It’s often said on late-night TV that given Dick Cheney’s cardiovascular problems, George W. Bush is just a heartbeat away from the presidency. In his new book, Angler, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman suggests that this joke contains more than just a grain of truth. By immersing himself in details about national security and numerous other hot-button issues that the president was too lazy or too incurious to study, Cheney often managed to position himself as the real “decider.”
For those of you who are too lazy or too incurious to read Gellman’s lengthy exposé, Slatehas put together a breezy executive summary. Grab a copy of Angler from the nearest bookstore and skim along.
How To Hire Yourself
As is well-known, Bush tapped Cheney to head his VP search during the 2000 campaign. Cheney asked a few contenders to fill out lengthy questionnaires, turn over copies of all medical records, and reveal any events that might leave them “vulnerable to blackmail or coercion.” He pocketed this sensitive information and then tapped himself. As a result, no one ever vetted the veep.
Page 22: Cheney short-listed a few rival candidates, but Bush never “held a face-to-face interview for the job” with any of them.
Page 23: David J. Gribbin, an old friend of Cheney’s who was on the initial vetting committee, told Gellman: “I don’t know who vetted Cheney or what process they used. It was not something I was involved in or that anybody ever told me. At some point there was a decision that all these names were going to be set aside, and they were going to select Cheney. It was a shock to me.”
Page 25: Bush claimed he commissioned an independent review of his running mate’s fitness, but that’s not quite true. Denton A. Cooley, an acquaintance of Bush senior and the founder of the Texas Heart Institute, called up Cheney’s physician, who offered a “personal assurance that his [patient’s] cardiac status was sound.” Cooley never looked “at Cheney’s films, electrocardiac data, or any other records.”
Deadly Dick and the Star Chamber
Page 160: Cheney earned several nicknames at the White House. Bush just called him “Veep”; after his hunting accident he was known as “Deadly Dick.” The most prevalent was “Dark Side,” but perhaps the most apt was “Management,” as in, “Better check with Management first.”
Page 74: According to Cheney staffer Candi Wolff, “a lot of people” called Cheney’s Senate office “the Star Chamber” after the court that heard treason cases in medieval England. She added: “Like it was some torture thing. It was this feeling of … if you have to go see him you must have been bad.”
Page 244: Gellman writes that, on a typical day, Cheney would wake up at 5:45 a.m. to browse “newspapers during his workout on an elliptical trainer.” At 7 a.m., Scooter Libby would arrive, and then a CIA analyst would walk “them through the President’s Daily Brief”—a classified newsletter on recent intelligence. He’d attend the same briefing an hour later at the Oval Office and draw Bush’s attention to subjects he found interesting.
Page 189: After serving as Condoleezza Rice’s legal adviser for three years, John Bellinger realized that “every time he wrote a memo to his boss, a blind copy was routed to the vice president’s office.” According to another official, Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, “made the [blind copy] arrangement with Steve Hadley, Rice’s deputy. It was not advertised, and neither was it reciprocated: what happened in Cheney’s office stayed in Cheney’s office.”
The Road to Iraq
Pages 217-19: In September 2002, House Majority Leader Dick Armey said publicly that he saw no need for war with Iraq, so Cheney called him into his office for a little chat. “For a full hour he walked the majority leader through a blood-chilling narrative, the graphics produced on cue by a military aide. The vice president by then had dialed up his public rhetoric, warning not only that Saddam had an arsenal but that ‘the United States may well become the target.’ ” Armey told Gellman, “The upshot of the briefing is, it’s a gathering threat that’s really more imminent than we want to portray to the public at large. … [The Iraqis] were developing weapons, they were miniaturizing weapons, developing packages that could be moved even by ground personnel.” Armey left the meeting feeling “a very deep sadness” about his relationship with Cheney and suspecting that he’d “just got a good BS’ing,” but he voted for war anyway.
Pages 231-32: Cheney, Gellman contends, “did not press for war with Iraq because Saddam really topped the list of ‘grave and gathering threats,’ as he led the Bush administration in asserting.” According to Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security affairs, Aaron Friedberg, the vice president wanted to show that “we were able and willing to strike at someone. That sends a very powerful message.”
Page 250: Although Cheney was one of the chief architects of the war, he had his doubts. Directly before the invasion, military historian Victor Davis Hanson said Cheney was “reflective, quiet, sober. … He was very depressed about both the options of going to war and not going to war. He didn’t think either were good options.”
Page 177: John Yoo, who worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 until 2003, rejected only one proposed investigation technique on legal grounds. He said that “the CIA could not bury a subject alive, even if it planned to dig him back up in time.”
Page 292: National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden was worried he’d get hauled before a congressional committee over his agency’s surveillance program. When Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey got his first briefing on the subject, Hayden said, “I’m so glad you’re getting read in, because now I won’t be alone at the table when John Kerry is elected president.”
Page 308: David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel, hated keeping the FISA court even partially in the loop about the NSA’s surveillance program. He once said, “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious court.”
Page 294: After Jack Goldsmith of the Office of Legal Counsel refused to certify the NSA’s program, David Addington tried pressure tactics: “If you rule that way, the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.”
Page 322: The top echelon of the Justice Department came very close to resigning over the NSA controversy. Mark Corallo, John Ashcroft’s communications director, told Gellman that Bush’s presidency couldn’t have survived the ordeal. “You know, one guy resigns on principle and it can be uncomfortable, it can even be damaging. If six or seven of your top lawyers—and, excuse me, think about this. And this is the truth. If John Ashcroft resigned, the entire political leadership of the Justice Department goes with him. … We would have all walked out the door, because we would have said, ‘If this is big enough for Ashcroft to resign over, we’re all out of here.’ … The rush to hearings on the Hill, both in the House and Senate, would be unbelievable. The media frenzy that would have ensued would have been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That’s when you’re getting into Watergate territory.”
Page 318: After months of squabbling with David Addington over the NSA program, Jim Comey had a one-on-one meeting with Bush about his misgivings. The president, it seems, had been left entirely out of the loop over the controversy; he complained to Comey, “I just wish you weren’t raising this at the last minute.” He didn’t realize that Comey, along with every other political appointee at the Justice Department, was on the brink of resignation.
Cheney and his staffers, especially legal counsel David Addington, were obsessed with the possibility of a “decapitating attack on Washington”—that is, what would happen if the president were to die.
Page 154-155: David Addington carried the Constitution in his suit jacket as well as note cards with “all the executive orders and statutes on succession.”
Page 158: Addington didn’t like the idea that the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate are included in the order of succession. An unnamed Cheney admirer told Gellman that the vice president and his staff had “plans” for an alternate succession, “and their plans were going to be by fiat.”