Cheney Is the Albatrossby Jeffrey Steinberg
Around George Bush's Neck
Vice President Dick Cheney lost a decisive White House policy battle on Dec. 15, when President George W. Bush staged a photo opportunity with Republican Senators John McCain (Ariz.) and John Warner (Va.)—two of Cheney's biggest Republican Party critics—to announce Administration capitulation to bipartisan, bicameral Congressional demands that the United States repudiate torture. The White House session, where it was announced that the President supported the McCain amendment banning any American violation of anti-torture conventions, came just hours after the U.S. House of Representatives, by a veto-proof 308-112 vote, passed a resolution, instructing House conferees, hammering out a final defense budget, to support the McCain language.
Cheney ally and House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) denounced the Bush-McCain deal and said he would seek to block it, but the message coming from the White House was clear.
Adding insult to Cheney's injury, the House resolution was sponsored by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), whose Nov. 17 call for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq on a six-month timetable, triggered a national debate on a viable exit strategy. Murtha became the target of a Cheney-orchestrated smear campaign, which backfired against the Bush White House, and in effect, broke the Administration's nearly five-year vise-grip on the lower house. A core group of moderate Senate Republicans has already broken with the Cheney-led White House, after the failed "nuclear option" showdown in May.
The flight-forward against Representative Murtha also put Cheney in the unenviable position of being at war with the entire uniformed U.S. military command, which moved preemptively, through the Congressman-war hero, to force an end to the Iraq quagmire, while the U.S. Armed Forces are still barely intact.
According to well-placed Washington sources, the Bush decision to cave in to McCain, Warner, and other Congressional leaders aligned with the uniformed military, marked the fourth time in the last six months, in which the President has broken with Cheney on a substantive policy issue, and sided with other Cabinet officials.
However, senior Washington policymakers cautioned that so long as Cheney is still in office, the United States is in serious trouble. The President and the Vice President still hold weekly private lunches, through which Cheney exerts extraordinary power over the maleable Mr. Bush.
It's Not Only Torture
Some leading Republicans, however, are trying to convince the President, and his closest confidants, that Cheney has finally become such a liability that he has to be dumped. Developments over the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the related issue of domestic spying by the National Security Agency, which broke dramatically immediately after the Administration agreement with McCain, drove that point home.
Ongoing revelations of government surveillance of anti-war groups and activities had already put the renewal of the Patriot Act, complete with its numerous provisions for intrusive spying, in question, as the Senate moved toward a vote on the conference bill as approved by the House of Representatives. Then, on the evening of Dec. 15, the New York Times began to circulate an exposé, in preparation for over a year, revealing that the National Security Agency had been conducting electronic surveillance and other monitoring of U.S. citizens since 2002, under a Presidential Order signed by President Bush a few months after the 9/11 attack. The NSA spying explicitly violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed in the wake of the revelations of domestic spying by the Nixon Administration, which mandated such agencies to get authorization from a special FISA court, in order to carry out this activity.
The New York Times report was immediately taken up in the Senate debate on the renewal of the Patriot Act, hardening the opposition, and contributing to a bipartisan rejection of the Administration's attempt to bring the Act to a vote. The Administration is now facing both hearings on its reported violations of FISA, and the possible defeat of its version of the Patriot Act, which has both Democrats and civil liberties-minded Republicans up in arms. The Bush Administration is beginning to look more and more like the Nixon Administration.
But, as some of the President's advisors will undoubtedly point out, he need look no further than his Vice President, to see where these problems are coming from. Just as Cheney was the lead actor in demanding an "exemption" for torture by CIA agents, so he was the dominant force behind pushing for the order enabling the illegal NSA surveillance, and in pushing through the "compromise" on the Patriot Act. It's not hard to see that removing Cheney would remove a good number of the President's problems.
Adding to the complex White House picture, George H.W. Bush has let it be known to GOP intimates that he wishes to "contain" Cheney's influence over his son, rather than force the Vice President's ouster, and pave the way for a new policy team to guide G.W. through the final three years of his Presidency. This is the same senior Bush whose own egotistical blunder led him to allow Cheney and George Shultz to mold the entire "Bush 43" Presidency, with disastrous consequences.
Cheney spent the better part of the last month twisting arms and pitching fits over the McCain amendment, which, he argued, would undermine U.S. efforts in the war on terrorism. Cheney argued for a loophole, exempting the CIA from the torture ban.
Cheney's efforts only triggered a new revolt by a group of 33 leading intelligence community veterans, led by former CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner (ret.), who explicitly opposed the CIA exemption.
Military and Intelligence Support
The decisive support for the McCain Amendment, came from the uniformed military and intelligence establishments, expressed by retired military and intelligence officers who are free to speak out in a manner that active-duty officers cannot.
This had already been the case when the Senate adopted the McCain Amendment on Oct. 5 by a 90-9 vote. According to sources involved in the Senate vote, a crucial intervention was that of former Secretary of State—and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Colin Powell. A letter from Powell was read on the Senate floor by McCain, in which Powell noted that the Senate has a constitutional obligation to regulate the treatment of prisoners captured in war.
Powell explicitly aligned himself with 28 other retired senior military officers who had previously sent a letter to McCain supporting his amendment. The military signers included 25 retired flag officers, such as former CentCom Commander Gen. Joseph Hoar, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili; the three other signers were former Vietnam prisoners of war.
