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Cheney's Unmistakable Admission

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 1:50 PM

He as good as admitted it.

In an interview yesterday, CNN's Larry King asked Vice President Cheney if he dispatched Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card to a Washington hospital room to pressure a sedated John Ashcroft, then attorney general, to approve surveillance techniques that Ashcroft's subordinates had concluded were illegal.

Cheney's response?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't recall -- . . . I don't recall that I gave instructions to that effect.

"Q That would be something you would recall.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I would think so. But certainly I was involved because I was a big advocate of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, and had been responsible and working . . . to get it to the President for approval. By the time this occurred, it had already been approved about 12 times by the Department of Justice. There was nothing new about it.

"Q So you didn't send them to get permission.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't recall that I was the one who sent them to the hospital."

Have you ever heard such a non-denial denial? Seriously: Can anyone reading this see it as anything but an admission that Gonzales and Card (then White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively) were following Cheney's orders?

He doesn't remember sending them to the hospital. Well, what does he remember? Sadly, King moved on.

And it worked. Many mainstream media reporters just don't know what to do with this sort of flimflam. There's no mention of Cheney's de facto admission of involvement in this particularly sordid saga in any of the major papers this morning.

Wolf Blitzer and King came pretty close to calling baloney while discussing that segment of the interview yesterday afternoon on CNN.

"You know, Larry, those words 'I don't recall,' that's going to, I think, you know, subject him to some criticism, because, as you correctly point out, a major decision like that, someone would recall," Blitzer said.

"I was surprised at the answer," King replied, "because he hinted at being involved and certainly being for the concept. I don't know why he didn't just say --" and here King caught himself about to state the obvious, and stopped dead in his tracks.

"However, I'm not going to put words into his mouth," King continued. "That was his answer, 'I don't recall.' I think the one thing of the beauty of our job is, the audience then looks at this, takes it any way they wish."

Blitzer: "And they can make up their own minds."

King: "That's right."

Who Sent Them?

In his dramatic May 15 congressional testimony, former deputy attorney general James Comey told senators that in March 2004, he and other top Justice Department officials had come to the conclusion that certain elements of a government surveillance program were not legal. Or, as he put it: "We had concerns as to our ability to certify its legality, which was our obligation for the program to be renewed."

At the time, Comey was serving as acting attorney general because Ashcroft had been hospitalized with a severe case of pancreatitis. The deadline for to be renewed was March 11. On the evening of March 10, Ashcroft's wife called Comey to say that the White House had just called to tell her that Gonzales and Card were on their way to the hospital. Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller raced there in time to witness what Comey later described as "an effort to take advantage of a very sick man."

Ashcroft backed Comey up and the White House eventually changed the program enough so that Comey was able to give it his approval.

But the question remained: Who exactly sent Gonzales and Card on this shameless mission?

When Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, he repeatedly refused to answer that question, which was posed to him quite relentlessly by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. An excerpt ( Talking Points Memo has the video):

"SEN. SCHUMER: Who sent you to the hospital?

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: Senator, what I can say is we'd had a very important meeting at the White House over one of the most --

"SEN. SCHUMER: I didn't ask that. I didn't ask for -- would you discuss the meeting --

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: I'm answering your question, Senator --

"SEN. SCHUMER: Who sent you?


"SEN. SCHUMER: Did anyone tell you to go?

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: It was one of the most important programs for the United States. It was important -- it had been authorized by the president. I'll just say that the chief of staff of the president of the United States and the counsel of the president of the United States went to the hospital on behalf of the president of the United States.

"SEN. SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: We were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

"SEN. SCHUMER: I didn't ask you that.

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: I can't --

"SEN. SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: Senator, we were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

"SEN. SCHUMER: Why can't you answer that question?

"ATTY. GEN. GONZALES: That's the answer that I can give you, Senator."

What sparked King's question yesterday was a recent New York Times editorial calling for Gonzales's impeachment that offhandedly asserted that it was Cheney who sent the two aides to the hospital. The editorial writers didn't explain how they knew that.

Blogger Marty Lederman writes: "What's interesting is that Cheney pretended to wrack his brain to recall whether he gave the fateful 'instructions.' As if that might actually have happened -- as if there would be nothing out of the ordinary if the Vice President had 'instructed' the President's two closest advisors to try to squeeze a cabinet official.

"Any other Vice President in the history of the Republic would have responded in a way that revealed how absurd the question was (i.e., how absurd it should be), to wit: 'I don't give instructions to those persons. They work for the President, not for me. Indeed, when they do act, they act as agents of the President. I can make recommendations, of course. But that's really beside the point, because ultimately it's the President's call whether to send his two closest advisers to bring pressure to bear on a cabinet official.'"

