An NPR interview with Barton Gellman, Washington Post investigative reporter on Talk of the Nation, 7/25/07
NPR: As Vice President, Dick Cheney has wielded the kind of power past holders of the office could only imagine. From the war in Iraq to the economy to environmental issues, Cheney has played a pivotal role in forming US policy, all the while remaining in the background – a place he prefers. Last month the Washington Post ran a four-part series investigating the office of the Vice Presidency as shaped by Dick Cheney…. Barton Gellman co-wrote the series for the Washington Post… Barton, you write that from the very start Cheney made it clear that he intended to approach the job of vice president very differently from his predecessors. He had to have the cooperation of the president in order to do that, didn’t he?
Barton Gellman: I think he had not only the cooperation, he had an understanding and permission of the president to do what he did. He worked out terms of the job early on with President-elect Bush in which he would be free to intercede as he saw fit around the federal government. He would be welcome at every meeting the president was at. And he would be welcome at any meeting the president wasn’t at that he thought important. And so he was given a very broad brief – not to executive policy, but to see what was going on and to advise the president.
NPR: The way you put it was that he was at every table and every meeting. And of course that’s unusual for a vice president. What effect did that have – that he was so present?
BG: Well, even if he doesn’t say much, even if he’s not issuing commands, people had a tendency to want to please the #2 Constitutional officer. He is, as one person said who went to a lot of cabinet-level meetings that Cheney attended and Bush did not, that Cheney is the only person who, when you walked in the room, everybody else stood up.
NPR: And that indicates they were ready to pay attention to what he had to say. Or would they be watching all of his body movements to get an idea of what he was thinking? Because he is very circumspect!
BG: He’s very circumspect and the sort of blankness of his face invites people to fill in what they think he wants. So you have – sometimes with almost comic effect – people anticipating what they think he’s trying to get at and then doing it. Bottom line is there’s an intimidating quality to his silence that’s been observed over the years. Stephen Hadley, who’s now National Security Advisor, used to work for him as Assistant Secretary of Defense back in the first Bush administration. He told a friend, coming out one day from a meeting with Cheney, that he didn’t know why exactly, because Cheney hadn’t said anything bad to him, but he always just felt intimidated when he was in there with Cheney. I think that remains the case with many people today.
NPR: You say, “His influence is widely presumed but hard to illustrate.” Why is that? How does he work?
BG: Well, as you mentioned earlier on, he likes to work out of the spotlight. That’s obvious about Dick Cheney now. He often works through cutouts – meaning that he finds or makes allies around the government and they do the job for him. For example – something that wasn’t known until we wrote about it in our series – was Cheney’s role in the 2003 tax cuts. President Bush decided he was going to seek an abolition of the tax on dividends and various other tax cuts. But he did not accept Cheney’s advice that he seek a deep cut in the tax on capital gains. Cheney then went to a meeting of Republican leaders of Congress and pitched the idea that they should add a cut in capital gains – the one Bush had rejected. When they put it into the bill it wasn’t cast as being Cheney’s initiative, it was cast as being Representative Thomas’s. But, in fact, Cheney had urged him to put it in there and Cheney was the one who then took it back to the president and said, “Well, Congress has done this, boss. I think you ought to sign it.”
NPR: And this was something you found time and time again – that he had influenced certain legislation, he had influenced many decisions, and it was hard to trace it back to him. He hadn’t left a handprint on it, though if you talked to enough people you realized the degree to which he had influenced those actions.
BG: It does seem like almost every time you look really hard at a big subject, you’re going to find some tracks from Cheney there that had been hidden until now. That’s not actually true, because there are whole big areas of public policy he doesn’t care that much about. Or that he knows the president has strong views that he doesn’t necessarily share. But on the big ones he cares about – national security issues, economic issues, environmental issues, and (this is crucial for government) personnel and major appointments -- you’ll see him all over the place!
NPR: Although you say it’s hard to illustrate his influence, a number of your stories do just that. Let’s talk about some specific things. I want to begin on 9/11. I thought it was really revealing in your story that, within hours of the attack, the vice president was already investigating the legal grounds for expanding the powers of the presidency.
