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Did Cheney Go Too Far?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 14, 2006; 1:36 PM

By insinuating that the sizeable majority of American voters who oppose the war in Iraq are aiding and abetting the enemy, Vice President Cheney on Wednesday may have crossed the line that separates legitimate political discourse from hysteria.

Cheney's comments came in a highly unusual conference call with reporters, part of an extensively orchestrated and largely successful Republican effort to spin the obviously anti-Bush message of Ned Lamont's victory over presidential enabler Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary.

In making the case that Lieberman's defeat was actually an enormous boost for Republicans, the customarily furtive vice president let loose not with compelling argument, but unsupported invective.

Voters who supported Lamont's antiwar campaign in the Democratic primary were giving "the Al Qaeda types" exactly what they wanted, Cheney said. And as a result the Democratic Party, he asserted, now stands for a wholesale retreat in the broader campaign against terror.

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Democratic leaders on Friday accused Vice President Dick Cheney of playing politics with terrorism and contended that voters won't buy Republican arguments that the GOP is stronger on national security.

" 'They've run this play one too many times,' Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a conference call with reporters. 'The American people simply do not recognize any validity in what they're saying.' "

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "While some Democrats have opposed some steps in the war on terrorism, and more and more are calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, no major figures in the party have called for a wholesale retreat in the broader conflict touched off by the September 11, 2001 attacks."

Ken Herman points out in his blog for Cox News Service: "The White House's Wednesday attack on Democrats as weaklings in the war on terror came as administration officials knew of the pending British arrests of terror suspects who allegedly planned to down several planes. . . .

"The White House and the GOP, in a coordinated effort, had moved quickly on Wednesday to portray Democrats as weak on national defense. Cheney, in an extraordinary procedure, took questions from wire service reporters during a conference call as he was in Wyoming. Cheney rarely, if ever, takes questions from groups of reporters."

Evan Thomas writes in Newsweek: "White House aides insisted that Cheney was not trying to exploit the latest terror plot for political advantage."

Cheney had been briefed on the plot, but the aides "claimed that at the time he spoke, he was unaware that arrests were imminent. Even so, these officials were somewhat hard put to explain why the normally press-shy Cheney volunteered to talk to wire reporters and offer his analysis on the national-security implications of a Lamont victory."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "In a telephone call with journalists, Vice President Cheney came close to suggesting that there is a new political blog out there called 'al-Qaeda for Ned.' His words have not received nearly the attention they deserve."

Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy writes in a Hartford Courant op-ed: "Vice presidents are notorious for serving as an administration's chief attack dog, and time and again Dick Cheney has been unleashed to accuse anyone who is opposed to the Bush administration of aiding the terrorists. But this time he has gone too far.

"The comments he made on the result of the Connecticut Democratic primary -- that it might encourage 'the al-Qaida types' who want to 'break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task' -- are an attack not just on Democrats, but on democracy itself.

"What happened in Connecticut is in fact a model for democracies everywhere. The people of the state heard a vigorous debate between two competing visions of how to protect this country. Young citizens became deeply involved, and turnout was high. The primary reminded us of the miracle of our democracy, in which the nation is ruled by its people -- not by any entrenched set of leaders. There are few better messages we could send the world in these troubled times."

Arianna Huffington writes on her blog that "to hear Dick Cheney and company using illogical, over-the-top, fear-mongering rhetoric conflating Ned Lamont's victory with the war on terror is as deeply offensive as it is jaw-droppingly outrageous. . . .

"It would help if the MSM reacted to the GOP drivel by treating it with the contempt it deserves instead of dutifully reporting it as if it contained even an ounce of logic or sanity."

On the Editorial Pages

The Philadelphia Daily News writes: "For Cheney -- and other Republicans like GOP National Chairman Ken Mehlman -- to suggest that those Americans are encouraging terrorism is reprehensible. . . .

"To exploit a very real terror threat that could have led to major casualties, and to even indirectly implicate Americans who were exercising their democratic right by going to the polls and making a choice borders on the criminal, to say nothing of the insane.

"Has Cheney completely lost it?"