No Introspection

Here's video of the interview, which starts off with Cheney's astonishing assertion that he never doubts himself.

King asks: "Do you ever, as an intelligent person, look in the mirror and say, maybe I'm wrong?"

Cheney responds: "No."

Is he upset that he's held in such low esteem by the public? "If I were in business to be popular, I suppose I'd be worried about my poll ratings and so forth. I'm not."

Which branch of government is he in? "The fact is, the Vice President is sort of a weird duck in the sense that you do have some duties that are executive and some are legislative."

"Q Don't you think this administration has also had its credibility problems?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, every administration does, to some extent, Larry. But I think in the end, it will depend upon the results and what ultimately happens. I think history will judge us well, if we're successful in achieving the objectives we've set."

Cheney's response to Walter Mondale's accusation that Cheney has a "near total aversion to the notion of accountability"? Says Cheney: "Fact is, my job has been to serve the President . . . I've never had a separate agenda. I don't operate -- I don't freelance. In terms of accountability, I'm accountable to him."

The Coverage

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Cheney took aim at critics of Bush's handling of the Iraq war and the war on terrorism, telling King that time will prove them wrong.

"'I think when the history is written that, in fact, it will reflect credit upon this president and his administration,' he said."

Why the sudden PR blitz?

Douglas writes: "Cheney's office described this week's interviews as part of a regular White House effort to highlight Bush's Iraq war strategy, noting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also have been doing interviews.

"But Cheney' sessions struck some independent experts as unusual because he typically reserves lengthy interviews for conservative talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and other media outlets that his office considers friendly."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Cheney also came to the defense of a former aide, Eric S. Edelman, now an undersecretary of defense. Edelman recently stirred controversy when he responded to a request from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for a briefing on withdrawal plans from Iraq by accusing her of reinforcing 'enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies' by discussing a timetable for withdrawal.

"Cheney said he thought Edelman wrote 'a good letter' and added that 'we don't get into the business of sharing operational plans -- we never have -- with the Congress.'

"A spokesman for Clinton noted that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took a more 'conciliatory tone' after the Edelman letter and reaffirmed Congress's role in overseeing the administration. 'It seems the right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing,' said Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines."

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday a pivotal September report on the war in Iraq is likely to show 'significant progress' -- putting himself ahead of President Bush, who has refused to speculate on what the report will say."

AFP reports: "US Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday that the US troop 'surge' in Iraq had improved security there, and defended the decision by lawmakers in Baghdad to take a one-month August vacation.

"'It's better than taking two months off, which was their original plan,' he told CNN's Larry King amid deep US worries about the pace of Iraqi reconciliation efforts."

Asked about the future in Iraq, Cheney expressed confidence.

"I think we're seeing already -- from others; don't take it from me, look at the piece that appeared yesterday in The New York Times -- not exactly a friendly publication -- but a piece by [Michael] O'Hanlon and [Kenneth] Pollack on the situation in Iraq. They're just back from visiting over there. They both have been strong critics of the war, both worked in the prior administration; but now saying that they think there's a possibility, indeed, that we could be successful. So we'll know a lot more in September, when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker come back and report to the Congress and the President on the situation in Iraq and whether or not we're making progress."

On Message

Jim VandeHei writes for Politico that "many . . . Republicans privately fear the war is lost -- both politically and on the ground."

And yet "Bush is in no mood to yield." Ergo: The new PR blitz.

"The clearest sign of Bush's September plan is that the White House has launched a new preemptive campaign to convince lawmakers the surge plan is working." VandeHei writes.

"This started with Bush pulling in GOP lawmakers and then leading conservative columnists last month to argue the war is going better than perceived -- and to spread the word he has no plans to retreat."

A key ingredient: that O'Hanlon and Pollack piece Cheney mentioned. "The White House blasted the op-ed to its allies within minutes of its publication," VandeHei writes.

It's worth noting, however, that despite Cheney's description of them as "strong critics of the war," O'Hanlon and Pollack have been "not only advocates of the war, but cheerleaders for the surge," as Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald documents.

Fact Check

CNN's Anderson Cooper talked to Iraq correspondent Michael Ware after the Cheney interview. Said Ware: "Well, Anderson, there is progress. And that's indisputable. Sectarian violence is down in certain pockets. There are areas of great instability in this country. They're at last finding some stability.