BG: That’s right. This is something he’d thought about most of his adult life, certainly since the Ford administration when he was the youngest-ever White House chief of staff. He believed as a general principle that Congress had encroached too much on the authorities of the commander in chief when it came to matters of war and peace. And he interpreted those pretty broadly. He held those views consistently over the years whether Democrats or Republicans were in the White House. On 9/11, he saw both an occasion and an opportunity to revisit these questions he became the author and father of a really edge-of-the-envelope interpretation of executive authority. What’s fascinating about that day is that, at a time when he’s just been dragged down to an underground bunker in the White House and has just watched the south tower of the World Trade Center collapse and almost everyone else is focused on the consequences – the casualties, the immediate emergency response whether ground or aircraft – he’s doing some of that but he’s already that morning looking ahead to what new powers, what new legal interpretations, and what new executive orders will be required to expand the president’s power in order to fight this war.
NPR: And his general counsel was heading home on foot, as I recall. Already when he was trying to get back to his family, he was called back to begin advising the vice president in these matters. And he became very crucial in all this as well.
BG: That’s right. David Addington had his office, as almost all the vice president’s staffers do, in the Eisenhower executive office building just next door to the White House. There’s a little alley that separates them. On 9/11 they evacuated the Eisenhower building. Addington, being a good staffer, tried to get into the west wing of the White House to join his boss, and was turned away by Secret Service and told, “Everyone’s to go home.” So he started walking. He was approaching the 14th St. Bridge that would have crossed over to Virginia when his cell phone, which hadn’t been working until then, suddenly rings. It’s a White House person saying, “Turn around! The vice president needs you. Come on back!” This time he is let in. There’s a little passageway between the west wing and the east wing and an unmarked door that leads down into what’s know as the “PEOC,” the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. It’s a deep bunker built originally by FDR under the White House. He goes down and joins his boss there and by lunchtime they’re having a conversation: “How are we going to extend the president’s powers?”
NPR: By lunchtime! On 9/11! That’s pretty amazing! What did that lead to immediately? What was the first result of those early, early discussions between Vice President Cheney and his general counsel?
BG: Well, there were several that we now know of and I frankly can’t say whether there are more that we don’t know yet. One of the biggest questions became, “We’re going to clearly retaliate. There’s going to be a war in Afghanistan.” That was obvious because the Taliban supported Al Qaida. Bin Laden at the time was in Afghanistan and there was just no doubt in the minds of any of the president’s advisors that the president would retaliate militarily in Afghanistan. So you’re going to start to pick up prisoners. And the question is then, what do you do with these people? They’re people you might want to interrogate. Do they go into a judicial process? Are they military prisoners of war? What will we do with them? And one of the early things that happened is that Cheney decides the thing he really wants to happen is there will be these military commissions, that prisoners will be brought down to Guantanamo, that – as it turns out – it will be outside any judicial process.
NPR: Guantanamo doesn’t exist at this point, but this is setting the groundwork for what will become Guantanamo.
BG: Well, they’re already anticipating – they’re looking around the world for a place you can put… detainees, because calling them “prisoners” seems to confer rights on them. They’re looking for a place that will be not under US sovereign law but also not under the sovereign law of another allied country – which is a tall order. The State Department legal adviser said they were really looking for the legal equivalent of outer space. And they thought they found it in Guantanamo because the Cuban government of Fidel Castro did not recognize the perpetual lease signed by the US on the naval station there. So you could argue it wasn’t US territory and you could argue it wasn’t Cuban territory. And so maybe no law applied.
NPR: But what’s interesting about this is that the effect his general counsel had on the decision-making. The vice president’s general counsel, as you describe it, was more powerful than the president’s in some of these decisions.
BG: I’d say in all of them he was more powerful. There’s no doubt about it. David Addington had decades of experience as a national security lawyer in Washington. He’s also – everyone who knows him says – among the quickest and most agile minds among all the lawyers they’ve ever met… David Addington was well-informed, experience, ascorbic, intimidating, a very powerful intellect, and quick reader. Albert Gonzales, then the White House counsel, was not those things. And he deferred very strongly to Addington on all these enormous questions that were suddenly put in his lap. Gonzales had a relationship with the president from back in Texas. But Addington had this whole arsenal of knowledge, very strong views, and he dominated the decision-making over what would be the government’s legal steps in “the war on terror.”
NPR: One thing I was struck by in your Washington Post series. It may be that you were focusing so much on the vice president that I had this impression. But I didn’t get a sense of what the president’s input was in all of this. It almost sounded like it was all being done by a small group of people. I wasn’t sure what the president’s role was. Did you get a sense of that?
BG: It depends on the subject we’re talking about. On the executive authority/legal powers thing we’re talking about now, George W. Bush clearly agreed with and sympathized with the views that Cheney brought to him. And clearly he’s a guy who likes the idea of a strong executive. But he had not spent decades thinking about it. It was clear he did not have a clear grasp of the interaction between the coordinate branches of the federal government. On these issues he did not know the history of the neither executive orders nor national security after 1947 – and so on. Cheney had all those things and so did Cheney’s staff. And so Cheney brought him a well-developed set of views that Bush liked and approved.
