other tax cuts, but he did not accept Cheney's advice that he seek a deep cut in the tax on capital gains. Cheney then went to a meeting of Republican leaders in Congress and pitched the idea that they should add a cut in the tax on capital gains, the one that Bush had rejected. When they put it into the bill it wasn't cast as being Cheney's initiative. It was cast as being Representative Thomas'. But, in fact, Cheney had urged him to put it in there, and Cheney was the one who then took it back to the president and said, well, Congress has done this, boss, I think you ought to sign it.

NEARY: And this was something you found time and time again that he had influenced certain legislation, he had influenced many decisions that it was hard to really trace it back to him. But he hadn't left a handprint on it. Although, if you talk to enough people, you realized the degree to which he had influenced those actions.

Mr. GELLMAN: Right. It does seem like almost every time you look really hard at a big subject, you're going to find some tracks from Cheney there that had been hidden until now. That's not actually true, because there are whole big areas of public policy he doesn't care that much about, or that you know the president has strong views that he doesn't necessarily share. But on the big ones that he cares about, and those are financial security issues, economic issues, environmental issues. And this is crucial for government personnel, major appointments.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. GELLMAN: You'll see him all over the place.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, let's - you do have - although you say it's hard to illustrate his influence, a number of your stories do exactly that. So let's talk about some specific things. And I want to begin what you did on - and that's on 9/11. I thought it was really revealing in your story that - within hours of the attack, the vice president was already investigating the legal grounds for expanding the powers of the presidency.

Mr. GELLMAN: That's right. This is something he thought about most of his adult life, certainly since the fourth administration when he was the youngest ever White House chief of staff. He believed, as a general principle, that Congress have encroached too much on the authorities of the commander in chief when it came to matters of war and peace.

And he interprets those pretty broadly. He held those views consistently over the years whether Democrats or Republicans were in the White House. On 9/11, he saw both an occasion and an opportunity to revisit these questions, and he became the author or sort of the father of - and really edge-of-the-envelope interpretation of executive authority.

And what's fascinating about that day is that, at a time when he's just been dragged down to an underground bunker in the White House and has just watched the south tower of the World Trade Center collapse, and almost everyone else was focused on either the consequences, the casualties, the immediate emergency response, whether the ground aircraft - he's doing some of that, but he's already, that morning, looking ahead to what new powers, what new legal interpretations, and what new executive orders will be required to expand the president's power in order to fight this war.

NEARY: And his general counsel was heading home on foot, as I recall, already trying to get back to his family and he was called back to start - to begin advising the vice president on these matters. And that - and he became very crucial in all these as well.

Mr. GELLMAN: Well, that's right. David Addington had his office, as almost all the vice president staffers do, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just next door to the White House. There's a little alley that separates them.

On 9/11, they evacuated the Eisenhower Building. Addington, being a good staffer, tried to get into the West Wing of the White House to join his boss, and was turned away by Secret Service and told everyone has evacuated, go home.

So he started walking, and he was approaching the 14th Street Bridge that would have crossed over to Virginia when his cell phone, which hadn't been working until then, suddenly rings, and it's a White House person saying turn around, the vice president needs you, come on back. And this time, he is let in and there's a little passageway between the West Wing and the East Wing, and an unmarked door that leads down into what's known as a PEOC, Presidential Emergency Operations Center. It's a deep bunker built originally by FDR under the White House. And he goes down and joins his boss there and they're having a question by lunchtime, they're having a conversation how are we going to extend the president's powers?

NEARY: Yeah, by lunchtime on 9/11. That's pretty amazing. That led to what? Let's talk to what did that lead to immediately? What was the first result of those early, early discussions between Vice President Cheney and his general counsel?

Mr. GELLMAN: Well, there were several that we now know of and I frankly can't whether they aren't more that we don't know yet.

NEARY: Mm hmm.

Mr. GELLMAN: One of the biggest questions became - we're going to clearly retaliate. There's going to be a war in Afghanistan and that's obvious, because the Taliban has supported al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden, at the time, is in Afghanistan, and there's just no doubt in the minds of any of the president's advisors that the president will retaliate militarily in Afghanistan.

So you've got to start to pick up prisoners. And the question is then, what do you do with these people? They are people you might want to interrogate. Do they go into a judicial process? Are they military prisoners of war? What will we do with them? And one of the early things that happens is that Cheney decides - the thing he really wants to happen is that there will be these military commissions that prisoners will be brought down to Guantanamo, as it turns out that it will be entirely outside any judicial process.

NEARY: Guantanamo doesn't exist at this point, but this is setting the groundwork for what will become Guantanamo, you're saying?

