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The Unraveling of Dick Cheney

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 29, 2007; 12:18 PM

While Dick Cheney undoubtedly remains the most powerful vice president this nation has ever seen, it's becoming increasingly unclear whether anyone outside the White House believes a word he says.

Inside the West Wing, Cheney's influence remains considerable. In fact, nothing better explains Bush's perplexing plan to send more troops to Iraq than Cheney's neoconservative conviction that showing the world that we have the "stomach for the fight" is the most important thing -- even if it isn't accomplishing the things we're supposed to be fighting for. Even if it's backfiring horribly.

But as his astonishing interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer laid bare last week, Cheney is increasingly out of touch with reality. He seems to think that by asserting things that are simply untrue, he can make others believe they are so.

Maybe that works within the White House. But for the rest of us, it's becoming a better bet to assume that everything -- or almost everything -- Cheney says is flat wrong.

Meanwhile, the trial of Cheney's former chief of staff Scooter Libby is exposing to public view the vice president's role as master-manipulator of misinformation and vindictive retaliator-in-chief -- once again, indifferent to the truth. (For example, Cheney ordered his staff to lie to reporters about the contents of a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate.)

And former aide Cathie Martin's testimony on Friday validated the most cynical conspiracy theories about how Cheney manipulates the press.

President Bush, while taking action that clearly suits the vice president, has nevertheless moderated some of his rhetoric -- acknowledging serious troubles in Iraq, for instance, and admitting that American soldiers are now caught in the middle of sectarian warfare.

But for Cheney, Iraq is an "enormous successes," it's the media's fault that more people don't recognize that, and showing "lack of stomach" in Iraq would lead not just to a debacle there but to cataclysmic domino-style effects across the globe and terrorist attacks within our borders.

So perhaps it's not a surprise that Cheney is losing support even from fellow Republicans who, looking ahead to the 2008 elections, do not relish carrying the burden of defending his increasingly indefensible world-view.

The CNN Interview

Maura Reynolds writes in Thursday's Los Angeles Times: "A day after President Bush struck a conciliatory tone toward critics of the Iraq war, Vice President Dick Cheney did the opposite Wednesday, denouncing as 'hogwash' the assertion that the administration had lost credibility because of blunders in Iraq. . . .

"Cheney long has been a polarizing figure for the administration, which is one reason why he has generally limited his public appearances to conservative groups. But in recent months, Cheney has become an increasingly problematic figure even among stalwart Republicans, in part for how he defended former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld."

Peter Baker writes in Thursday's Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney said yesterday that the administration has achieved 'enormous successes' in Iraq but complained that critics and the media 'are so eager to write off this effort or declare it a failure' that they are undermining U.S. troops in a war zone, striking a far more combative tone than President Bush did in his State of the Union address the night before.

"In a television interview that turned increasingly contentious as it wore on, Cheney rejected the gloomy portrayal of Iraq that has become commonly accepted even among Bush supporters. 'There's problems' in Iraq, he said, but it is not a 'terrible situation.' And congressional opposition 'won't stop us' from sending 21,500 more troops, he said, it will only 'validate the terrorists' strategy.' . . .

"Cheney has been criticized in the past for presenting what some called an overly rosy view of the situation in Iraq, most notably in 2005 when he said the insurgency was in its 'last throes.' The view he expressed yesterday seemed no less positive, and he sparred repeatedly with 'Situation Room' host Wolf Blitzer, telling him 'you're wrong' and suggesting he was embracing defeat."

Here's the transcript and video of the CNN interview.

There were so many baseless assertions, it's hard to know where to start. Blitzer tried valiantly to challenge some of them, to no avail.

Here's Cheney talking about what would have happened if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq: "Saddam Hussein would still be in power. He would, at this point, be engaged in a nuclear arms race with Ahmadinejad, his blood enemy next door in Iran --

"Q But he was being contained as we all know --

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: He was not being contained. He was not being contained, Wolf.

"Q -- by the no-fly zones in the north and the south.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, the entire sanctions regime had been undermined by Saddam Hussein. He had --

"Q But he didn't have stockpiles of weapons of --

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- corrupted the entire effort to try to keep him contained. He was bribing senior officials of other governments. The oil-for-food program had been totally undermined, and he had, in fact, produced and used weapons of mass destruction previously, and he retained the capability to produce that kind of stuff in the future.

