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Cheney, By Proxy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 4, 2007; 2:16 PM

Is Vice President Cheney trying to undermine Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, in favor of a more aggressive and militaristic approach?

Well, maybe not directly. Cheney does his best work by proxy. Anyone looking for public evidence of a major rift between Cheney and Rice will be sorely disappointed. In fact, Rice denied any such thing at a press conference in Madrid on Friday.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a rift. Cheney's aides and other loyalists he has installed in the government wield enormous power on his behalf, even as they provide him with plausible deniability. (See, for instance, the Scooter Libby case, discussed below.)

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted Friday that Vice President Cheney fully supports a diplomatic course in the dispute with Iran over its nuclear program, denying claims of divisions among President Bush's foreign policy advisers."

From the transcript of her remarks:

"QUESTION: If I may, Madame Secretary, you've been pushing diplomatic efforts and making that heard loud and clear your message, and you're making extraordinary efforts -- or an extraordinary offer, rather -- to talk. But can you assure us that Vice President Cheney does not want to use military action on Iran to deal with its nuclear policy? Because there's a perception of a divide within the Administration.

"SECRETARY RICE: First, let me be very clear. The President of the United States has made very clear what our policy is. That policy is supported by all of the members of his cabinet and by the Vice President of the United States. The President has made clear that we are on a course that is a diplomatic course, but it is a diplomatic course that is backed up by disincentives for Iran to continue its activities."

But as Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Ms. Rice's assurance came as senior officials at the State Department were expressing fury over reports that members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff have told others that Mr. Cheney believes the diplomatic track with Iran is pointless, and is looking for ways to persuade Mr. Bush to confront Iran militarily.

"In a news conference on Friday, Ms. Rice maintained that Mr. Cheney supported her strategy of trying to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomacy. A senior Bush administration official separately denied that there was a deep divide between Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney on Iran.

"But, the official said, 'The vice president is not necessarily responsible for every single thing that comes out of the mouth of every single member of his staff.' The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about any divide within the administration.

"The reports about hawkish statements by members of Mr. Cheney's staff first surfaced last week in The Washington Note, an influential blog put out by Steve Clemons of the left-leaning New America Foundation. The reports have alarmed European diplomats, some of whom fear that the struggle over Iran's nuclear program may evolve into a decision by the Bush administration to resort to force against Iran."

I quoted the Clemons report when it came out, but it's worth reviewing. "On one flank are the diplomats, and on the other is Vice President Cheney's team and acolytes -- who populate quite a wide swath throughout the American national security bureaucracy," Clemons writes.

"Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney's national security team has been . . . explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush's tack towards Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously.

"This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an 'end run strategy' around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument.

"The thinking on Cheney's team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran's nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles). . . .

"The zinger of this information is the admission by this Cheney aide that Cheney himself is frustrated with President Bush and believes, much like Richard Perle, that Bush is making a disastrous mistake by aligning himself with the policy course that Condoleezza Rice [and others] have sculpted.

"According to this official, Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the 'right decision' when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President's hands."

Cooper, in the New York Times, writes: "In interviews, people who have spoken with Mr. Cheney's staff have confirmed the broad outlines of the reports, and said that some of the hawkish statements to outsiders had been made by David Wurmser, a former Pentagon official who is now the principal deputy assistant to Mr. Cheney for national security affairs. The accounts were provided by people who expressed alarm about the statements, but refused to be quoted by name."

And Michael Hirsh and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek: "A Newsweek investigation shows that Cheney's national-security team has been actively challenging Rice's Iran strategy in recent months. 'We hear a completely different story coming out of Cheney's office, even now, than what we hear from Rice on Iran,' says a Western diplomat whose embassy has close dealings with the White House. Officials from the veep's office have been openly dismissive of the nuclear negotiations in think-tank meetings with Middle East analysts in Washington, according to a high-level administration official who asked for anonymity because of his position. Since Tehran has defied two U.N. resolutions calling for a suspension of its uranium-enrichment program, 'there's a certain amount of schadenfreude among the hard-liners,' says a European diplomat who's involved in the talks but would not comment for the record. And Newsweek has learned that the veep's team seems eager to build a case that Iran is targeting Americans not just in Iraq but along the border of its other neighbor, Afghanistan.