Mr. GELLMAN: Well, they're already anticipating. They're looking around the world for…

NEARY: A place.

Mr. GELLMAN: …a place you can put people.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GELLMAN: That they will call them detainees, because calling them prisoners seems to confirm rights on them. They're looking for a place that will be not under U.S. sovereign law, but also not under the sovereign law of another allied country, which is a tall order. The State Department legal adviser said they were really looking for the legal equivalent of outer space. And they thought found it in Guantanamo, because the Cuban government, Fidel Castro, did not recognize the perpetual lease signed by the United States on a naval station there. And so you could argue it wasn't U.S. territory and you could argue it wasn't Cuban territory. And so, maybe no law applied.

NEARY: Yeah. But what's interesting about this is that this is happening - the effect or the influence that his general counsel had on the decision-making. The vice president's general counsel, as you describe it, was more powerful than the president's in some of these decisions.

Mr. GELLMAN: I'd say in all of them, he was more powerful. There's no doubt about it. David Addington had decades of experience as a national security lawyer in Washington. He's also - everyone who knows him says, among the quickest and most agile minds among all the lawyers they've ever met.

NEARY: Pardon, if you can just hold on to that. We're going to continue talking about Vice President Cheney when we return from a short break. My guest is Barton Gellman, he's an investigative reporter with The Washington Post. He co-wrote a four-part series on the vice president.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

There is still time to get your questions in for the Political Junkie. Ken Rudin will be here a little later to talk about the attorney general's troubles, the president's latest poll numbers, and the YouTube debate. E-mail talk@npr.org.

Right now, we're talking with Barton Gellman, a reporter with the Washington Post. He wrote the four-part series on the influence and power of Vice President Dick Cheney. If you have questions about the role of the vice president and the relationship between that office and the Office of the President, give us a call. The number's 800-989-TALK, send us an e-mail to talk@npr.org. And you can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

And, Barton, just before the break, we were starting to talk about the influence not only of the president, but of the influence that his general counsel had on some of these early decisions right after 9/11 regarding issues dealing with suspected terrorists and, you know, that led eventually to Guantanamo Bay. Maybe you can continue with what you were starting to say.

Mr. GELLMAN: David Addington was well-informed, experienced, acerbic, intimidating, very powerful intellect, quick reader. Gonzales - Alberto Gonzales then, the White House counsel, was not those things. And he divert very strongly to Addington, on all these enormous questions that were suddenly put in his lap. Gonzales had a relationship with the president from back in Texas. But Addington had this whole arsenal of knowledge, very strong views, and dominated the decision-making over what would be the government's legal steps in the war on terror.

NEARY: Now, one thing that I was struck by in your series, and it may be that you were focusing so much on the vice president that, this - I had this impression, but I didn't get the sense of what the president's input was into all of this. It almost felt like it was all being done by a small group of people and then, I wasn't sure what the president's role was. Did you get a sense of that?

Mr. GELLMAN: It depends on the subject we're talking about. On the executive authority, legal powers thing we're talking about now, George W. Bush clearly agreed with and sympathized with the views that Cheney brought to him, and clearly, he's a guy who likes the idea of a strong executive. But he had not spent decades thinking about it. He did not have a clear grasp of the interaction between the coordinate branches of the federal government on these issues. He did not know the history of the executive orders or the National Security Act in 1947 and so on. Cheney had all those things and sort of changed staff. And so, Cheney brought him a well-developed set of views that Bush liked and approved.

NEARY: All right, we're talking with Barton Gellman about the series he wrote for The Washington Post on Vice President Dick Cheney. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 989-8255. We're going to take a call now from David(ph) and David's calling from Chicago. Hi. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. I was wondering if you could address a thought I've had for a while. Is it possible that President Bush has never really been president, you know, but as rather been kind of a figurehead or a front man, as it were, while the vice president's actually been the person who's been creating policy all along? You know, there are times when I listen to President Bush at his press conferences and things, and he never really sounds to me like the person who's actually come up with those ideas, you know. He sounds like he's just repeating them somehow. I'm sort of wondering if you could address that. Thanks.

NEARY: All right, thanks for your call.

Mr. GELLMAN: Thanks, David. That is a question that has come up very often and, really, from before of the time that Bush took office when he chose Cheney as running mate. You had people advancing this figurehead theory. And I would respectfully disagree with it.

Bush is very much his own man. He is the decider as he says he is, on the things he wants to do. He's a guy who looks at the big picture and he leaves the implementation to others. Cheney is a guy who understands that God is in the details, and implementation brings with it an enormous number of important operational choices where many of the hard questions are resolved, and in some ways that's equally important for policy-making.

