Cheney Wields Unprecedented V.P. Power

Nov. 29, 2003 — -- Though Vice President Dick Cheney may stand discreetly in the background, rarely seen or heard from in public, don't underestimate him.

"His power is unparalleled in the history of the republic, frankly, for that position," said John Hulsman, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank.

"Everybody knows that the vice president is going to fundamentally affect the foreign policy of the country," Hulsman added. "[When the vice president's office calls] you better get down there and you better wipe your hands on the side of your jacket on the way in the door."

Analysts believe the secretive and conservative Cheney, who did not speak to Nightline for this story, was a driving force behind the Bush administration's aggressive approach to war in Iraq, a role that eventually might cost him.

But for now, critics and adversaries in Washington are extremely reluctant to talk publicly about Cheney.

"I think he has this mystique, whether it's justified or not, of being a very tough guy, and a very Machiavellian guy, and a very bare-knuckles fighter," said Richard Clarke, who worked with Cheney after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a National Security Council official and is now an ABCNEWS consultant.

"I don't know whether any of that is true. I've never really seen very much of that, but that's the mystique," Clarke said. "I wouldn't want to put it to the test. I never did. I think he enjoys the reputation that you don't want to cross Dick Cheney."

Bush Confidant

The vice president's job has gained an enormous amount of prestige since John Nance Garner, who occupied the office under President Roosevelt in the 1930s, famously described it as "not worth a warm bucket of spit." But even Al Gore, the most powerful and influential vice president until Cheney came along, was hampered by the perception that afflicts most vice presidents — that they all want to be president.

Cheney ran an abortive presidential campaign in 1996, but might never have been elected to the No. 2 position without Bush. Paradoxically, that may be the very thing that gives him his clout as a trusted adviser.

"There's an inherent tension in having a vice president who's politically ambitious," Hulsman said. "If you're president, you have to factor that in when you ask his advice. I think most of us know that due to his age and health, that Vice President Cheney is highly unlikely to seek the presidential nomination. So he has no axes to grind.

"The president, I think, can be very confident about just saying, 'For the good of the country, Dick, what do you think about what's going on here?' " Hulsman added. "And I think that's really made him an honest broker in an administration full of very strong personalities that often have very different ideological touchstones."

But if the term "honest broker" suggests that Cheney is a middle-of-the-roader, a moderate without strong ideological opinions and goals of his own, it may not be an apt description, given his record during five terms in Congress.

"He had a 100 percent conservative voting record on cutting spending, cutting taxes, on social issues," said conservative commentator Robert Novak.

Ideological Distortion?

A senior military official, who asked not to be identified, told Nightline that Cheney, a former defense secretary, was extremely selective in picking out intelligence on Iraq that supported his views, and that his staff's reports were distorted and ideological.

Another source told ABCNEWS that before Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out that case against Saddam Hussein in front of the U.N. General Assembly last January, he was provided with a draft of what would have been a four-hour-long speech. At least one major section of that draft, the part dealing with terrorist organizations and their relationship to Saddam, was prepared by the vice president's office.

Powell personally took the speech over to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and vetted it, line by line, with intelligence analysts over a 3 ½-day period. Little, if anything, contained in the section on terrorism could be confirmed. So Powell dumped it.

The story may illustrate ongoing tensions between the vice president's office and the State Department, and between the vice president's office and the CIA.

"If you go back to the first Gulf War, the CIA told the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, that there was no Iraqi nuclear program," Clarke said. "After the war, when the U.N. inspectors went in, they found an enormous facility, the size of half of the District of Columbia, that was a nuclear research and development facility. The CIA didn't know about it. It wasn't bombed, therefore, during the war. And the documents that the U.N. seized revealed that they were probably about a year away from a nuclear explosion."

Before the 2003 Iraq invasion, Cheney showed up at CIA headquarters on several occasions to meet with CIA analysts, an unusual move for a vice president, Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former chief of counterterrorism, told Nightline. But rather than focusing on the existing intelligence, Cheney often pressed analysts on what the agency hadn't found or wasn't reporting.

"The whole emphasis," Cannistraro said, "was, 'We are sure that there are weapons of mass destruction. We are sure that Saddam is acquiring a nuclear capability. Why isn't your reporting showing this? We're getting reporting independently from the intelligence community that convinces us that that's the case. You're not providing any corroboration for that.' … The weapons of mass destruction analysts at CIA took these visits as intimidation, as pressure."