"Q But that was in the '80s.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: You can go back and argue the whole thing all over again, Wolf, but what we did in Iraq in taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do; the world is much safer today because of it. . . .

"Q But the current situation there is --

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: But the fact of the matter was -- the fact of the matter was that al Qaeda was out to kill Americans before we ever went into Iraq."

On credibility:

"Q Here's the problem that you have -- the administration -- credibility in Congress with the American public, because of the mistakes, because of the previous statements, the last throes, the comment you made a year-and-a-half ago, the insurgency was in its last throes. How do you build up that credibility because so many of these Democrats, and a lot of Republicans now are saying they don't believe you anymore?

"VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Well, Wolf, if the history books were written by people who have -- are so eager to write off this effort, to declare it a failure, including many of our friends in the media, the situation obviously would have been over a long time ago. Bottom line is that we've had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes. It is hard. It is difficult. It's one of the toughest things any President has to do. It's easy to stick your finger in the air and figure out which way the winds are blowing and then try to get in front of the herd. This President doesn't work that way. He also -- be very clear in terms of providing leadership going forward for what we need to do in Iraq.

"Now, fact is, this is a vitally important piece of business. It needs to be done. The consequences of our not completing the task are enormous. Just think for a minute -- and think for a minute, Wolf, in terms of what policy is being suggested here. What you're recommending, or at least what you seem to believe the right course is, is to bail out --

"Q I'm just asking questions.

"VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: No, you're not asking questions.

"Q Yes, I am. I'm just asking."

When Blitzer asked Cheney to respond to criticisms from within the Republican base regarding the pregnancy of his lesbian daughter, Cheney lashed out: "I think, frankly, you're out of line with that question."

Newsweek Interview

In a Newsweek interview, conducted much more obsequiously by Richard Wolffe and published online yesterday, Cheney was not as petulant. But he was equally sure of himself.

On the danger of withdrawal: "All of a sudden, the United States which is the bulwark of security in that part of world would I think no longer -- could no longer be counted on by our friends and allies that have put so much into this struggle."

On the loss of Republican support for the escalation: "My sense of it is that what's happened here now over the last few weeks is that the President has shored up his position with the speech he made a couple of weeks ago, specifically on Iraq. And I think the speech, frankly Tuesday night, the State of the Union address was one of his best. I think there's been a very positive reaction of people who saw the speech. And I think to some extent that's helped shore us up inside the party on the Hill."

Asked how he responds to criticism from former associates such as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who has said that he does not know Cheney anymore, Cheney shot back: "Well, I'm the vice president, and they're not."

Cheney Opinion

Ann McFeatters writes in her Scripps Howard column: "A group of Republican lawmakers was waiting for an elevator on Capitol Hill when one of them said in frustration to his colleagues, 'What's with Cheney? Anybody know?'

"One colleague muttered, 'The guy's getting a little strange, seems to me. Big chip on his shoulder.'

"Vice President Dick Cheney has re-emerged from the shadows, causing a new ripple of speculation about whether his pit-bull attitude serves the president well, whether he's the one dictating Iraq policy, whether he's even thinking clearly.

"Whether swearing at a Democrat on the Senate floor or calling Donald Rumsfeld the best defense secretary in U.S. history, his conduct makes even some Republicans nervous."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Delusional is far too mild a word to describe Dick Cheney. Delusional doesn't begin to capture the profound, transcendental one-flew-over daftness of the man.

"Has anyone in the history of the United States ever been so singularly wrong and misguided about such phenomenally important events and continued to insist he's right in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? . . .

"You must have a real talent for derangement to stay wrong every step of the way, to remain in complete denial about Iraq's civil war, to have a total misunderstanding of Arab culture, to be completely oblivious to the American mood and to be absolutely blind to how democracy works."

She adds: "In a democracy, when you run a campaign that panders to homophobia by attacking gay marriage and then your lesbian daughter writes a book about politics and decides to have a baby with her partner, you cannot tell Wolf Blitzer he's 'out of line' when he gingerly raises the hypocrisy of your position."

Carl Hiaasen writes in his Miami Herald column: "There are several possible explanations for the vice president's bizarre performance:

"* He's crazy as a loon.

"* He's a compulsive liar.

"* He's gotten his prescriptions mixed up with Rush Limbaugh's.