But there are places where Cheney wanted to do one thing and Bush said, no we're not going to do that. Bush has overruled him on a number of occasions. You don't tend to hear about it, because Cheney shuts up. But where Bush cares enough to make a decision and to say yes or no, he's the boss.

NEARY: But I had the impression also that people around Cheney would say, well, he doesn't win all of these fights, you know. You have to understand he doesn't win all these fights almost to deflect some of the criticism of the ones that he has - had so much importance on.

Mr. GELLMAN: Well, there's some of that. Cheney is determined and his staff is determined along with him, not to upstage the president and not to seem to be a power behind the throne. He does that out of loyalty to Bush and because that's genuinely the way he sees his role. He's seeing himself as carrying out the president's agenda. He does it in some ways that the president doesn't care to bother with, because he does at a level - he commands a level of detail and he understands the highways and byways of the government bureaucracy in ways that Bush doesn't care to.

But he does genuinely lose. For - on affirmative action, he wanted Bush to take a position in the Michigan case a few years ago. That would have asked the Supreme Court to abolish affirmative action. Bush did not want to do that. Cheney is not a big fan of the No Child Left Behind Act. He was not a big fan of the Medicare Drug Entitlement that Bush created, and there are other areas like this where Bush comes caring about something, and especially if it's something early on in the administration that reflected an issue that came up for him as governor, like education, like medical care. He was the decider. Cheney has brought him a whole set of other issues and when he has the president's backing, he pushes it through in a way that no one else in government can do.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Ben(ph). He's calling from Wayne County, North Carolina? Ben, hi.

BEN (Caller): How are you?

NEARY: I'm good, thanks. How are you?

BEN (Caller): Good. Mr. Gellman, I was trying to get an idea how the job of vice president evolve from the time of John Nance Garner, who says, if I'm not mistaken, that the vice president's position is no better than a warm bucket of spit, to the power that Cheney wields now in government apparently. And when the Constitution says that the vice president has very limited job of being a president of the Senate, how does he get all the rest of these positions legally?

Mr. GELLMAN: That's a fascinating question and, by the way, John Nance Garner is often quoted, as you quoted him. It's quite the way he said it. I tried to get permission to put the way he said it in our family newspaper and was not allowed to. So, I'm going to leave you look it up on the Internet. And John Adams, the very first vice president felt about the same way about office. And it's true that the Constitution gives you really two jobs as vice president. You preside over the Senate, which did not actually entitle you to speak on the Senate floor, but it does let you cast the tie-breaking vote. And you're an understudy, you're the first in the line of succession. How you get more power comes entirely, entirely, from delegation by the president.

Cheney and his people like to cast him solely as an advisor to the president. That's not quite right. The president has given him explicitly and implicitly operational powers. The powers to use it and delegate an authority to make certain decisions, sort of to make sure certain things happen.

So, for example, every other recent president, or under every other recent president, you have a federal budget cycle in which the Office Of Management and Budget, you know, has a long process at the end of which it says, you, Mr. Cabinet Secretary, you, Madam Cabinet Secretary, you get this much for your department. Sooner or later, some secretary of this or that, they're going to say that's just not enough. I'm taking this to the president. And they get to have an appeal. They say, Mr. President, I need a few more dollars.

In every other administration, it's the president who makes that decision. In this one, it stops at Cheney. It stops at a budget review board, which he chairs. And so, there are things that George Bush just doesn't want to do, like, hear a lot of whining from his cabinet secretaries on their money, that he puts Cheney on that. That gives Cheney a lot of power. There's…

NEARY: Yeah. How did the cabinet secretaries feel about the fact that the vice president is judging their budget?

Mr. GELLMAN: I think they - one way or another, they smile and salute, because I think they've all learned - most of them, without having tried it once - that you don't want to go to George Bush and say, I don't like the way this thing is operating and I don't want to listen to Dick Cheney. I need more money.

NEARY: All right, thanks for call, Ben. Let's take another call now. We're going to go to - let me just, having a little trouble with the phones here for a moment there. But we're going to go to Josiah(ph). And Josiah is calling from Connecticut. Hi, Josiah.

JOSIAH (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

JOSIAH: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. My question is about accountability. We - there are a lot of structures set-up for the president and the president's subordinates, the cabinet members to have accountability, reporting to Congress, there's a lot of media attention. And, of course, accountability goes hand in hand with availability of information. And between the secrecy that Cheney seems to prefer to operate under and the fact that it's the vice president's office, which doesn't have a lot of those built-in accountability structures, what are - how - what are the checks on Vice President Cheney's power?

NEARY: All right. Thanks for that question, Josiah.

