Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Behind the Throne

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Notes on Who Is In Charge

Monday, February 5, SALON, through a special arrangement with Der Spiegel, published a fascinating interview with Tyler Drumheller.

And who would that be? As SALON notes -

    Tyler Drumheller, 54, had a 25-year career working for the CIA. In 2001, he was promoted to become the intelligence agency's chief of European operations. The controversial kidnappings by CIA agents of suspected al-Qaida terrorists - including the German-Syrian Mohammed Haydar Zammar and the German-Lebanese Khaled el-Masri - happened under his watch. Drumheller, who retired in 2005, recently published his memoir, "On the Brink," in the United States. He spoke recently about the CIA's role in international kidnappings and alleged torture (including Europe's cooperation with the U.S. government), Dick Cheney's mandate to go to the "dark side" in the war on terror, and the bogus intelligence that unleashed the nightmare in Iraq.

The item would be wonderful if he didn't keep saying things like this - "I'm not allowed by the agency to comment on any of those cases or the so-called secret prisons. I would love to, but I can't. We have a lifelong secrecy agreement, and they are very, very strict about what you can say.'

Still, there is a lot there, and of course there's his book from last October.  Of course the same restrictions apply there too.

Still, this exchange kind of jumps out of the interview -

    But at the very least, don't you need to be certain that the targets of those renditions aren't innocent people?

    It was Vice President Dick Cheney who talked about the "dark side" we have to turn on. When he spoke those words, he was articulating a policy that amounted to "go out and get them." His remarks were evidence of the underlying approach of the administration, which was basically to turn the military and the agency loose and let them pay for the consequences of any unfortunate - or illegal - occurrences.

    So there was no clear guidance of what is allowed in the so-called war on terrorism?

    Every responsible chief in the CIA knows that the more covert the action, the greater the need for a clear policy and a defined target. I once had to brief Condoleezza Rice on a rendition operation, and her chief concern was not whether it was the right thing to do, but what the president would think about it. I would have expected a big meeting, a debate about whether to proceed with the plan, a couple of hours of consideration of the pros and cons. We should have been talking about the value of the target, whether the threat he presented warranted such a potentially controversial intervention.

    This was no way to run a covert policy. If the White House wants to take extraordinary measures to win, it can't just let things go through without any discussion about their value and morality.

So there's no discussion of whether this or that is the "right" thing to do - as if the doing of the thing makes it inherently right because of who is doing it - but oddly enough, no discussion of whether it is even worth doing.  So it doesn't matter if sending someone who might know something off to Syria for ten or twelve months of torture has much of a chance of producing anything of value. You just do it.

Drumheller says the obvious -

    We made mistakes. … But the truth is that the White House believed what it wanted to believe. I have done very little in my life except go to school and work for the CIA. Intellectually I think I did everything I could. Emotionally you always think you should have something more.

The "something more" might have been pushing back with what we do and don't know for sure - not providing source material for preconceived notions and staying carefully silent on the rest - and asking whether doing X, Y or Z is worth doing at all.  But the environment wasn't right for that.

The environment was (and is) certainly odd, and at the center, really, was not the president - he was only someone whose petulance had to be assuaged.  Rice knew it was her job to placate him - to calm him down.  Drumheller here, without a second thought, assumes everyone knows the policies, practices and procedures come from the vice president's office. It's just a given that Cheney is running the show.

Of course that's the stuff of conspiracy theory - the idea that the president is just an empty suit, a spoiled frat-boy who knows nothing about much of anything, an embarrassment that must be contained, while the guy who really runs things takes care of business.  Michael Moore is so passé.

On the other hand, the Libby trial is turning a lot of people into Michael Moore. 

David Kurtz notes that in the February 4 item from the Washington Post - Vice President's Shadow Hangs over Trail - a synopsis of Cheney's involvement in the Plame matter. It's pretty clear he was the one who ordered and pretty much planned exposing that CIA agent, to discredit her husband, who had been outraged that the husband had blown one key justification for the Iraq War sky high. Cheney's office had asked the CIA for facts about Saddam Hussein purchasing yellow-cake uranium in Africa, and the husband, a former ambassador to several African nations who also formerly had key diplomatic postings in Iraq and Iran, went and looked into it, and found it never happened.  Still, the famous "sixteen words" saying it had happened got into the State of the Union. The husband, outraged, went public with what he found. And Cheney set in motion the press leaks and the media blitz - "I never sent HIM, and he only went because the wife, running the spies trying to figure out Iran's nuclear capabilities, set up the trip as a boondoggle - to get him out of the house and give him something to do." 