The Trenton Times writes: "Leave it to Vice President Dick Cheney to turn the results of a fair and honest election into some kind of sinister scenario. . . .

"Actually, comments such as the above are more of a sad reflection on the state of the Bush-Cheney administration, which just doesn't get it. Americans are fed up with the war in Iraq, from the false pretense for going to war to the tragically inept handling of the effort after the fall of Baghdad. Meantime, terrorist groups continue to prowl and plot, as evidenced by last week's arrest of 24 terror suspects in London, while this country spends enormous resources and sheds the blood of so many brave Americans in a war that has no end in sight."

The Minneapolis Star Tribune writes: "It's bizarre enough that a sitting vice president would decide to meddle in the politics of the opposition party and try to tell Democrats how to choose their own candidate for U.S. Senate. But it's downright outrageous that Cheney would yet again try to draw misleading parallels between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. Time and again White House officials have backed off that assertion when challenged frontally -- only to find some new way to insinuate it again a day or a week later."

The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle writes: "Six years into the Bush-Cheney era, no one should be surprised at the levels the vice president can reduce himself to in his unending efforts to smear his political foes. Yet, he continually comes up with new approaches. . . .

"The shameful smears of patriotic American voters by Mr. Cheney and White House apologists like Mr. Lieberman can't disguise how utterly they and their ilk have failed America. Their unspoken fear is that America is finally on to them."


One reaction to Cheney's comments was to simply write them off as irrelevant.

Senator Hillary Clinton told WNYC radio : "I don't take anything he says seriously anymore."

I'm not a Washington Post political reporter, but Jonathan Weisman is, and here's what he had to say in a Live Online discussion last week:

"Medford, Mass.: Exactly how is it that our sitting Vice President can get away with saying basically that people who exercised their constitutional right to vote for change (ie: Conn. primary) are helping terrorists? How is this not the headline of a story, instead of a footnote?

"Jonathan Weisman: The vice president also said the insurgency in Iraq is in its death throes, and that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators. I'm afraid to say his utterances are losing their news value."

But Still a Player

And yet there is every indication that Cheney remains a seriously heavy-hitter behind the scenes.

Here's just one recent example: Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times about the travails of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who apparently was forced to stake out a position on the Middle East sufficiently unlike her own "to satisfy conservatives in the government, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who were pushing for strong American support for Israel. . . .

"On her recent trips to the Middle East, Ms. Rice was accompanied by two men with very different outlooks on the conflict: Elliott Abrams, senior director at the National Security Council, and C. David Welch, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt who is assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

"Mr. Welch represents the traditional State Department view that the United States should serve as a neutral broker in the Middle East. Mr. Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to Mr. Cheney, has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel. During Ms. Rice's travels, he kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney's office."

Guess who won?

Operating in Secrecy

And consider that, even as the greater press corps dutifully reports what it is told, there is an awful lot going on at the White House -- much of it revolving around Cheney -- that stays secret. Unless of course Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker is on the story.

In his latest, Hersh writes that the White House "was closely involved in the planning of Israel's retaliatory attacks. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah's heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel's security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preƫmptive attack to destroy Iran's nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground."

Another Hersh tidbit: "[A] Pentagon consultant told me that intelligence about Hezbollah and Iran is being mishandled by the White House the same way intelligence had been when, in 2002 and early 2003, the Administration was making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 'The big complaint now in the intelligence community is that all of the important stuff is being sent directly to the top -- at the insistence of the White House -- and not being analyzed at all, or scarcely,' he said. 'It's an awful policy and violates all of the N.S.A.'s strictures, and if you complain about it you're out,' he said. 'Cheney had a strong hand in this.' "

Hersh's unauthorized version of how the White House consumes intelligence these days would seem to conflict with Evan Thomas 's authorized version. Thomas writes in Newsweek: "Have we learned anything since 9/11? President George W. Bush has apparently learned not to overreact. In the panicky days after the September 11 attacks, the president wanted to see any scrap of information, no matter how thinly sourced. As a result, raw and unfiltered intelligence gushed into the Oval Office. . . .