"In the last few weeks, Cheney's staff have unexpectedly become more active participants in an interagency group that steers policy on Afghanistan, according to an official familiar with the internal deliberations. During weekly meetings of the committee, known as the Afghanistan Interagency Operating Group, Cheney staffers have been intensely interested in a single issue: recent intelligence reports alleging that Iran is supplying weapons to Afghanistan's resurgent Islamist militia, the Taliban, according to two administration officials who asked for anonymity when discussing internal meetings. . . .

"Rice has more directly clashed with Cheney's office on issues like Mideast peace, where according to administration sources who declined to be named discussing internal deliberations, she's found herself stymied in efforts to push for more engagement with Syria and the Palestinian radical group Hamas. A senior White House official concedes that even on what should be the simplest-to-achieve deal -- a new relationship with Syria that would help stabilize Iraq -- Cheney's office is blocking Rice's efforts to bring Bush around. The secretary has also fought with the veep's office in seeking to soften detention policies at Guantanamo. In the interview, however, Rice insisted her relationship with Cheney himself is good. 'The vice president has never been somebody who tries to [undermine others] on the sidelines, behind the scenes. He really doesn't,' she said. 'In fact we have a kind of friendly banter about it, in which I'll tease him about the image that he doesn't like diplomacy.'"

Reviewing Cheney's M.O.

Laura Rozen wrote earlier this year for the Washington Monthly that Cheney "is no novice in the art of bureaucratic warfare. He has long surrounded himself with impeccably loyal aides who both share his worldview of a powerful presidency unchecked by the legislative branch, and who have also installed like-minded allies throughout the government. Such allies provide crucial intelligence of inter-departmental debates, enabling Cheney to make end-runs around the bureaucracy and head off opposing views at key meetings. Call it Cheney's state within the state."

In my Feb. 7 column, Cheney Doesn't Share, I noted a memorable scene of the inner workings of the Bush White House that unfolded in the federal courthouse where Libby was on trial -- a scene that gave credence to the widespread view that Cheney oversees his own secretive, defensive and sometimes ruthless operation within the White House, and that he does so with Bush's approval but often outside the view of Bush's top aides.

And Peter S. Canellos wrote in his Boston Globe column last April that "while it may be logical that the second-most clout in the country should go to the elected vice president rather than a Cabinet secretary or staff mountebank, the disadvantages of such a power structure are becoming apparent. For while statements and policies crafted by staff members or Cabinet secretaries can be disavowed and the official sent packing, the vice president can't be dismissed.

"Even if Bush wanted to marginalize Cheney, and there's no evidence that he does, he would have to remove all the Cheney loyalists from the defense secretary on down and still wake up to Cheney sitting in the West Wing every morning. Only Congress can remove a vice president, and only then for 'high crimes and misdemeanors.'

"Cheney seems happy to swim along with an approval rating lower than Bush. He isn't running for office. He's running the country."

About Those Loyalists

Jeff Stein writes for Congressional Quarterly: "The same top Bush administration neoconservatives who leap-frogged Washington's foreign policy establishment to topple Saddam Hussein nearly pulled off a similar coup in U.S.-China relations -- creating the potential of a nuclear war over Taiwan, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell says.

"Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the U.S. Army colonel who was Powell's chief of staff through two administrations, said in little-noted remarks early last month that 'neocons' in the top rungs of the administration quietly encouraged Taiwanese politicians to move toward a declaration of independence from mainland China -- an act that the communist regime has repeatedly warned would provoke a military strike."

The Libby Sentencing

Former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby will be sentenced tomorrow and the suspense is twofold: 1) What will the sentence be?; and, 2) If it calls for prison time, will Libby be allowed to remain free pending appeal?

The second question is crucial. If Libby is incarcerated immediately, it would suddenly increase the pressure on Bush from Libby's defenders to grant him a pardon.

