Monday, March 05, 2007

Dick Cheney under the microscope:
Libby trial has cast a rare shaft of light into the U.S. vice president's dark world

Dick Cheney has never been a great fan of open government. His staff refuses to reveal how many people work in his office, let alone what they do there. He went to court to keep the membership of his energy commission secret. You can find the White House and the Pentagon on Google Earth. But the vice president's official residence is pixelated out.

Which makes the trial of Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, all the more notable. The defence finally decided against calling Cheney to testify. But nevertheless the trial, which is now reaching its final stages, has cast a rare shaft of light on the vice president's dark world. His handwritten notes have been projected on giant screens. His bureaucratic fingerprints have been examined in the smallest detail.

It has always been clear that Cheney is an exceptionally powerful vice president. He has the largest vice presidential staff in history (an estimated 14 national security advisers compared with Al Gore's four, for example), and vassals in most branches of government. But the trial has given a sense of how that power operates on a day-to-day basis.

The two characteristics that have emerged most clearly are ruthlessness and obsessive attention to detail. Cheney was clearly determined to punish Joseph Wilson for casting doubt on some of the administration's claims about WMD. (Wilson wrote an article in The New York Times claiming that, during an official visit to Niger in 2002, he had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase nuclear material from the country.)

And from the moment he cut Wilson's article out of The New York Times and scrawled notes all over it, Cheney devoted a striking amount of energy to the administration's offensive against him.

According to Libby and a former PR aide, he dictated talking points for press officers to use. He discussed the case several times a day with Libby, told him to deal directly with selected reporters, and instructed him to leak a sensitive document. Libby's leaks are what landed him in trouble: he disclosed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent, which is potentially a crime, though he is being tried not for that but for giving misleading evidence when questioned.

Why was Cheney so obsessed with Wilson? Wilson was a retired ambassador who had been peddling the story of his trip to Niger around town for months. Cheney's office had difficulty in getting chosen reporters to tune into its arguments; indeed, but for Cheney worrying at it like a dog at a bone, Wilson's article would have been long forgotten.

One possible explanation is that Cheney knew that the administration's claims about WMD were false. But it seems unlikely. Cheney continued to argue that Saddam possessed WMD long after Bush had backed down. His problem was not that he was lying, but that he was so convinced that Saddam possessed WMD that he could not see evidence to the contrary.
The other, more probable, explanation is that Cheney was engaged in a personal vendetta, and that this was vicious inside-the-Beltway politics, not grand trickery.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about the trial is that it demonstrates just how much of a creature of Washington Cheney really is. He may present himself as a plain-spoken son of Wyoming who eventually went on to become the no-nonsense CEO of a global company. But in reality he is the quintessential Washingtonian.

He started his career as a failed academic, dropping out of Yale after a few terms and never completing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. But he flourished when he came to Washington: attracting the attention of Donald Rumsfeld, rapidly climbing the greasy pole, and becoming Gerald Ford's chief of staff at the age of 34. He had found his perfect milieu.
During his years as an insider he has acquired the typical habits of mind of veteran Washingtonians: an obsession with spin and gossip, including an over-inflated sense of the importance of newspaper articles; a hypersensitive nose for threats; and, it would appear, a determination to destroy his enemies by whatever means necessary.

He began his career in the White House by conspiring with Donald Rumsfeld to sideline the vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, and to rein in Henry Kissinger (who then combined the jobs of secretary of state and head of the National Security Council). If Libby's evidence is anything to go by, he has been conspiring and maneuvering ever since.

It was also during the Ford administration that Cheney seems to have acquired a profound distrust of the CIA. He became convinced that the CIA was underestimating the Soviet military buildup. He lent his support to something called "Team B," a group of foreign policy experts who made it their business to second-guess the CIA over the Soviet threat.
Cheney's distrust of the CIA grew even stronger in the 1990s, when he concluded that the agency had misjudged Saddam's military capabilities in the run-up to the first Gulf War. He relied on his own intelligence sources -- the latter-day equivalent of Team B -- and made repeated visits to the CIA headquarters in Langley to interrogate officers there on their intelligence.

Wilson was thus a ready-made target for Cheney: an Iraq war skeptic who had been sent to Niger by a notoriously soft agency and who tried to ventilate his views in the newspapers.
All this still leaves the biggest question unanswered. Where did Cheney get his fervor from? The average Washington insider is a consummate trimmer. Cheney comes across as a man firmly in the grip of an ideology. It will take more than the Scooter Libby trial to explain him fully. But at least Americans have learned a little bit more about the power behind King George's throne.

Taken from the Hamilton Spectator http://www.hamiltonspectator.com/