"The point, though, is, at what price? What we're seeing is -- is, to a degree, some sleight of hand. What America needs to come clean about is that it's achieving these successes by cutting deals primarily with its enemies. We have all heard the administration praise the work of the tribal sheiks in turning against al Qaeda. Well, this is just a euphemism for the Sunni insurgency. That's who has turned against al Qaeda.

"And why? Because they offered America terms in 2003 to do this. And it's taken America four years of war to come round to the Sunnis' terms. And, principally, that means cutting the Iraqi government out of the loop. By achieving these successes, America is building Sunni militias.

"Yes, they're targeting al Qaeda, but these are also anti-government forces opposed to the very government that America created. And another thing to remember, Anderson, yes, sectarian violence is down, but let's have a look at that. More than two million people have fled this country. Fifty thousand are still fleeing every month, according to the United Nations. So, there's less people to be killed.

"And those who stay increasingly are in ethnically cleansed neighborhoods. They have been segregated."

And speaking of fact-checking, Mark Seibel and Leila Fadel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Despite President Bush's recent insistence that al Qaida in Iraq is the principal cause of this country's violence, senior American military officers here say Shiite Muslim militias are a bigger problem, and one that will persist even if al Qaida is defeated.

"'The longer-term threat to Iraq is potentially the Shiite militias,' one senior military officer said, echoing concerns that other American officials raised in recent interviews with McClatchy Newspapers.

"Military officers hail the fact that violence is down as evidence that their campaign against al Qaida in Iraq is succeeding. But there's no sign of reconciliation between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, the rationale the Bush administration cites for increasing the number of U.S. troops in the country. . . .

"Few officials on the front lines, moreover, think that defeating the terrorist organization would end Iraq's troubles. They paint a far more complex vision of the violence than is evident in Washington-based pronouncements about al Qaida's involvement."

Cheney on Iran

More from Larry King:

"Q Would you make an overt move on Iran?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: For what reason?

"Q For reasons of information you have that we don't.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I'm not going to speculate about prospective operations.

"Q How worried are you?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm concerned about Iran. I think everybody is, and should be. We see a state that periodically announces their objective of the destruction of Israel, for example. Mr. Ahmadinejad, Prime Minister, periodically makes very threatening statements. They are actively pursuing the development of the capacity to enrich uranium to produce nuclear weapons. We've been working diplomatically with our friends in Europe and the EU to get them to give up those aspirations. So far they haven't responded. A great many people are concerned about Iran."

Cheney on Torture

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: We support the ability of certain agencies of the federal government to have the capacity to use enhanced techniques for interrogation. We have authorization that we got from the Congress, to in fact do that. And they do it under very careful safeguards and very stringent safeguards. We're careful not to torture. We're not in the business of torturing people. That would not be --

"Q What does 'enhanced' mean?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: We don't discuss specific techniques because the last thing you want to do is tell your potential adversary what your techniques are, because that would allow them to train and practice to resist them."

Secret Spying Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's chief intelligence official said yesterday that President Bush authorized a series of secret surveillance activities under a single executive order in late 2001. The disclosure makes clear that a controversial National Security Agency program was part of a much broader operation than the president previously described.

"The disclosure by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, appears to be the first time that the administration has publicly acknowledged that Bush's order included undisclosed activities beyond the warrantless surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that Bush confirmed in December 2005. . . .

"McConnell's letter was aimed at defending Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales from allegations by Democrats that he may have committed perjury by telling Congress that no legal objections were raised about the TSP. Gonzales said a legal fight in early 2004 was focused on 'other intelligence activities' than those confirmed by Bush, but he never connected those to Bush's executive order. . . .

"News reports over the past 20 months have detailed a range of activities linked to the program, including the use of data mining to identify surveillance targets and the participation of telecommunication companies in turning over millions of phone records. The administration has not publicly confirmed such reports."

So was Gonzales lying?

Eggen writes: "On the one hand, the NSA was clearly engaged in activities that were distinct enough to require different 'legal bases' authorizing their use, according to McConnell's account. . . .

"On the other hand, the activities were authorized under a single presidential order and were all part of an NSA effort to gather communications about suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. That helps explain why many Democratic lawmakers and administration officials -- including FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III -- viewed the wiretapping as part of a larger NSA program, rather than a separate effort, as Gonzales's testimony has suggested."

And it wasn't just Mueller, either. As blogger Duncan Black points out, even Cheney himself makes an excellent witness for the prosecution, lumping all the various operations under the TSP rubric. Remember Cheney's response when asked about the hospital visit -- a visit that Gonzales insisted was about "other intelligence activities" and not the TSP? Cheney said "certainly I was involved because I was a big advocate of the Terrorist Surveillance Program."