Elizabeth de la Vega writes for Tomdispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute, that prison is almost a certainty: "Everyone in the case thus far -- the probation officer, the defense attorneys, and the prosecutors -- agrees that the base offense level for Libby is 15 to 21 months. The Special Counsel is arguing, however, that, under the federal sentencing guidelines, the court should increase this range because Libby's perjury and obstruction of justice interfered with an investigation into possible violations of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the Espionage Act. If the court accepts this argument, Libby could receive a sentence ranging from 30 to 37 months.

"The defense, on the other hand, is arguing that the judge should not follow the guidelines at all. Instead, they say, Libby should merely be sentenced to probation because: (1) he has an outstanding record of government service; (2) he will lose his law license; (3) he and his family have suffered, financially and otherwise, as a result of the prosecution; (4) his conduct was an aberration; and (5) he is unlikely to commit crimes in the future.

"Given that, as the government points out, Libby used his position in the White House to commit the crime for which he was convicted; that he has not used his law license for many years and would likely never have to again; that the families of all defendants' suffer and that, unlike most defendants, Libby has a massive legal defense trust fund; that he committed his crime not once, but four times over a period of many months; and that doesn't think he did anything wrong, I suspect the judge will not be giving Libby probation. Indeed -- for what it's worth -- I consider it far more likely that he will receive a sentence of approximately 30 months."

And the law on letting convicted felons free on appeal is pretty clear: Unless Judge Reggie Walton is ready to acknowledge that some of his legal decisions during the trial are likely to be reversed, he would appear obliged to remand Libby to custody.

The last White House official to be convicted of felonies -- that would be David H. Safavian-- was allowed to remain free pending appeal because District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman agreed "that a number of the issues raised in the pre-trial motions, the motion for judgment of acquittal, and motion for a new trial are substantial and some are without precedent in this Circuit. If some of these issues were decided in Mr. Safavian's favor on appeal, a new trial likely would be required."

Quid Pro Quo?

John W. Dean writes in his column for Findlaw.com: "If Watergate had any lesson, it was that when someone connected to the White House is heading for prison, it is dangerous for the president or those close to him to even think about -- not to mention talk about -- clemency.

"After all, the March 1, 1974 indictment of Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chuck Colson (who pled guilty, rather than risk a trial) charged each of them with a conspiracy to obstruct justice by offering to provide clemency to those involved in the Watergate break-in. In addition, as Nixon's tapes showed, the president discussed pardons on several occasions, and this abuse of power was included in the bill of impeachment against him that was pending when he resigned.

"If Libby had been acting on his own behalf, a pardon would present no problem; Bush and Cheney could feel it was the humanitarian thing to do, given his long service to the government. However, no one I know believes Libby was acting simply for himself, nor does the evidence suggest it.

"Let's suppose, instead, that Libby was doing Cheney's bidding, and that Cheney was deeply involved in both Libby's leak of Valerie Plame's CIA status and the lies Libby subsequently concocted to deflect attention away from the Vice President. If so, then there was a conspiracy to obstruct justice -- and if Cheney should go to Bush and request that he pardon Libby, he would be furthering that conspiracy. No wonder then, that Special Counsel Fitzgerald remarked during the Libby trial that there was 'a cloud' over the Vice President.

"Come Tuesday, that cloud could get much darker for Cheney."

In my March 8 column, Did Libby Make a Deal?, I raised the possibility that Libby had reached some sort of deal with the White House: A pardon in return for not airing the administration's dirty laundry.

The Trial Transcripts

Union Square Press releases tomorrow an edited compilation of the transcripts of the Libby trial: The United States v. I Lewis Libby. In his introduction, investigative reporter Murray Waas writes that it's hard to imagine Libby acted alone, given his sterling reputation for loyalty.

"Paul Wolfowitz, who was once Libby's political science professor at Yale and served alongside him as Deputy Secretary of Defense, said of his indictment on criminal charges: 'He's always been excruciatingly careful, which is ironic in this situation.'