Defining Moment

However, it was Cheney's job to find out all about any weapons of mass destruction. Months before 9/11, President Bush asked Cheney to coordinate the government's response to potential chemical, biological or nuclear attacks by terrorists.

The attack on the World Trade Center became a defining moment in Cheney's vice presidency. Bush was out of town when the planes hit, and Cheney took charge at the White House.

Clarke, who was present as the National Security Council's point person on terrorism, said Cheney acted quickly, even getting authority to shoot down a hijacked jet that later crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

"I picked up the phone from the situation room and asked the vice president, 'We have fighters aloft now. We need authority to shoot down hostile aircraft.' And I thought that would take forever to get that authority," Clarke said. "The vice president got on the phone to the president, got back to me, I would say within two minutes, and said, 'Do it.' "

Cheney also was one of the first officials to go public after 9/11 to talk about what needed to be done.

"We've got to spend time in the shadows, in the intelligence world," Cheney said on Sept. 16, 2001. "A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies if we're going to be successful. It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there. And we have to operate in that arena."

"He was one of the first to realize that Sept. 11 may, in fact, not be just the worst thing that could have happened," said Ivo Daalder, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

"It could have been much worse if the terrorists had somehow been able to acquire weapons of mass destruction," Daalder said. "So this marriage between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, which became a linchpin of the Bush administration's foreign policy, really by late 2001, and then announced publicly by the president in his 'axis of evil' speech in January of 2002, Cheney was one of the people who pushed this early on."

Three Against One

Daalder, who has just written a book on the Bush administration's foreign policy, said aspects of the vice president's office work differently under Cheney.

"What's new is this vice president has his own National Security Council staff, which is about, probably, as large as John Kennedy's National Security Council staff," Daalder said. "They write their own analyses. They do their own briefing papers. They are putting together their own views of what the policy should be for the vice president. So that what you have is that inside the White House, you have two sets of staffs and two sets of option papers, and two sets of briefing papers, ultimately, for a decision that is going to be made by one person, the president of the United States."

A former top official in the Bush administration said Cheney gets two whacks at every issue. He's in the interagency meetings where policy is considered. Then he is usually the last person to talk to the president privately before a decision is made.

Plus, some say Cheney almost always has backup in the interagency meetings.

"One often hears from people in the State Department, for example, that when they come into a meeting of the National Security Council staff, that they have a sense that the vote is 3-1 just from the beginning," Daalder said, "with the NSC, the vice president and the secretary of defense already lined up on one set of policy, and the State Department on another set of policies."

Surprise Partner

It was not always clear that Cheney would work so well with Bush.

On the campaign trail, the two sometimes seemed years apart. The youthful, wisecracking Texas governor genuinely appeared to enjoy pressing the flesh. Cheney, though only five years older than Bush, seemed more stolid, resigned to campaigning with little evidence of enthusiasm.

To some, Bush's selection of Cheney came out of the blue.

"It seemed so astounding that some people thought it was a ruse," Novak said. "In my own opinion, President Bush, then-Gov. Bush, saw his own limitations. He knew very little about Washington, hadn't been in politics for very long. And instead of a superstar media celebrity, he needed somebody who really knew where the bodies were buried in Washington and in politics. So, I think it was a very smart move."

However, some aren't sure sticking with Cheney will seem so smart. If things don't improve in Iraq, historian Douglas Brinkley wonders if Cheney might be seen as a liability, perhaps even a scapegoat.

"I think Dick Cheney, while on one hand has been the most influential vice president in American history, has now become a bit of a political albatross for the sitting president," Brinkley said. "If the war in Iraq is not going well, and postwar Iraq is not gelling, that we're getting Americans killed all the time, somebody's going to have to be sacrificed on the altar."

Rather than have Cheney campaign "in what could very well be a referendum on the war in Iraq and postwar Iraq," Brinkley said, "I think you will see [Cheney] stepping aside, staying on as a senior adviser, and filling in as one of the great speakers for the conservatives for Bush. But I think you're going to have to have somebody more vigorous on the campaign trail."

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