"Whatever the clinical reason might be, Cheney continues to float blissfully through a smug and surreal fog."

Greg Mitchell writes in his column in Editor and Publisher: "Is it just me, or is Vice President Cheney, in his latest statements, starting once again to sound like another balding, rose-colored-glasses wearing war spokesman, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, better known as 'Baghdad Bob'?"

From a New York Times editorial: "In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush stuck to his ill-conceived plans for Iraq, but at least admitted the situation was dire. He said he wanted to work with Congress and announced a bipartisan council on national security.

"That lasted a day. By Wednesday evening, Vice President Dick Cheney was on CNN contradicting most of what Mr. Bush had said. We were left asking, once again, Who exactly is running this White House?"

On Comedy Central, Jon Stewart brilliantly riffed -- at length -- on Cheney's CNN interview.

For instance, he showed a clip of Cheney's response to Blitzer's question about his biggest mistake in Iraq.

Cheney: "Oh, I think in terms of mistakes, I think we underestimated the extent to which 30 years of Saddam's rule had really hammered the population, especially the Shia population, into submissiveness."

Stewart: "Yes, that was your mistake. The Shia's submissiveness -- if by submissiveness, you mean warlike vindictiveness."

And Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles nails it.

The Scooter Libby Trial

Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in Friday's Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney personally orchestrated his office's 2003 efforts to rebut allegations that the administration used flawed intelligence to justify the war in Iraq and discredit a critic who Cheney believed was making him look foolish, according to testimony and evidence yesterday in the criminal trial of his former chief of staff. . . .

"Previously described in court filings and by the news media, Cheney's role was brought to life yesterday by Martin's account. She is the first witness in the case who worked closely with Cheney and Libby as they tried to refute former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was sent to Niger by the CIA to determine whether Iraq had sought uranium for a weapons program. . . .

"Martin's testimony also illustrated how doggedly Cheney insisted that the administration had significant evidence that Iraq was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- even after the White House had backed off that claim and admitted it was not solid enough for the president to have cited it in his 2003 State of the Union address. . . .

"Cheney told Martin to alert the news media that a highly classified and recent National Intelligence Estimate indicated no doubts about Iraq's efforts to buy uranium. Intelligence analysts have said that the uranium claim was never a key finding of the NIE and that there were doubts about it."

(For more on that NIE, see Murray Waas in the National Journal in March 2006.)

David Johnston and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "The assertion by lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr. that White House aides had sacrificed him to protect Karl Rove, the senior political adviser, appears to be based primarily on Mr. Libby's own sense that the administration had failed to defend him adequately as the C.I.A. leak case unfolded.

"But there is little known evidence to buttress the suggestion by Mr. Libby's defense team in his obstruction and perjury trial that unnamed White House officials were deliberately setting Mr. Libby up to be a scapegoat."

In fact, the two men had some history of working well together. "Both men had a hand in the marketing, and later, the defense, of the Iraq strategy. But they approached it from different angles. Mr. Libby was deeply involved in developing and assessing intelligence about Iraq and using it to build the case for the war, and then defending that case as it began to unravel. Mr. Rove built a re-election strategy for Mr. Bush that relied heavily on his prosecution of the war against terrorism and the Iraq invasion."

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "White House anxiety is mounting over the prospect that top officials -- including deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and counselor Dan Bartlett-may be forced to provide potentially awkward testimony in the perjury and obstruction trial of Lewis (Scooter) Libby.

"Both Rove and Bartlett have already received trial subpoenas from Libby's defense lawyers, according to lawyers close to the case who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters."

Isikoff wirtes that an "embarrassing conflict could emerge next week when former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer takes the stand. . . .

"Fleischer's testimony is critical to Fitzgerald's case: as the prosecutor laid out this week in his opening statement, Fleischer has said that Libby told him over a White House lunch on July 7, 2003, that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and made a point of describing this information as 'hush and hush.' Fitzgerald used that account to undercut Libby's grand-jury assertion that he was surprised and 'taken aback' just three or four days later when, he claims, Russert told him about Wilson's wife. 'You can't learn something startling on Thursday that you're giving out Monday and Tuesday of the same week,' Fitzgerald said. Fleischer has also testified that Bartlett also later told him about Wilson's wife and, after hearing it from both Libby and Bartlett, the then-White House press secretary disclosed the information to NBC reporter David Gregory.