"The Republican operative, Mary Matalin, who was in charge of Cheney's public relations affairs for the early part of his tenure as Vice President, said that Libby was 'Cheney's Cheney,' and that he was 'an absolutely salient translator' for Cheney.

"Though the irony may be lost on these supportive individuals, in attempting to serve as character witnesses for Libby in the court of public opinion, Wolfowitz, Matalin, and other administration officials who spoke in his favor and on his behalf were also serving as fact witnesses against the Vice President. If Scooter Libby was not someone apt to go off on his own against the wishes of his boss but rather was his 'salient translator,' how likely could it be that Libby would -- entirely on his own -- leak the identity of Valerie Plame to the media?"

Bush's Trip

International summitry generally provides Bush a chance to improve his image. There's always lots of pomp, and the canons of diplomacy require everyone to flatter to everyone else -- at least in public.

The White House further primed the pump last week with announcements about Darfur, AIDS and climate change intended to mollify, defuse or at least muddle critiques of the U.S. likely to emerge at the upcoming G8 Summit that is the main reason for Bush's jaunt.

But as Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press, Bush will be meeting at a summit in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, "with whom already frayed relations are straining toward the breaking point because of Bush's ambition to erect a missile defense system on Moscow's doorstep."

Furthermore, "Bush is also bookending his summit stay . . . with calls on the Czech Republic and Poland, former Soviet satellites where Bush wants to base major parts of the new shield.

"It could hardly be seen as anything less than a poke in the eye to Putin."

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay wrote for McClatchy Newspapers last week: "On the eve of next week's G-8 summit meeting, relations between the United States and Russia have ebbed to their lowest level since the Cold War, fueled by Moscow's growing confidence and an apparent Russian perception of U.S. weakness."

And since then, signs have gotten even more ominous. Doug Saunders writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "In a threat not uttered since the Cold War, Vladimir Putin said that Russia intends to aim its missile systems - potentially nuclear weapons - at targets in Europe in retaliation for the U.S. decision to establish antimissile bases there."

Immigration Watch

Jim Rutenberg and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "President Bush's advocacy of an immigration overhaul and his attacks on critics of the plan are provoking an unusually intense backlash from conservatives who form the bulwark of his remaining support, splintering his base and laying bare divisions within a party whose unity has been the envy of Democrats. . . .

"Postings on conservative Web sites this week have gone so far as to call for Mr. Bush's impeachment, and usually friendly radio hosts, commentators and Congressional allies are warning that he stands to lose supporters -- a potentially damaging development, they say, when he needs all the backing he can get on other vital matters like the war in Iraq. . . .

"Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, said Friday he was confident that the White House would win over its critics as it explained the details of the bill and the administration's continuing efforts to enforce existing border control laws.

"Mr. Rove said he did not think that anger over immigration within the party would affect support for the president on the war and other national security issues. 'People are able to say, "I don't need to agree with anyone 100 percent of the time to be with them on the most important issue facing America," ' he said."

Gary Langer writes for ABC News: "President Bush's immigration reform package has badly damaged his ratings on the issue from his core supporters, with his approval rating for handling immigration plummeting among Republicans and conservatives.

"Fewer than half of Republicans, 45 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, now approve of how Bush is handling immigration, down from 61 percent in April -- that's a 16-point drop in six weeks. . . .

"This marks one of the few times in his presidency Bush has received less than 50 percent approval from members of his own party on any issue in an ABC/Post poll. On handling the Iraq War, for comparison, he's never gone below 62 percent approval from Republicans."

The Albatross

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek about how Bush is an albatross for Republican candidates in 2008: "[I]t may not be enough to ignore Bush; you may need to attack him to prove your bona fides to the public at large. 'It's not so much that he is an embarrassment, it's that there is an exhaustion,' says Rich Galen, a GOP analyst. . . . 'People are tired of defending him.'

"As an ongoing political enterprise -- a machine with genuine admirers, loyal supporters and a legacy to build on -- the Bush presidency is perilously close to flatlining. . . . Since Bush never cultivated real allies in Congress, no one there feels guilty that he has none now. With his vice president not running, there is no '08 contender trapped in the role of shameless Bush promoter."