FISA Watch

Despite everything, some Democrats still live in terror of being called soft on terror by the Bush administration.

James Risen writes in the New York Times: "Under pressure from President Bush, Democratic leaders in Congress are scrambling to pass legislation this week to expand the government's electronic wiretapping powers.

"Democratic leaders have expressed a new willingness to work with the White House to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make it easier for the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on some purely foreign telephone calls and e-mail. Such a step now requires court approval. . . .

"Democrats appear to be worried that if they block such legislation, the White House will depict them as being weak on terrorism. . . .

"One obstacle to a deal this week is a disagreement between Democrats and the White House over how to audit the wiretapping of the foreign-to-foreign calls going through switches in the United States.

"The Democrats have proposed that the eavesdropping be reviewed by the secret FISA court to make sure that it has not ensnared any Americans.

"The administration has proposed that the attorney general perform the review."

Health Watch

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "The Children's Health Insurance Program has suddenly become a vehicle for an ideological struggle between President Bush and Congress over the future of the health care system. . . .

"Democrats said Tuesday that they were determined to expand the popular children's insurance program, by pushing separate bills through the House and Senate this week.

"Mr. Bush and some Republicans in Congress said they saw these efforts as a stalking-horse for government-run health care, national health insurance and socialized medicine. Democrats disavowed those goals, but Mr. Bush said he would veto either bill to expand the program, which is set to expire in two months."

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Does president Bush really believe what he's saying about the effort from congressional Democrats and some leading Senate Republicans to provide health coverage for millions of uninsured children? He's portraying it as the first step on a slippery slope toward 'government-run healthcare,' as if senior senators in both parties were conspiring with Michael Moore to import Cuban doctors to inoculate and indoctrinate American children.

"In fact, Congress is moving responsibly to remove a blot on the nation: the 8 million children without health insurance."

Brown Redux

Jonathan Freedland writes in the Guardian: "He should go to Washington more often. [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown may have been dreading his encounter with George Bush, knowing that every appearance Tony Blair made alongside the American president cost him votes by the crateload, but Monday's joint press conference at Camp David actually did Brown a favour. There was Bush, alternating between two of his least appealing personas: either frat-boy, mocking Nick Robinson's baldness, or cowboy, vowing his determination to track down the 'cold-blooded killers' who do 'evil'. By turns he was condescending, telling Brown he had 'proved his worthiness as a leader' during June's thwarted terror attacks, and rambling, eventually admitting that he was going on 'too long'. Next to Bush, Brown had only to read his script to look like a master communicator."

And Freedland insists that "a close reading of Brown's words at Camp David" indicates "a deeper, strategic rethink in what Brown pointedly does not call 'the war on terror'. . . .

"It's not quite Hugh Grant sticking it to Billy Bob Thornton in Love Actually, but this is about as far as a British prime minister could reasonably be expected to go in putting an American president at arms length."

Conspiracy Theory Watch

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board notes that "a recent presidential executive order expanding the Treasury Department's authority to target the assets of groups aiding the Iraqi insurgency had the blogosphere buzzing in mid-July.

"The order's potential reach includes U.S. citizens in this country, and anyone regarded as at risk of aiding or committing violent acts 'threatening the peace or stability of Iraq.' The sanctions might also be applied to anyone who undermines 'efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform' in Iraq, according to the order.

"Some antiwar Bush critics assume he's talking about them. After all, his rhetoric often equates criticism of his performance with aiding the terrorists. . . .

"[M]aybe it's no big deal," says the editorial. "This White House, though, hasn't done much to earn the benefit of the doubt at times when its antiterror tactics seem to erode civil liberties and privacy rights. . . .

"It's a rotten day for America when the conspiracy cranks don't sound so ridiculous."

Cheney's Letter

Cheney told CBS News's Mark Knoller on Monday that pretty much all he did during the two hours he spent as acting president two weekends ago, when Bush was undergoing a colonoscopy, was write a letter to his grandchildren.

The Weekly Standard publishes the text of the letter: "Dear Kate, Elizabeth, Grace, Philip, Richard and Sam, As I write this, our nation is engaged in a war with terrorists of global reach. My principal focus as Vice President has been to help protect the American people and our way of life. . . .

"May God bless and protect you.

"Richard B. Cheney, Acting President of the United States (Grandpa Cheney)"

Ana Marie Cox blogs for Time: "I mean, he's Cheney, so maybe he talks to them in this stilted but terrifying way all the time. But 'YOU WILL ALL DIE' as a subtext? I guess it worked in 2004."

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