It's a silly defense, of course. It doesn't speak to the facts of the matter, or more precisely, to the lack of any facts to support the claim.  Had the CIA sent Ted Nugent or Mother Theresa or Sean Connery as James Bond, there was nothing going on, but for some obviously forged documents. Still, the plan was to discredit the messenger - so people would forget the message. We find Cheney's key aide, Mary Maitland, wrote a memo to Cheney saying this should be the line given to Tim Russert of NBC - he'd surely help out. He was "a friend." And there was Judith Miller of the New York Times - Cheney explained to Libby, his chief-of-staff, what to tell her.  It's all on record now. It's rather ugly.  No one is looking good.

But it is quite clear that the president was on the sidelines in the whole business - back in the Oval Office playing video games or something.  Someone else was running things.

David Kurtz says the Post didn't cover the real story -

    Actually, you could headline just about every story that way these days: "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over ________."

    Fill in the blank: Iraq. Iran. Global warming. Renditions. Domestic surveillance.

And he is changing his mind about things -

    I will confess to having been extremely skeptical in the early years of the Bush Presidency that Cheney was really running the show. It seemed too facile an explanation for what I was convinced was a far more complicated situation. Until the 9/11 Commission report came out.

    Even the watered-down version of events in the Commission's report made it absolutely clear that Cheney, ensconced in the White House bunker on the morning of the attacks, had issued shootdown orders outside of the chain of command and then conspired with the President to conceal this fact from the Commission.

    Since then, I've gone from being open to the idea of an Imperial Vice Presidency to being convinced that historians will debate whether something approaching a Cheney-led coup d'etat has occurred, in which some of the powers of the Executive were extra-constitutionally usurped by the Office of the Vice President.

Of course, adding to his discomfort, the week before, was the effort to bring to light a deep government secret - just who works in the Office of the Vice President.  They are on the government payroll, but no one knows the number of people, or their names. We may pay their salaries, but who they are and what they do is just none of our business.

The vice president's office submitted this entry to the government directory of who is employed where, in appointed positions, the "Plum Book" as it's called -

    The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

So the claim is that this one office is not like any other federal agency - they all have to list their employees. The Office of the Vice President is somehow exempt.  This was inserted instead of a list.  Even the president must submit a roster of employees, poor guy. Hey - Cheney is good at this. It's that theory of a "unitary executive" in action.

See Lindsay Beyerstein in The imperial vice presidency - "In other words, Cheney just pulled a fourth branch of government out of his ass to explain why he doesn't have to…"

Kurtz also was made suspicious by what he read in the Robert Kuttner item See Dick Run (the Country) in The American Prospect -

    If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent. The media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.

It seems to be working, as Kurtz notes, and something could be done about it -

    … the press buys the pretense of Bush being "the decider," and relentlessly covers Bush - meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press conferences, while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take half the members of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost nothing to do anyway, and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They might learn how to be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the government.

    The other thing missing has been congressional oversight. Since Kuttner penned his essay, Democrats have gained control of Congress. A hearing on the constitutional role of the vice president might be an excellent place to start. From all indications, Cheney has amassed considerable power due to his experience and savvy vis-a-vis the President's relative lack thereof. But that is a separate issue from the constitutional role of the OVP, and whether, or in what ways, various statutory regimens, particularly in the national security arena, apply to the OVP.

That won't happen. Cheney scares people.

See also - Whose Government Is It, Anyway?

    So not only have Cheney and his staff expanded the powers of the presidency under the theory of the "unitary executive," they have arrogated many of these powers to themselves under the guise of the "unique office" Dick holds.  From his early order to shoot down the fourth of the 9/11 planes, Cheney has been directing foreign, national security and energy policy and, probably, much else as well in secret, while Bush attends ceremonial functions and prances about as "the decider" amid wall-to-wall press coverage.

Kurtz adds too that there is another odd dynamic at play -

    By custom and tradition, the Vice President's role had been circumscribed by how little express power and authority the Constitution granted the position. Hence, all the jokes over the years about the vice presidency. But in a move that is decidedly anti-conservative, in the conventional sense, Cheney moved to fill the void. I fear that what we will eventually find are structural flaws that were deliberately exploited by the OVP, which in turn further undermined constitutional and statutory structures.