"On its face, Fleischer's account seems to contradict the repeated public assertions of his immediate successor, Scott McClellan, in October 2003 that nobody at the White House was in any way involved in the leak of Plame's identity."

The Associated Press is Web-posting trial exhibits. (The prosecution exhibits can also be found here.) The Firedoglake blog is live-blogging the trial.

Cheney's Media Strategy

Dana Milbank writes in Friday's Washington Post that the Scooter Libby trial "has already pulled back the curtain on the White House's PR techniques and confirmed some of the darkest suspicions of the reporters upon whom they are used. Relatively junior White House aides run roughshod over members of the president's Cabinet. Bush aides charged with speaking to the public and the media are kept out of the loop on some of the most important issues. And bad news is dumped before the weekend for the sole purpose of burying it.

"With a candor that is frowned upon at the White House, Martin explained the use of late-Friday statements. 'Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday,' she said. 'Fewer people pay attention when it's reported on Saturday.'

"Martin, perhaps unaware of the suspicion such machinations caused in the press corps, lamented that her statements at the time were not regarded as credible. . . .

"Martin, who now works on the president's communications staff, said she was frustrated that reporters wouldn't call for comment about the controversy. She said she had to ask the CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, which reporters were working on the story. 'Often, reporters would stop calling us,' she testified.

"This prompted quiet chuckles among the two dozen reporters sitting in court to cover the trial. Whispered one: 'When was the last time you called the vice president's office and got anything other than a "no comment"?'"

Martin's notes showed that she considered "Meet the Press" a good venue for Cheney for this reason: "Control message." And, Milbank writes: "She walked the jurors through how the White House coddles friendly writers and freezes out others."

Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The lesson to take away from this week's unintended seminar in contemporary journalism is that the vice president and his staff, acting on behalf of the Bush administration, believe that truth is a malleable adjunct to their ambitions and that they have a well-founded confidence that some members of the Washington press corps will cynically accommodate that belief for the sake of their careers.

"It's a sick little arrangement in which the parties clearly have one thing in common: a profound indifference to both the common good and to their obligation to act in its service."

Cheney's Pressure

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Vice President Dick Cheney exerted 'constant' pressure on the Republican former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to stall an investigation into the Bush administration's use of flawed intelligence on Iraq, the panel's Democratic chairman charged Thursday."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia "said that it was 'not hearsay' that Cheney, a leading proponent of invading Iraq, pushed Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to drag out the probe of the administration's use of prewar intelligence.

"'It was just constant,' Rockefeller said of Cheney's alleged interference. He added that he knew that the vice president attended regular policy meetings in which he conveyed White House directions to Republican senators.

"Republicans 'just had to go along with the administration,' he said.

"In an e-mail response to Rockefeller's comments, Cheney's spokeswoman, Lea McBride, said: 'The vice president believes Senator Roberts was a good chairman of Intelligence Committee.' "

Poll Watch

Brian Braiker writes for Newsweek: "The president's approval ratings are at their lowest point in the poll's history -- 30 percent -- and more than half the country (58 percent) say they wish the Bush presidency were simply over, a sentiment that is almost unanimous among Democrats (86 percent), and is shared by a clear majority (59 percent) of independents and even one in five (21 percent) Republicans....

"With Bush widely viewed as an ineffectual 'lame duck' (by 71 percent of all Americans), over half (53 percent) of the poll's respondents now say they believe history will see him as a below-average president, up three points from last May. The first time this question was asked, in October 2003, as many people thought Bush would go down in history as an above average president as thought we would be regarded as below average (29 to 26 percent). Only 22 percent of those polled think Bush's decisions about Iraq and other major policy are influenced mainly by the facts; 67 percent say the president's decisions are influenced more by his personal beliefs."

Here are the results.

Closing the Barn Door

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley writes in a Washington Post op-ed that Bush "concluded that the strategy with the best chance of success must have a plan for securing Baghdad. Without such a plan, the Iraqi government and its security institutions could fracture under the pressure of widespread sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing and mass killings. Chaos would then spread throughout the country -- and throughout the region. The al-Qaeda movement would be strengthened by the flight of Sunnis from Baghdad and an accelerated cycle of sectarian bloodletting. Iran would be emboldened and could be expected to provide more lethal aid for extremist groups. The Kurdish north would be isolated, inviting separation and regional interference. Terrorists could gain pockets of sanctuary throughout Iraq. . . . "

Note to Hadley: That's all happening already.

