How Dick Cheney runs national security.

Military analysis.
Nov. 7 2005 5:06 PM

President Cheney

His office really does run national security.

He made the case for war. Click on image to expand.
He made the case for war

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.

Advertisement

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.' "

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?