"Bush now 'trusts his team' to weed out such 'speculative' intelligence, said a senior Bush aide."

The two version sync up, of course, if you consider the possibility that all that unfiltered intelligence is going not to Bush's office, but to Cheney's.

Spin Watch

The job of Washington journalists should be to expose and challenge spin, not relate it admiringly. And yet the White House talking points on the foiled British terror plot have been repeated much more than refuted these past few days.

The marching orders were clear. The Chicago Tribune Web-published a National Republican Congressional Committee memo which stated: "In the days to come, you should move to question your opponent's commitment to the defeat of terror, and in turn, create a definitive contrast on the issue."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that "Republican disunity eased dramatically this week with the defeat on Tuesday of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut and the news on Thursday that Britain had foiled a potentially large-scale terrorist plot.

"The White House and Congressional Republicans used those events to unleash a one-two punch, first portraying the Democrats as vacillating when it came to national security, and then using the alleged terror plot to hammer home the continuing threat faced by the United States. . . .

"The entire effort was swiftly coordinated by the Republican National Committee and the White House, using the same political machinery that carried them to victory in 2004. It began in the days before the anticipated loss of Mr. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, to Ned Lamont, a vocal war critic whose victory Republicans used to paint Democrats as 'Defeatocrats.'

"That word originated in a White House memorandum by Mr. Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow, suggesting ways to frame the debate, that was shared with officials, including Ken Mehlman, the Republican chairman, and Karl Rove, the president's top strategist."

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "The uncovering by British authorities of the terror plot is expected to strengthen President Bush's hand in campaigning for Republican candidates this fall.

"GOP strategists say that the latest developments prove that Bush's vigilance in the war on terrorism is paying off and that he is, indeed, working with allies -- particularly Great Britain -- to foil plots by the 'evildoers.' "

Mike Allen dutifully related the post-Lieberman Republican spin in his blog on Wednesday, and in time for the weekend received an exclusive look at everything the White House did brilliantly regarding the terror plot. For instance: "The President told [Frances Fragos Townsend, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism] he wanted to ensure accountability with an elaborate record of the White House response and deliberations. Townsend kept that record in a bulging red folder on her desk and a single-spaced, minute-by-minute annotation of her Outlook calendar pages."

Other Ways of Looking At It

Eric Boehlert writes in the Nation: "The Beltway's simplistic, yet overheated, argument went like this: By voting out a pro-war, conservative Democrat, Connecticut voters (i.e., the 'elitist insurgents') would taint the party nationally by advertising Democrats as being soft on national security. That mindset, trumpeted by Time's Mike Allen, among others, represents an absolute refusal by MSM to divorce themselves from the notion that Republicans own the issue of national security and that Americans only trust conservatives to deal with foreign policy. That, despite the fact that a steady stream of polls indicate a majority of Americans are fed up with Bush's messianic worldview (a record-high 60 percent now disapprove of the war, according to CNN), and more Americans trust Democrats to do a better job protecting the peace as well as fighting the war on terror."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times about the debate over "whether five years of war declarations and war-making have helped to make the United States more secure. Or, even in the absence of a major attack on American soil since 9/11, has this strategy created greater danger by providing terror groups with exactly what they crave: the sense that they are a unified army of jihadists? And has the strategy radicalized large swaths of the Muslim world in ways that were not imaginable as recently as 2003?

"For the White House, the bomb plot last week was Exhibit A in defense of the war strategy: the plotters would go after Americans, war or no war in Iraq. But critics argue that merging the global war on terror and Iraq was creating new jihadists, from Indonesia to Walthamstow, the East London area where much of the plot was hatched."

Ivo Daalder writes on TPMCafe.com: "At the core of the administrations' war on terror are two strategies, neither of which appear to be particularly relevant in this particular case. . . .

"What appears to have cracked this case is not a war strategy or military offensive, but good intelligence, skilled detective work, and months of careful surveillance -- the kind of traditional law enforcement strategies and defensive measures that Bush and his administration have always shunned.

"This apparent success also undermines the second core element of the administration's war on terror -- the notion that effective counter-terrorism action requires ignoring established procedures and the rule of law."