Two crucial developments in the process in the House were these:
First, on Dec. 9, thirty-three former CIA officials and officers, and other intelligence specialists, signed and submitted a letter announcing their support for the McCain Amendment, and explicitly rejecting the attempts of Dick Cheney to carve out a "torture exception" for CIA personnel.
"In the public debate over your amendment, some have argued that CIA interrogators should be exempt from the standards of decency and law that guide the actions of our military in battle and reflect our national values," the letter says. "They argue that the U.S. must retain 'flexibility' to act outside accepted standards in dealing with hardened enemies, on the presumption that violent and abusive tactics are the best way to successfully interrogate these prisoners. We reject this view."
Second, on Dec. 13, about three-dozen retired military officers, heavily made up of flag-grade officers, who have combat experience going back to World War II, met privately to organize a campaign of behind-the-scenes support for McCain and opposition efforts of Cheney and the White House to water it down. The meeting was chaired by Gen. Hoar, who said that it is no accident so much public support for the McCain amendment comes from former military officers. "Most of us who have served," he told UPI, "hold ourselves to a higher level than the community at large."
Hoar also said that the nature of the enemy should not be a factor. "I don't think it makes any difference that they are different, because we're not any different. It's about us," he said. "Who are we? Our President speaks with these throwaway lines about democracy and freedom, and then we do things like this. It makes no sense to me."
Firestorm Over 'Rendition'
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travelled to Europe for a series of meetings in early December, she was ambushed at every stop, over the issue of secret U.S. torture prisons in secret locations in Poland and other eastern European countries. The Washington Post had triggered a firestorm in the European Union by leaking details about the secret torture prisons last month, as well as several hundred unauthorized CIA and military flights, carrying suspected "terrorists" who had been captured through "extraordinary renditions"—Cheney-speak for kidnappings.
During her meeting with the new German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Rice, in effect, changed Bush Administration policy, by vowing that there would be no more U.S. violations of international conventions and treaties banning torture. Merkel infuriated Bush Administration officials, particularly Cheney, when she publicly reported that Rice had "admitted" that the U.S. policy had been wrong. Rice reportedly had authorization from President Bush to alter the policy, in the event of a diplomatic fiasco, but her action caught Cheney and his top staffers by surprise.
Cheney's new chief of staff and general counsel, David Addington, was the principal author of the White House memos arguing that the events of 9/11 justified violating the Geneva Conventions, other international agreements, and U.S. laws barring torture.
Even before Rice's plane touched down on U.S. soil, following the disastrous European trip, the "Cheney-Rumsfeld Cabal" launched an information warfare campaign against the European governments, leaking a story to London's Sunday Telegraph, claiming that a January 2003 meeting of American and European Justice and Interior Ministry officials in Athens had agreed to cooperate on "extraordinary renditions."
The real question, however, was what would happen back in Washington when Condi returned. Would Bush side with Cheney and buck Congressional Republicans and world opinion, or would he slap down the "Vice President for Torture"? The Dec. 15 White House Bush-McCain photo-op signalled that Bush was forced to break with Cheney's tortured logic.
Further adding to the fiasco was a story, published in the British weekly The Observer on Dec. 11, detailing another case of "extraordinary rendition" and torture. Binyam Mohammed, a 27-year-old Ethiopian living in England, was kidnapped while visiting Pakistan in April 2002, and held in several U.S. and British secret prisons, including in Morocco. Under torture, he "confessed" to being part of the al-Qaeda cell that was plotting to smuggle a "dirty bomb" into the United States, in league with Jose Padilla, another alleged al-Qaeda terrorist arrested in the United States shortly after 9/11.
Mohammed told his lawyer later that he never heard of Padilla, had no al-Qaeda ties, and did not even speak Arabic, but had succumbed to the torture and signed the prefab "confession" provided by his interrogators. When the Mohammed case came to light, the Padilla case blew up. Nevertheless, Mohammed was "rendered" to Guantanamo Bay, where he is currently being held, and is scheduled to be tried by a military tribunal as a member of al-Qaeda.
The Observer story quoted senior CIA sources that the Agency is in "deep crisis" over the torture/kidnapping policy, and many senior case officers are quitting, rather than stand trial later for serious crimes.
The Washington rumor mill has been buzzing with talk about the breakup of the "Cheney-Rumsfeld Cabal," a term coined by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Powell. Several senior intelligence-community sources have stated that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will be leaving next year—by no later than the Summer.
One sure signal that the "vacancy" sign is being prepared at the Pentagon is the manic behavior of nominal Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), who raced off to Iraq on a "fact-finding" mission. His findings: Bush's policy is succeeding, and "mission accomplished." All that was missing was the jump-suit and the USS Lincoln.
While Lieberman's name has been floated as a replacement for Rumsfeld, more attention has been focussed on a replacement for Cheney himself.
Senior Republican Party sources have confirmed that a group of anti-Cheney GOP "bigwigs" are touting Senator McCain as the "clean hands war hero" to replace Cheney as Vice President and reinvent the Bush Presidency. While the McCain fever has not yet hit the White House, the fight inside the Republican Party is intensifying by the hour, as GOP members of the House and Senate contemplate a midterm election earthquake if Cheney remains in office.
Meanwhile, Cheney's impolitic decision to stage a high-visibility fundraiser in Houston on Dec. 5 for the embattled Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), has suddenly put the spotlight on the Vice President himself, in the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff, the indicted lobbyist-moneybags for the DeLay, Inc. political-thug machine.