Feb 15th 2007 The Economist Economist Magazine
Dick Cheney under the microscope
A glimpse into the vice-president's secret world
DICK CHENEY has never been a great fan of open government. His staff refuse to reveal how many people work in his office, let alone what they do there. He went to court to keep the membership of his energy commission secret. You can find the White
House and the Pentagon on Google Earth. But the vice-president's official residence is pixellated out.
Which makes the trial of Mr Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, all the more notable. The defence finally decided against calling Mr Cheney to testify. But nevertheless the trial, which is now reaching its final
stages, has cast a rare shaft of light on the vice-president's dark world. His handwritten notes have been projected on giant screens. His bureaucratic fingerprints have been examined in the smallest detail.
It has always been clear that Mr Cheney is an exceptionally powerful vice-president. He has the largest vice-presidential staff in history (an estimated 14 national security advisers compared with Al Gore's four, for example), and
vassals in most branches of government. But the trial has given a sense of how that power operates on a day-to-day basis.
The two characteristics that have emerged most clearly are ruthlessness and obsessive attention to detail. Mr Cheney was clearly determined to punish Joseph Wilson for casting doubt on some of the administration's claims about WMD.(Mr
Wilson wrote an article in the New York Times claiming that, during an official visit to Niger in 2002, he had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase nuclear material from the country.) And from the moment he cut Mr Wilson's article
out of the New York Times and scrawled notes all over it, Mr Cheney devoted a striking amount of energy to the administration's offensive against him. According to Mr Libby and a former PR aide, he dictated talking points for press officers to use. He
discussed the case several times a day with Mr Libby, told him to deal directly with selected reporters, and instructed him to leak a sensitive document. Mr Libby's leaks are what landed him in trouble: he disclosed that Mr Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame,
was a CIA agent, which is potentially a crime, though he is being tried not for that but for giving misleading evidence when questioned.
Why was Mr Cheney so obsessed with Mr Wilson? Mr Wilson was a retired ambassador who had been peddling the story of his trip to Niger around town for months. Mr Cheney's office had difficulty in getting chosen reporters to tune into its
arguments; indeed, but for Mr Cheney worrying at it like a dog at a bone, Mr Wilson's article would have been long forgotten.
One possible explanation is that Mr Cheney knew that the administration's claims about WMD were false. But it seems unlikely. Mr Cheney continued to argue that Saddam possessed WMD long after Mr Bush had backed down. His problem was not
that he was lying, but that he was so convinced that Saddam possessed WMD that he could not see evidence to the contrary. The other, more probable, explanation is that Mr Cheney was engaged in a personal vendetta, and that this was vicious inside-the-
Beltway politics, not grand trickery.
Indeed, one of the most striking things about the trial is that it demonstrates just how much of a creature of Washington Mr Cheney really is. He may present himself as a plain-spoken son of Wyoming who eventually went on to become the
no-nonsense CEO of a global company. But in reality he is the quintessential Washingtonian.
He started his career as a failed academic, dropping out of Yale after a few terms and never completing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. But he flourished when he came to Washington: attracting the attention of Donald Rumsfeld(*1), rapidly climbing the greasy pole, and becoming Gerald Ford's chief of staff at the age of 34. He had found his perfect milieu.
Conspiring and manoeuvring
During his years as an insider he has acquired the typical habits of mind of veteran Washingtonians: an obsession with spin and gossip, including an over-inflated sense of the importance of newspaper articles; a hyper-sensitive nose for
threats; and, it would appear, a determination to destroy his enemies by whatever means necessary. He began his career in the White House by conspiring with Donald Rumsfeld to sideline the vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, and to rein in Henry
Kissinger (who then combined the jobs of secretary of state and head of the National Security Council). If Mr Libby's evidence is anything to go by, he has been conspiring and manoeuvring ever since.
It was also during the Ford administration that Mr Cheney seems to have acquired a profound distrust of the CIA. He became convinced that the CIA was underestimating the Soviet military build-up. He lent his support to something called
“Team B”, a group of foreign-policy experts who made it their business to second-guess the CIA over the Soviet threat. Mr Cheney's distrust of the CIA grew even stronger in the 1990s, when he concluded that the agency had misjudged Saddam's military
capabilities in the run-up to the first Gulf war. He relied on his own intelligence sources—the latter-day equivalent of Team B—and made repeated visits to the CIA headquarters in Langley to interrogate officers there on their intelligence. Mr Wilson was
thus a ready-made target for Mr Cheney: an Iraq war sceptic who had been sent to Niger by a notoriously soft agency and who tried to ventilate his views in the newspapers.
All this still leaves the biggest question unanswered. Where did Mr Cheney get his fervour from? The average Washington insider is a consummate trimmer. Mr Cheney comes across as a man firmly in the grip of an ideology. It will take
more than the Scooter Libby trial to explain him fully. But at least Americans have learned a little bit more about the power behind King George's throne.