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

William Greider writes in the Nation: "An evil symbiosis does exist between Muslim terrorists and American politicians, but it is not the one Republicans describe. The jihadists need George W. Bush to sustain their cause. His bloody crusade in the Middle East bolsters their accusation that America is out to destroy Islam. The president has unwittingly made himself the lead recruiter of willing young martyrs.

"More to the point, it is equally true that Bush desperately needs the terrorists. They are his last frail hope for political survival. They divert public attention, at least momentarily, from his disastrous war in Iraq and his shameful abuses of the Constitution. The 'news' of terror -- whether real or fantasized -- reduces American politics to its most primitive impulses, the realm of fear-and-smear where George Bush is at his best. . . .

"The White House men wear grave faces, but they cannot hide their delight."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "We now know that from the very beginning, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress saw the terrorist threat not as a problem to be solved, but as a political opportunity to be exploited. The story of the latest terror plot makes the administration's fecklessness and cynicism on terrorism clearer than ever. . . .

"All Mr. Bush and his party can do at this point is demonize their opposition. And my guess is that the public won't go for it, that Americans are fed up with leadership that has nothing to hope for but fear itself."

Fox News's Bill O'Reilly on Friday confronted former colleague Tony Snow with the Democratic charge that Bush is trying to frighten Americans.

Snow: "I'm not aware that the president's ever tried to frighten anybody. However, I believe that some of his opponents have tried to frighten the Americans into believing that we're weak, that we cannot win, that we do not have a plan, and that in general, everybody doesn't like us so we ought to walk away, so they will like us. . . .

"O'REILLY: You said that the president -- you weren't aware the president's trying to scare anybody. Yet yesterday, Dick Cheney said that the election of Ned Lamont to run for Senate, beating Lieberman, is a boon to Al Qaeda. Isn't that -- can you consider that scare tactics by the vice president?

"SNOW: Well, I'll let the vice president speak for himself. I speak for the president. Let me get back to my other point, which was that the president -- look, he gets up every day. He gets assessments of how scary the world really is. You want to get scared? Look at the stuff he looks at every morning."

Bill Schneider reports for CNN: "Typically, when Americans become fearful their support for the president tends to go up."

But then he asks: "Will the issue work for Republicans this year?

"In a CNN poll taken by the Opinion Research Corporation last week -- before the arrest of terror suspects in Britain -- terrorism topped the list of issues that voters said would be 'extremely important' to their vote this year. . . .

"But among voters concerned about terrorism, slightly more said they would vote for a Democrat (50 percent) rather than a Republican (45 percent) for Congress."

And yet early results suggest fear is having its predictable effect: Marcus Mabry writes that a new Newsweek poll conducted Thursday and Friday nights "suggests that news of a serious terror threat boosts the president's ratings. . . .

"According to the poll. . . . 55 percent disapprove of how the president is doing his job, while 38 percent approve, an increase of 3 points since the May 11-12 Newsweek Poll. But a majority, 55 percent, approve of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security (40 percent disapprove), an 11-point boost since May, returning the president to levels not seen since early 2005."

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted just before the plot was foiled found Bush's approval rating down to 33 percent -- and public approval of Bush's handling of foreign policy and terrorism down to 40 percent, near the lowest levels of his presidency. A contemporaneous Harris Poll had Bush's approval rating at 34 percent, unchanged from July.

Cause for Cynicism

John Solomon writes for the Associated Press: "As the British terror plot was unfolding, the Bush administration quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new explosives detection technology."

Aram Roston and Lisa Myers report for NBC: "NBC News has learned that U.S. and British authorities had a significant disagreement over when to move in on the suspects in the alleged plot to bring down trans-Atlantic airliners bound for the United States.

"A senior British official knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner."

Stranger Than Fiction

What is the least likely book you could possibly imagine Bush reading during his downtime?

Agence France Presse reports that Bush read French existential writer Albert Camus's "The Stranger."

"White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that Bush, here on his Texas ranch enjoying a 10-day vacation from Washington, had made quick work of the Algerian-born writer's 1946 novel -- in English."

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