Mr. GELLMAN: Another fascinating question. This country has not had to think very hard in the past about what are the checks and balances on a vice president, because we just haven't had vice presidents with this much influence.

But the caller is right. For example, the Freedom of Information Act, which entitles any citizen to request public records of the federal government, does not cover the vice president's office. If a committee of Congress asks for the vice president or one of his people to testify, they don't generally have an entitlement to command that testimony.

It's hard to - it's hard for journalists to take a close look at Cheney's office because it has been very secretive. Cheney has broken with tradition and - for example, not published the names or numbers of his staff. By numbers, I don't mean their phone numbers, I mean how many people work for him. If you ask that of his office, they won't answer. And so, it just becomes harder, I think, that good congressional oversight can probe on this, and good investigative reporting can do it. And he's been a hard target. And that's why the Washington Post decided to devote two reporters for a full year. And 19,000…

NEARY: A full year?

Mr. GELLMAN: Yeah. And 19,000 words in the paper.

NEARY: Did you…

Mr. GELLMAN: For which I would just add, you could still read it at washingtonpost.com/cheney.

NEARY: You didn't interview the vice president himself, though, did you, for this?

Mr. GELLMAN: Not for lack of trying. We spent a good chunk of that year, periodically in contact with his staff and urging them to grant us an interview. I was allowed to fly with him to Texas one day. And, you know, watch as he went through a succession of public events. But I was not the one invited forward into his cabin when he granted an interview that day. That was a guy working for the Washington Examiner, the free, small circulation, conservative paper in Washington.

NEARY: Barton Gellman is a reporter with the Washington Post. He co-wrote the four-part series called, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

If you have any questions for Barton, the number is 800-989-TALK.

I wanted to ask you also about the vice president's role in the torture debate, of course, you wouldn't call it that, but his office did play a role in shattering existing taboos on torture.

Mr. GELLMAN: I would say his office played a dominant role. Cheney had a very clear and simple framework for this. It was that, this is a new kind of war. It's something that he studied when he was secretary of defense under the rubric of what they call asymmetric warfare in which a relatively small and relatively less powerful adversary can inflict enormous damage because of the way world works today. That the only way to get at al-Qaida was going to be intelligence. And the only good intelligence was going to be human intelligence. And finally, that most of that was going to come from interrogating prisoners.

Now, you have a highly motivated al-Qaida operative, who's willing to die to kill Americans. And you want to ask him a bunch of questions, he's going to be resistant. And so Cheney was devoted early on to the idea - how are we going to break down the will to resist of some very willful people? And he believed it was going to take, what he likes to call in public, robust interrogation methods. And he believed that that was necessary and proper and well within the purview of the commander in chief. And whenever the rules or previous interpretations of those rules placed limits on that he was looking for ways around them.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can take one more call here. Let's go to Tyler(ph) who is calling from San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Tyler.

TYLER (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I know other journalists, like Bob Woodward, have found instances in which Vice President Cheney has come at odds with other cabinet members on personal bases and also ideological bases. I was wondering if you had come across anything like that in your yearlong investigation. And I'll take my comment off the air. Thanks.

NEARY: Thanks very much for the call, Tyler.

Mr. GELLMAN: Oh, sure, there were lots of them. Now, I will say that from the beginning, and increasingly as time went on, cabinet members and other important people in the administration had a pretty high threshold before they would want to cross Cheney because he definitely plays for keeps. It's not personal. It's not nasty or mean at a personal level, but it's very much just business. And if you try to impede what he wants to do, he will try to get around you. If he can't get around you, he'll roll over you. And he's about as good at that as anybody I've ever seen in 19 years at the Washington Post covering the federal government. He famously crossed swords with Colin Powell lots of times, and with Condi Rice. And the anecdote that we used to open the series, he simply goes around them without their ever knowing it.

He wants to have a military order that will create military commissions outside the legal framework that will try terrorists, or accused terrorists, and he wants it understood that under this military order, they'll have no right to appear in any court in any place in the world. There's an ongoing interagencies group that's trying to decide that question exactly, how are we going to handle these captives? Dick Cheney simply had his lawyer, Addington, write the order, he walks it into lunch with the president, which he has privately once a week. He talks it over with Bush, he comes out of the room, and that was it.

NEARY: And he gets his way.

Mr. GELLMAN: He's gets it done.

NEARY: He gets his way and he gets it done.

Mr. GELLMAN: Condi Rice and Colin Powell don't even know it.

NEARY: They see it on television as I recall.

Mr. GELLMAN: They did.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Barton Gellman is an investigative reporter with the Washington Post. He co-wrote the four-part series, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency."

Coming up, our weekly visit with the Political Junkie.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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