Bartlett the Hero

It's hard enough, in a general sense, to understand why a man who oversaw the White House's communications strategy as the president's approval ratings plummeted to the lowest levels in a generation should get such good press after announcing his resignation.

It's even harder to understand the coverage of the departure of White House counselor Dan Bartlett.

Bartlett, according to the media narrative, told Bush things he didn't want to hear and offset the influence of political adviser Karl Rove. Yet there's scant evidence that anyone ever tells Bush things he doesn't want to hear -- or that Rove ever fails to get his way.

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Bartlett's value to Bush -- as friend, fellow Texan and self-styled 'keeper of the record' of Bush's life -- is beyond measure and possibly irreplaceable, said Towson University Professor Martha Kumar, a presidential expert who has studied the current administration.

"'He is losing a person who he trusted, who he listened to and who has a really important portfolio -- damage control,' Kumar said. 'His leaving reduces the number of people who can tell (Bush) what he may not want to hear.' . . .

"'Dan is somebody who has a very good relationship with the president that allows him to be shockingly and sincerely direct,' Rove said. 'There aren't a lot of those.' . . .

"[White House Chief of Staff Josh] Bolten agreed that Bartlett's 'relationship with the president allows him to speak with more candor and confidence than most people are at least inclined to do.'"

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post that Bartlett "has spent virtually his entire career working for Bush, starting in 1993, as Bush prepared for his first gubernatorial campaign in Texas. That relationship has allowed Bartlett to speak candidly with the president and to expand his strategic communications role into that of a policy adviser to the president with a portfolio."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Those who have worked with him in the West Wing said that Bartlett, especially in recent years, served as something of a counterweight to Rove, often providing alternative views from those of the architect of Bush's political career.

"'Dan stepped into that role,' said Karen P. Hughes, another Texan who came with Bush, serving as his first White House counselor. She also acted as a balance to Rove."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "As Mr. Bush's inner circle shrank through his second term, Mr. Bartlett's stature -- initially questioned by some outside advisers who viewed him as too inexperienced to work at a high level -- increased. Colleagues said he frequently was an effective balance to more combative and aggressive instincts of other advisers like Karl Rove."

MSNBC's Chris Matthews started off his interview of Bartlett by singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald doesn't think much of the slobbering tone of the Bartlett coverage. And on MSNBC, "Bush's Brain" author James Moore had this to say: "[R]emember, this is a president who has sort of surrounded himself with a coterie, I think, of sycophants, people who sing songs that he likes to hear, which is, 'You're great, Mr. President, you're right, Mr. President, and the rest of the world is wrong.'

"I take exception to the notion that Dan was honest and confronted the president when the president was going in the wrong direction. I don't believe that was the relationship."

Torture Watch

Bush says, "We don't torture." But he's never made clear what he means by 'torture.' Meanwhile, according to Laura Blumenfeld in The Washington Post, one American interrogator doesn't share his ambiguity.

"'I tortured people,' said [Tony] Lagouranis, 37, who was a military intelligence specialist in Iraq from January 2004 until January 2005. 'You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that.'"

Talking to the Boys

Bob Moen writes for the Casper Star Tribune: "Addressing about 100 wide-eyed Wyoming high school students learning about government and the political process, Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday recalled his early interest in politics and encouraged the youths to enter public service."

Here's the transcript of Cheney's remarks to the Wyoming Boys State Conference.

He took questions, including one about how he gets along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"How is my relationship with Harry Reid? Well, it's better than my relationship with Pat Leahy," the vice president said, the transcript recording laughter. "But I won't go into that."

It was back in June 2004 that Cheney famously used a particularly harsh obscenity against Leahy, the Democratic Senator from Vermont, on the Senate floor.

Which is worse: that the boys laughed because they didn't know what he was talking about -- or because they did?

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth, Dwane Powell, John Sherffius and Rex Babin on Bush's climate-change proposal; Tom Toles on the hazards of impeachment.

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