    Still, I can't help but be fascinated by the more pedestrian issue of how Cheney continues to assert himself so vigorously without running up against the ego of a cocksure President. How is it that Bush, who is so caught up in macho public demonstrations of his own personal strength and courage, can tolerate a shadow presidency within his own White House? What kind of spell has Cheney cast that allows Bush to continue to believe he is the decider? You can imagine all sorts of dysfunctional psychological dramas playing out behind the scenes.

But whatever is going on there, regarding the legal or political aspect of the vice president's role, Kurtz says it all comes down to the same thing - we just don't know. Kurtz is arguing that it is about time we find out.  Of course he's an attorney. He would.

Another view comes from Digby at Hullabaloo, with a basic WTF? -

    I had always known that Cheney was running the show, but I assumed he did it purely by using the power of the executive branch and manipulation of the president. I had no idea that he might have secretly carved out a previously un-enumerated institution that derives its power from both the legislative and executive branches. What in the hell has really been going on in this administration?

    Larry Wilkerson called it a "cabal" around Dick Cheney. But it seems to have been more than that. They created a shadow government and developed a constitutional theory to support it.

    The undemocratic streak in the Republican Party continues apace. Each time they get power, they seek ways to weaken the nation's understanding of what is acceptable in our democracy and what our constitution provides. (And keep in mind that it is entirely self-serving - they will turn all of that around without a moment's thought when it suits them to challenge the opposition.)

    … This is important and the congress should not let it pass unexamined. The nation needs to know if some precedent has been set for making a vice-president a power center outside the commonly understood three branches of government.

    It's something out of a political thriller, I know, and it's hard to wrap your arms around. But there is a part of me that wonders if it wasn't a plan. It never seemed likely to me that the big money boys of the GOP would trust their fortunes to the blithering fool they set forth as president. Let's just say that I wouldn't be surprised if some conversations before the fact took place.

As for how Cheney deals with the prickly Bush (sorry for that), Digby has the easy answer - "It's not hard for me to imagine at all. Arrogant morons are very easy to manipulate. You just tell them what to think and then tell them they thought of it."

Of course.

The funny thing in all this is that the Libby trial - to determine if Scooter gave false testimony under oath to the grand jury, a bit of perjury obstructing the investigation - seems to have opened a can of worms. Libby may be convicted or not.   It hardly matters.  The trouble is elsewhere. The man about whom nothing is allowed to be known - the man who when asked back in 2000 to find a vice president chose himself - the hidden power behind it all (for Harry Potter fans, he who must not be named) - the fellow who shot his good friend in the face with a shotgun - is becoming much better known, whether he likes it or not.

The CIA guy, Drumheller, just assumed everyone knew all this.  It seems the CIA gets some things straight.



The first-ever National Security Director, John Negroponte, resigned to become number two at State, under Condoleezza Rice (don't even go there). Should Cheney turn out to be in trouble for all this "smear the spy's husband and blow her cover stuff," he resigns, for health reasons, and Rice becomes Vice President. She's a shoe-in for president in 2008 - the Democrats are upstaged.  Hillary may be a woman and Barack may be black, but she's both - so there!  John Negroponte moves up to Secretary of State, of course.  As with his days as our ambassador to Honduras in the Contra years, we now sponsor local death squads worldwide, and many nuns die.

Variation Two - Cheney resigns, for health reasons, and Joe Lieberman is named Vice President. The senate becomes then fifty Democrats and fifty Republicans, as the Republican governor of Connecticut names a Republican to fill Lieberman's term of office, until a special election can be held, which is put off for as long as possible.  By rule, all tie votes in the Senate are settled by the President of the Senate, Pro Tem - the Vice President, Lieberman. Cool.

Variation Three - Cheney resigns, for health reasons, and John McCain is named Vice President.  His run at the Republican nomination is in trouble - the evangelical religious right hates him, and his sucking up to them, renouncing everything he ever said about gays being okay and abortion being a state matter and tolerance being a good thing, is not doing him much good.  As Vice President he gets a boost to overcome all that, and the Cheney-Kristol-neoconservative folks have a presidential candidate for 2008 that will assure us of at least four more years of all-out war in the Middle East, with new fronts when we topple the governments in Iran and Syria, and occupy Tehran and Damascus along with Bagdad.  The dream of "transformation" lives.

Variation Four - Bush resigns, saying he knew all along he was in over his head, and Cheney assumes the presidency.  In his two final years in office, Cheney says not one word about anything, doing what he wants, and his new press secretary, his friend Rush Limbaugh, holds daily one-sentence press briefings - "It's none of your business."

Variation Five - The Bears win the Super Bowl.

This item posted - in its final version - February 11, 2007

[Behind the Throne]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik