Article

Administration: Power Grab

With an "edge-of-the-envelope" view of executive supremacy, Cheney has crafted an unaccountable role for himself that flagrantly flouts the rule of law that the American people expect the president to uphold.

JUNE 26, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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ADMINISTRATION

Power Grab

In 2001, as the Bush administration was just taking office, former Vice President Dan Quayle paid Dick Cheney a visit. Quayle, who served under the first President Bush, explained to Cheney what the traditional duties of the office entailed, such as international travel, political fundraising, and attendance of funerals. But the new Vice President had other ideas. “I have a different understanding with the president,” Cheney told Quayle, portending the unprecedented power the new Vice President would soon come to consolidate in his office. While Cheney is often described as the most powerful vice president in history, the extent and mechanics of his power have been shrouded in secrecy. In a series of articles in the Washington Post this week, the veil is slightly lifted. They reveal “Cheney’s largely hidden and little-understood role in crafting policies” in the Bush administration, where he often uses his vast knowledge of government bureaucracy to “roll over” internal opponents and impose his legislative will. With an “edge-of-the-envelope” view of executive supremacy, Cheney has crafted an unaccountable role for himself that flagrantly flouts the rule of law that the American people expect the president to uphold.

GAMING THE SYSTEM: On Nov. 14, 2001, in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cheney declared that terrorists “do not need to be treated as prisoners of war” by the United States. While it sounded like Cheney was expressing administration policy, Bush “had not yet made that decision.” He wouldn’t for another ten weeks, and only after the administration “fought one of its fiercest internal brawls.” In pushing for his policy to be ratified, Cheney engaged in blatant bureaucratic deception, convincing then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to sign his name to a memo written by Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington, that “struck a preemptive blow” to the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. If consulted by Bush, Cheney “then became a sounding board for advice he originated himself.” Often, rather than dealing with the objections of top advisers like Rice and Powell, Cheney simply cut them out of the loop. For at least two of the most important counterterrorism policy decisions — the pronounced ability to detain “enemy combatants” indefinitely and the expanded definition of allowable interrogation techniques — Rice and Powell were not consulted and only learned of them from the news media. If Cheney’s office didn’t like decisions that were made, they would often rewrite them, discarding language “agreed [to] between Cabinet secretaries.”

JUSTIFYING THE EXTREME: In 2002, the Justice Department delivered a secret opinion, distributed under the signature of Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, that declared U.S. law against torture “prohibits only the worst forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and that the definition of “torture” only means suffering “equivalent in intensity” to the pain of “organ failure…or even death.” These narrowed definitions opened the door to many previously prohibited interrogation techniques. After the Washington Post revealed that opinion in a 2004 article, the administration claimed the memo was written by John Yoo, who served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. But in a recent interview, Yoo said that he was aided by Addington, Gonzales, and deputy White House counsel Tim Flanigan. In preparing the opinion, Addington, who worked tirelessly to present the position of “his client, the vice president,” offered the memo’s most radical claim: “that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it crosses the line of torture,” saying that U.S. and treaty laws against torture “do not apply” to the commander-in-chief. In 2005, when Congress began crafting legislation to strictly forbid torture, Cheney did all he could to undermine its authority. “Without normal staff clearance” or consultation with other senior aides, Cheney had Addington place a Statement of Administration Policy into the Office of Management and Budget’s authoritative guidance on the 2006 spending bill that said “the President’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto” any such bill. After Congress passed a veto-proof bill, it was Addington, advocating for Cheney, who altered the President’s signing statement to say that Bush would interpret the law “in a manner consistent” with his constitutional authority, which many interpret as an attempt to skirt the law.

ACCOUNTABLE TO NO ONE: Last week, House investigators revealed that over the objections of the National Archives, Cheney has exempted his office since 2003 from a presidential executive order designed to safeguard national security information. Claiming that the Office of the Vice President is not an “entity within the executive branch,” and thus not subject to presidential executive orders, “Cheney’s office has failed to provide data on its classification and declassification activities as required.” In 2004, his office “specifically intervened to block an on-site inspection by the Information Security Oversight Office,” an office that he later tried to have abolished. His counsel has further claimed that “the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch.” Despite Cheney’s claim in 2001 that a congressional probe into his energy task force “would unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch,” he has had no qualms denying his place in the executive when it suits his purposes. The Center for Public Integrity revealed in 2005 that Cheney “unilaterally” exempted his office “from long-standing travel disclosure rules followed by the rest of the executive branch” by claiming that he was not part of the executive branch. Despite White House claims that Cheney’s unaccountability is “a little bit of a non-issue,” Congress is taking it seriously. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) will introduce an amendment this week that will “place a hold on funds for Cheney’s office and official home until he clarifies to which branch of government he belongs.” “If he’s going to be funded in the executive branch, he complies with the rules that apply to everybody,” said Emanuel. “He is not above the rules of the executive branch.”

UNDER THE RADAR

CONGRESS — SEN. LUGAR: AMERICA MUST REDUCE PRESENCE IN IRAQ: Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, last night announced his support for an immediate shift in Iraq policy, calling on President Bush “to downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq and place much more emphasis on diplomatic and economic options.” ABC News notes that the “surprise” announcement dealt a “political blow to Bush, who has relied heavily on GOP support to stave off anti-war legislation.” In a major speech on the Senate floor, Lugar said that “victory” in Iraq as defined by Bush is now “almost impossible.” The current course of the war “has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond,” he said. Lugar warned that “persisting indefinitely” with Bush’s escalation strategy would “delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests over the long term.” He specifically rejected claims that withdrawing U.S. forces would increase instability. Downsizing the U.S. military presence in Iraq would “strengthen our position in the Middle East, and reduce the prospect of terrorism, regional war, and other calamities,” Lugar said. Also yesterday, the Center for American Progress released its latest detailed Iraq progressive exit strategy, Strategic Reset, which calls for virtually all U.S. troops to be redeployed out of Iraq within one year.

IMMIGRATION — RIGHT-WING RADIO HOSTS ADVISE SENATORS ON IMMIGRATION BILL: “Talk radio is running America,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) recently told the New York Times. “We have to deal with that problem.” Since Lott uttered his comment about right-wing talk radio’s disproportionate influence on the Senate immigration debate, he has become a pariah on talk radio and in the conservative blogosphere. Unfortunately, the radio talkers have become more influential as well, with some even helping to craft legislation. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key conservative negotiator behind the compromise bill, told reporters Friday “that California-based radio host Hugh Hewitt ‘had several ideas’ that ‘we are trying to include’ in amendments to be offered in an upcoming series of crucial votes. Hewitt, a conservative who has criticized many aspects of the bill, had Kyl as a guest on Thursday and asked: ‘Does the bill provide for any separate treatment of aliens, illegal aliens from countries of special concern?’ Kyl replied: ‘It’s going to, as a result of your lobbying efforts to me.'” Hewitt isn’t the only right-wing talker to directly influence a senator. After Atlanta-based host Neal Boortz “popped” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) over his “qualified support” of the immigration bill, Boortz was brought in to consult with Chambliss, “even though the senator was not an on-air guest during the debate.” Chambliss now opposes the bill. Both Hewitt and Boortz hold positions that are well out of the mainstream. On his blog, Hewitt has suggested that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) would be an ideal Supreme Court justice. Regarding immigrants, Boortz has said, “Give ’em all a little nuclear waste and let ’em take it on down there to Mexico.” Though conservatives may take up 91 percent of the talk radio airwaves, talk radio is not representative of the American people, who broadly support the key components of the legislation.

THINK FAST

“President Bush was presented with a letter Monday signed by 50 high school seniors in the Presidential Scholars program urging a halt to ‘violations of the human rights’ of terror suspects held by the United States.” The handwritten letter said in part, “We do not want America to represent torture.” Bush “took a moment to read it and talk with a young woman who handed it to him.”

“Iraq’s conflict is exacting an immense and largely unnoticed psychological toll on children and youth that will have long-term consequences.” A World Health Organization survey of Iraqi children under 10 found that 47 percent reported being “exposed to a major traumatic event over the past two years.”

239: Number of bills the House of Representatives has passed and sent to the Senate only to be held up, with conservatives “objecting to just about every major piece of legislation that [Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)] has tried to bring up.”

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions show the new “muscle” of the conservative majority, but USA Today notes one division between the far-right justices who are “eager to overturn previous decisions” and the new Bush appointees who are “reluctant” to “completely gut court precedents.”

“New research shows that man-made climate change could cause the Greenland ice sheet to break up in hundreds, rather than thousands, of years,” the chair of a U.N. panel of scientists said yesterday. “Its entire collapse would raise sea-levels globally by around 23 feet.”

The House yesterday passed voter deception legislation that increases punishments for those who “knowingly convey false information with the intent to keep others from voting.”

Afghanistan produced dramatically more opium in 2006, increasing its yield by nearly 50 percent from a year earlier and pushing global opium production to a new record high, a U.N. report said Tuesday. … In 2006, Afghanistan accounted for 92 percent of global illicit opium production, up from 70 percent in 2000 and 52 percent a decade earlier.”

Chris Mooney observes, “If the goal is to slam Al Gore, it often seems as if standards of serious discussion suddenly vanish.” Slate’s Emily Yoffee exhibited this behavior in a recent op-ed, demonstrating disdain for complex science. Joe Romm, Steve Benen and Kevin Drum have more.

And finally: “Some women do it in Starbucks. Others in cramped bathroom stalls. And soon, the women of the House will have their very own lounge for it.” But now, the House “will soon boast a new ‘lactation lounge’ where nursing moms can pump and breast-feed…all in a private facility matching the one that’s been operating on the Senate side for years.” “The Speaker…is committed to making Capitol Hill a family-friendly place to work,” said a staffer for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

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GOOD NEWS

“The U.S. Conference of Mayors narrowly endorsed a resolution Monday calling for the Bush administration to begin planning for the swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq.”

STATE WATCH

KENTUCKY: State Medicaid program has recovered from massive losses.

ARIZONA: An expensive “virtual” border fence is rising in Arizona.

HOMELAND SECURITY: Nearly one-third of the anti-terrorism money given to states by the federal government since 9/11 has not been spent by emergency responders.

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: White House: it would be “awkward” if President Bush were investigated by an executive agency.

TALK LEFT: In two separate Supreme Court opinions yesterday, Chief Justice John Roberts blatantly contradicts his own interpretation of the First Amendment.

THE CAUCUS: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) declares Guantanamo Bay “a symbol of our resolve.”

CROOKS AND LIARS: “MSNBC’s David Shuster grills” an apologist for Vice President Dick Cheney.

DAILY GRILL

“In a sense, 9/11 changed everything for us.”
— Vice President Cheney, 12/23/03

VERSUS

“[Cheney] has not changed his views very much over the years. What has changed is he has a greater opportunity to put them into action.”
— Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, 6/25/07