Iran Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "To many in Washington, especially Mr. Bush's Democratic critics, the new approach to Iran has all the hallmarks of an administration once again spoiling for a fight.

"Some see an attempt to create a diversion, focusing the country's attention away from a war gone bad in Iraq, and toward a country that has exploited America's troubles to expand its influence. Others suspect an effort to shift the blame for the spiraling chaos in Iraq, as a steady flow of officials, from the C.I.A. director to the new secretary of defense, cite intelligence that Iranians are smuggling into Iraq sophisticated explosive devices and detailed plans to wipe out Sunni neighborhoods. . . .

"But as they present their evidence, some Bush administration officials concede they are confronting the bitter legacy of their prewar distortions of the intelligence in Iraq. When speaking under the condition of anonymity, they say the administration's credibility has been deeply damaged, which would cast doubt on any attempt by Mr. Bush, for example, to back up his claim that Iran's uranium enrichment program is intended for bomb production."

Secrecy Watch

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration has employed extraordinary secrecy in defending the National Security Agency's highly classified domestic surveillance program from civil lawsuits. Plaintiffs and judges' clerks cannot see its secret filings. Judges have to make appointments to review them and are not allowed to keep copies. . . .

"In ordinary civil suits, the parties' submissions are sent to their adversaries and are available to the public in open court files. But in several cases challenging the eavesdropping, Justice Department lawyers have been submitting legal papers not by filing them in court but by placing them in a room at the department. They have filed papers, in other words, with themselves."

'Commander in Chief'

Garry Wills writes in a New York Times op-ed column: "The president is not the commander in chief of civilians. He is not even commander in chief of National Guard troops unless and until they are federalized. The Constitution is clear on this: 'The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.'"

Overuse of the term "commander in chief of the United States," Wills writes, "reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline."

The Bush Library

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times: "More than a quarter of the faculty at Southern Methodist University on Thursday demanded a referendum on whether the Dallas campus should become the home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, if that means accepting a conservative think tank as part of the deal."

Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau draws Tony Snow defending the library and its "belief tank" -- "It's like a think tank. Only without the doubt."

The Alfalfa Dinner

Lynne Duke writes in The Washington Post from outside the black-tie event: "President George W. Bush, who has attended Alfalfa every year of his presidency, once again served as the chief executive of comedy with a blast of one-liners that seemed hilarious, if only on the printed page. And that, dear reader, is all we can go on, since part of the exclusivity of the Alfalfa Club dinner includes a bar against press attendance -- the better to let the nation's 'best men' and women let loose.

"'In our very first meeting, Speaker Pelosi told me her number one priority was helping the unemployed, so, Jeb, I gave her your number.'

"That was Bush, according to his remarks."

A Miserable Failure

Noam Cohen writes in the New York Times that "a favored online tactic to mock the president -- altering the Google search engine so the words 'miserable failure' lead to President Bush's home page at the White House -- has been neutralized.

"Google announced on Thursday on its official blog that 'by improving our analysis of the link structure of the Web' such mischief would instead 'typically return commentary, discussions, and articles' about the tactic itself."

Danny Sullivan writes for Search Engine Land that bloggers "bombed" the Google results by linking the words miserable failure to the Bush bio.

RIP Deborah Orin-Eilbeck

Geoff Earle, Rita Delfiner and Cynthia R. Fagen write in the New York Post: "Deborah Orin-Eilbeck, The Post's longtime Washington, D.C., bureau chief whose passion for politics and unrivaled integrity kept the high and mighty on their toes, died yesterday after a battle with cancer."

In an official White House statement, Bush announced: "Laura and I were saddened to learn of the death of Deborah Orin-Eilbeck. . . . Deb fought a valiant battle against cancer with the same tenacity, devotion, and determination that she brought to her work in the White House briefing room through numerous Administrations."

Froomkin Watch

Thanks for all the very kind get-well-soon e-mails. I had been feeling a bit dodgy for a while, and on Wednesday discovered that I had pneumonia. After a few days off, I'm feeling a bit more energetic, and hopefully am back on my regular schedule.

I am, however, almost three weeks and several hundred e-mails behind on my correspondence. I'll try to catch up soon, but if I haven't gotten back to you, please forgive me.

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