NPR: We’re going to take a call now from “David” from Chicago.
David: I was wondering if you could address a thought I’ve had for a while. Is it possible that Bush has never really been president? But has rather been kind of a figurehead or a front man as it were – while the vice president has actually been the person creating policy all along. There are times when I listen to President Bush at his press conferences and he never really sounds to me like the person who’s actually come up with those ideas. He sounds like he’s just repeating them, somehow.
BG: That is a question that has come up very often and really from before the time Bush took office, when he chose Cheney as running mate. You had people advancing this “figurehead” theory. I would respectfully disagree with that. Bush is very much his own man. He is “the decider” as he says he is on the things he wants to do. He’s a guy who looks at the big picture and he leaves the implementation to others. Cheney is a guy who understands that god is in the details and implementation brings with it an enormous number of operational choices where many of the hard questions are resolved. In some ways, that’s equally important for policy making. But there are places where Cheney wanted to do one thing and Bush said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” Bush has overruled him on a number of occasions. You don’t tend to hear about it because Cheney shuts up. But where Bush cares enough to make a decision and to say “yes” or “no,” he’s the boss.
NPR: But I had the impression also that people around Cheney would say, “Well, he doesn’t win all these fights, you know. You have to understand he doesn’t win all these fights.” Almost as though it was to deflect some of the criticism of the ones [decisions] he has had so much influence on.
BG: Well, there’s some of that. Cheney is determined – and his staff is determined along with him – not to upstage the president and not to seem to be a power behind the throne. He does that out of loyalty to Bush and because that’s genuinely the way he sees his role. He sees himself as carrying out the president’s agenda. He does it in some ways that the president doesn’t care to bother with because he commands level of detail and he understands the highways and by-ways of government bureaucracy in ways that Bush doesn’t care to. But he does genuinely lose. On affirmative action, he wanted Bush to take a position in the Michigan case a few years ago that would have asked the Supreme Court to abolish affirmative action. Bush did not want to do that. Cheney is not a big fan of the “No Child Left Behind” act. He was not a big fan of the Medicare drug entitlement that Bush created. And there are other areas like this where Bush comes in caring about something, especially something early on in the administration that reflected an issue, which had come up for him as governor – like education, like medical care. He was the decider. Cheney has brought him a whole set of other issues. And when he had the president’s backing, he put them through in a way no one else in government can do.
NPR: Let’s taking a call now from Ben in Wayne County, North Carolina.
Ben: Mr. Gellman, I was trying to get an idea how the job of vice president evolved from the time of John Nance Garner who said, if I’m not mistaken, that the vice president’s position is no better than a warm bucket of spit, to the power that Cheney wields now in government, apparently. When the Constitution says that the vice president has a very limited job of being the president of the Senate, how does he get all the rest of these positions legally?
BG: That’s a fascinating question! By the way, John Nance Garner is often quoted as you quoted him. It’s not quite the way he said it. I tried to get permission to put the way he said it into our family newspaper and was not allowed to! So I’ll leave you to look it up on the internet! John Adams, the very first vice president, felt about the same way about the office. And it’s true. The Constitution really gives you two jobs as vice president. You preside over the Senate – which does not actually entitle you to speak on the Senate floor but it does let you cast the tie-breaking vote. And you’re an understudy. You’re first in the line of succession. How you get more power comes entirely – entirely -- from delegation by the president. Cheney and his people like to cast him solely as an advisor to the president. That’s not quite right. The president has given him – explicitly and implicitly – operational powers, powers to use his delegated authority to make certain decisions or make sure certain things happen. So, for example, under every other recent president you have a federal budget cycle in which the Office of Management and Budget has a long process, at the end of which it says, “You, Mr. Cabinet Secretary, you, Mme. Cabinet Secretary, you get this much for your department.” Sooner or later some secretary of this or that s going to say, “That’s just not enough! I’m taking this to the president!” They get an appeal. They get to say, “Mr. President, I need a few more dollars.” In every other administration, it’s the president who makes that decision. In this one, it stops at Cheney. It stops at a budget review board, which he chairs. And so there are things that George Bush just doesn’t want to do, like hearing a lot of whining from his cabinet secretaries about their money that he puts Cheney on. Now that gives Cheney a lot of power.
NPR: How do the cabinet secretaries feel about the fact that the vice president is judging their budget?
BG: I think one way or another they smile and salute. Because I think they’ve all learned – most of them without having tried it once – that you don’t want to go to George Bush and say, “I don’t like the way this thing is operating and I don’t want to listen to Dick Cheney. I need more money.”
NPR: Let’s take a call from Josiah in Connecticut.
Josiah: My question is about accountability. There are a lot of structures set up for the president’s and the president’s subordinates – the cabinet members – to have accountability. Reporting to Congress. There’s a lot of media attention. Of course, accountability goes hand in hand with availability of information. Between the secrecy that Cheney seems to prefer to operate under and the fact that it’s the vice president’s office that doesn’t have a lot of those built-in accountability structures, what are the checks on vice president Cheney’s power?
BG: Another fascinating question! This country has not had to think very hard in the past about what are the checks and balances on a vice president. We just haven’t had vice presidents with this much influence. But the caller is right. For example, the Freedom of Information Act – which entitles any citizen to request public records of the federal government, does not cover the vice president’s office. If a committee of Congress asks for the vice president or one of his people to testify, they don’t generally have entitlement to command that testimony. It’s hard for journalists to take a close look at Cheney’s office because it’s been very secretive. Cheney has broken with tradition and, for example, not published the names or numbers of his staff. By numbers I don’t mean their phone numbers, I mean how many people work for him. If you ask that of his office, they won’t answer. And so it just becomes harder, I think, that good Congressional oversight can probe this and good investigative reporting can do it. He’s been a hard target and that’s why the Washington Post has devoted two reporters for a full year.
NPR: A full year?
BG: Yup. And 19,000 words in the paper. Which, I would just add, you can still read at washingtonpost.com/cheney.
NPR: You didn’t interview the vice president yourself, though, did you for this?
BG: Not for lack of trying! We spent a good chunk of that year periodically in contact with his staff, urging them to grant us an interview. I was allowed to fly with him to Texas one day and watch as he went through a succession of public events. But I was not the one invited forward to his cabin when he granted an interview that day. That was a guy working for the Washington Examiner, the free, small circulation conservative paper in Washington.
NPR: I wanted to ask you also about the vice president’s role in the torture debate. Of course, you wouldn’t call it that but…! His office did play a role in shattering existing taboos on torture.
BG: I would say his office played a dominant role! Cheney had a very clear and simple framework for this. It was that this is a new kind of war. It’s something he studied when he was secretary of defense under the rubric of asymmetrical warfare in which a relatively small and less powerful adversary can inflict enormous damage because of the way the world works today. That the only way to get at Al Qaeda was going to be intelligence and the only good intelligence was going to be human intelligence. And finally that most of that was going to come from interrogating prisoners. Now you have a highly motivated AQ operative who’s willing to die to kill Americans and you want to ask him a bunch of questions, he’s going to be resistant. And so Cheney was devoted early on to the idea of how are we going to break down the will to resist of some very willful people. And he believed it was going to take what he likes to call in public “robust interrogation methods.” He believed that was necessary and proper and well within the purview of the commander in chief. Wherever the rules and previous interpretations of those rules placed limits on that, he was looking for ways around them.
NPR: Let’s take a call from Tyler in San Antonio, Texas.
Tyler: I know other journalists, like Bob Woodward, have found instances in which Vice President Cheney has been at odds with other cabinet members on a personal basis and also on an ideological basis. I was wondering if you had come across anything like that in your yearlong investigation?
BG: Sure. There were lots of them. Now, I will say that from the beginning and increasingly as time went on cabinet members and other important people in the administration had a pretty high threshold before they’d cross Cheney. Because he definitely plays for keeps. It’s not personal. It’s not nasty or mean at a personal level. But it’s very much “just business.” And if you try to appeal what he wants to do, he’ll try to get around you. If he can’t get around you, he’ll roll over you! And he’s about as good at that as anybody I’ve ever seen in 19 years at the Washington Post covering federal government. He famously crossed swords with Colin Powell lots of times. And with Condi Rice. In the anecdote we used to open the series, he simply goes around them without their ever knowing it. He wants to have a military order that will create military commissions outside the legal framework that will try terrorists – or accused terrorists – and he wants it understood that under this military order, they’ll have no right to appeal in any court any place in the world. There’s an ongoing, interagency group that’s trying to decide that question: how are we going to handle these captives. Cheney simply had his lawyer – Addington – write the order. He walks it into lunch with the president, which he has privately once a week. He talks it over with Bush. He comes out of the room.
NPR: He gets his way!
BG: Condi Rice and Colin Powell don’t even know it!
NPR: They see it on TV, as I recall.
BG: They do!