It has become a cliché to say that Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president in American history. Nonetheless, here is a prediction: When the historians really get digging into the paper entrails of the Bush administration—or possibly when Scooter Libby goes on trial—those who have intoned that phrase will still be astonished at the extent to which the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney was the center of power inside the White House—and at the grip it had on foreign and defense policy.
With a national security staff that numbered 14 last year (Al Gore usually had four or five), Cheney’s office has a finger in every pie. Several of the State Department’s top diplomats, including Eric Edelman, now undersecretary of defense for policy, and Victoria Nuland, now ambassador to NATO, are alums of Cheney’s office. According to David L. Phillips’ Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, the dominant figure in some of the key interagency deliberations on postwar Iraq was not the State Department official who chaired them but Samantha Ravich, a Cheney aide who left the government and has since returned to OVP *. In addition, Cheney has remarkable influence over his onetime boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Writing in Slate, Tim Naftali was surprised by the news in the New York Times that Cheney’s office was calling the tune on how the United States treats terrorist detainees. At least as interesting was the mention in the same story that the Office of the Vice President (or OVP) had hammered out the compromise in last year’s intelligence reform bill that “made clear that the new national intelligence director could not interfere in the military chain of command.” Eighty percent of the nation’s intelligence budget is spent within the Pentagon. So, that compromise leaves a large question mark over whether John Negroponte or his successors will have anything like the power the 9/11 commission had anticipated when it proposed sweeping intelligence reform.
Cheney’s connection with intelligence and, particularly, Pentagon intelligence is not exactly new. The transmission lines for many of the bogus claims in 2002 and 2003 about the purported ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida ran from the civilian Office of the Secretary of Defense through Cheney’s office. Although the Libby indictment might lead some to believe that OVP was running an apolitical enforcement operation, it was doing much more than that. Cheney’s team was producing the basic justification for going to war.
News accounts have placed the origin of much of the bad intelligence in the Office of Special Plans, which was run by Abram Shulsky, a graduate-school pal of former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. In fact, the bad intel came largely out of something called the Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which reported to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. This group consisted of just two people: Michael Maloof, a controversial former aide to Richard Perle whose security clearances were eventually suspended, and David Wurmser, a longtime neoconservative advocate of toppling Saddam Hussein. (Since late 2003, Wurmser has worked in OVP.)
The information CTEG put together was treated differently than other intelligence. Unlike other reports, CTEG’s conclusions about Iraq’s training of jihadists in the use of explosives and weapons of mass destruction were never distributed to the many different agencies in the intelligence community. Although CTEG analysts met once with Director George Tenet and other CIA officials, they changed no minds at the agency on the issue of Saddam and al-Qaida, and their work was never “coordinated” or cleared by the various agencies that weigh in on intelligence publications. Top officers in military intelligence who saw the report refused to concur with it.
Nonetheless, CTEG’s findings were the basis for briefings in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Some of CTEG’s material was leaked to the Weekly Standard, where it was published. In that form, the Feith “annex” achieved some renown as a classic in the genre of cherry-picked intelligence.
Dick Cheney was CTEG’s patron. He had the group present its material at OVP and the National Security Council. He made frequent public remarks, drawing on CTEG conclusions, alleging an al-Qaida/Saddam connection. (Even after the 9/11 commission delivered its verdict that there was no collaborative relationship between the two sides, Cheney announced that the evidence of the Bin Laden-Baghdad ties was “overwhelming.”) John Hannah, a Cheney aide who became the vice president’s national security adviser after Libby’s resignation, recycled some of the material into a draft of the speech Secretary of State Colin Powell was to give at the United Nations in February 2003—a draft that Powell threw out, calling it “bullshit.”
The wide airing of CTEG material clearly irked George Tenet, who declared at one point when pressed by congressmen in 2003 that he would “talk to” Cheney about some of the claims he was making. Whatever passed between them, Cheney was not deterred. In January 2004, he told a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News that the Standard article was the “best source of information” on Saddam’s ties to al-Qaida. In June 2004, Cheney was still claiming that 9/11 conspirator Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi agent in Prague.
Much is still to be learned about how intelligence was used and abused in CTEG and OVP. But one story gives a hint of what the historians may find: When I interviewed him several months ago, Powell’s former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson recounted the story of a meeting in the White House situation room during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq when policymakers met with top intelligence officials from a number of agencies. After the intelligence officials made their presentations, Douglas Feith “leapt to his feet, pointed to a certain National Intelligence Officer and declared ‘You people don’t know what you’re talking about.’ “
Feith had worked for Cheney—together with Scooter Libby—when he was secretary of defense in the administration of George H.W. Bush and, according to former administration sources, was even closer to Rumsfeld than Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was. After that outburst, Feith held up a piece of paper and read aloud an account of al-Qaida’s ties with Iraq in the early 1990s. Then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, a man well-known and well-liked in Washington for his gentlemanly manners, looked on, aghast at the scene. Wilkerson told me that after the end of the meeting, he got a copy of the paper and determined it was a newspaper clipping that had been retyped in the vice president’s office to be presented as “intelligence.”
Browbeating intelligence officials, disregard for the National Security Council’s traditional leadership of the interagency process—this kind of behavior, plenty of Bush administration officials privately attest, was typical as the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis that took the country to war. “Who knows,” Larry Wilkerson wondered to me, “how many other people they intimidated.”