Sunday, September 10, 2006

Cheney’s Power No Longer Goes Unquestioned

The New York Times
Cheney’s Power No Longer Goes Unquestioned

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 — From those first moments five years ago when Secret Service agents burst into Vice President Dick Cheney’s office on Sept. 11, lifted him off his feet and propelled him to the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center, the man who had returned to Washington that year to remake the powers of the presidency seemed unstoppable.

Within minutes, Mr. Cheney was directing the government’s response to an attack that was still under way. Within weeks, he was overseeing the surveillance program that tracked suspected terrorist communications into and out of the United States without warrants. Within months, he and his staff, guided by a loyal aide, David S. Addington, were championing the reinterpretation of the rules of war so that they could detain “enemy combatants” and interrogate them at secret detention facilities run by the C.I.A. around the world.

It was Mr. Cheney and his staff who helped shape the rules under which members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda were denied some of the core rights of the Geneva Conventions and would be tried by “military commissions” at Guantánamo Bay — if they faced trial at all.

“I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it,” Mr. Cheney said in December on a flight from Pakistan to Oman. “You know,” he added, “it’s not an accident that we haven’t been hit in four years.”

But as the nation observes the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Cheney finds the powers he has asserted under attack and his influence challenged. Congress and the Supreme Court have pushed back at his claim that the president alone, as commander in chief, can set the rules for detention, interrogation and domestic spying.

On Wednesday afternoon in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Cheney sat silently as President Bush urged Congress to restore to him the powers, stripped away by the Supreme Court in a 5-to-3 ruling in June, to create military commissions and define the precise meaning of the Geneva Conventions when it comes to interrogations.

There is little question that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney still share the goal of expanding the power of the presidency: legislation they have sent to Congress would essentially allow them to set the rules of evidence, define interrogation techniques and intercept domestic communications as they have for the past five years.

But they have been stymied in their effort to simply assert those powers and carry them out with minimal oversight, as part of Mr. Cheney’s declared goal to restore to the presidency an authority that he believed was dangerously eroded after Vietnam and Watergate.

On national security issues, Mr. Cheney, once the unchallenged adviser to a president who came to office with little experience in foreign affairs, remains a pivotal figure but now vies for influence with other officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser. Over the past 18 months, Mr. Cheney appears to have reluctantly given ground on detention practices and, at least for now, on policy disputes involving Iran and North Korea.

On Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee — controlled by Mr. Cheney’s Republican allies — declared that there had been no basis for Mr. Cheney’s repeated claims that Saddam Hussein had harbored a Qaeda leader and had ties to the group. But Mr. Cheney has never conceded that his statement was in error.

His prediction in 2002 that overthrowing Mr. Hussein would force radical extremists “to rethink their strategy of jihad” proved wrong, as Mr. Bush implicitly acknowledged last week when he described how the array of enemies facing America has multiplied. Mr. Cheney’s friends and former aides said they were mystified about how the same man who as defense secretary in 1991 warned that “for us to get American military personnel involved in a civil war inside Iraq would literally be a quagmire” managed, 15 years later, to find himself facing that prospect.

A Waning Influence

Measuring the accumulation or the erosion of power is an imprecise art. But interviews with more than 45 people over the past five months — including current and former White House aides, foreign diplomats, members of Congress and confidants of Mr. Cheney — painted a picture of a vice president who, while still influential, has seen his power wane.

Most agreed to speak candidly only if their names were not used. Mr. Cheney himself declined repeated requests for an interview. Instead, his office encouraged Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley to give interviews to dispute the view that Mr. Cheney’s power is in decline.

Mr. Hadley said the vice president “is often the first to insist that the president hear a variety of views” and argued that reports of his powers in the first term were always exaggerated. “It’s the president who creates the foreign policy around here,” Mr. Hadley said, “not some hidden hand.”

Ms. Rice disputed the view that she had supplanted Mr. Cheney, pointing out that he still had one-on-one lunches with Mr. Bush where he could make his views known “in his quiet way.”

Mr. Cheney’s defenders said that over the summer he was among the strongest voices arguing within the White House that the United States had to give Israel as much time as possible to strike a decisive blow against Hezbollah.

But those same insiders said that in retrospect Mr. Cheney’s power was at its peak in 2003 and 2004, before Iraq’s insurgency flared, before the abuses at Abu Ghraib were revealed, before the setbacks in Congress and at the Supreme Court.

Without the help of his closest adviser, I. Lewis Libby Jr., who resigned last fall after his indictment in the Central Intelligence Agency leak case, Mr. Cheney has lost the early warning radar that gave him and his staff such command over the federal bureaucracy. Administration insiders said Mr. Cheney and his aides were now having to fight to maintain positions that a few years ago he would have won handily.

“During the first term, Cheney was considered one of the smartest guys in the administration,” said Representative Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois. “But his influence has been diminished because of the Scooter Libby thing and because the war in Iraq has not gone well.”

In his second term, Mr. Bush has grown less dependent on Mr. Cheney for information, current and former officials said. When Joshua B. Bolten became the White House chief of staff earlier this year, he told associates that he wanted to make sure the president heard from more voices. “My impression is that there are a lot more data points or gathering points now,” said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota.

For instance, Mr. Bush has turned to another Washington insider, James A. Baker III, who served Mr. Bush’s father as secretary of state, for help as the co-chairman of an outside group developing options for dealing with Iraq. One group member said, “You get the sense that the president now realizes, perhaps a little late, that he needs Baker to find him an exit door.”

Mr. Cheney told NBC News in May that his influence with Mr. Bush was unchanged. “I feel like he gives me the access that I need to be able to do my job,” Mr. Cheney said, adding later: “I give him the best advice I can. He doesn’t always agree. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t.”

Challenges in Congress

Perhaps nowhere has Mr. Cheney’s shifting influence been more visible than on Capitol Hill, where the vice president’s ability to win his way without challenge — a luxury he enjoyed through much of the first term — has evaporated.

In the first four years, Mr. Cheney often bypassed Congress on issues like detention policy.

He and Mr. Addington began to pave the way for the reassertion of executive power that they had long talked about. Mr. Cheney took control of crucial intelligence-gathering programs, including the one that involved eavesdropping on conversations between suspects in the United States and their overseas counterparts without getting a warrant from a special court set up by Congress for such cases.

“They have a view of executive authority that basically smothers the other two branches,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who found himself at odds with Mr. Cheney on detention and interrogation policy.

But in the second term, whether the issue was the treatment and prosecution of terror suspects or Congressional oversight of domestic spying, Mr. Cheney has been forced into an unhappy retreat.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling struck at the heart of Mr. Cheney’s goal to expand presidential powers. By mid-July, it prompted the White House to concede that terror suspects had a right under international law to basic human and legal protections under the Geneva Conventions.

Similarly, Mr. Bush’s announcement on Wednesday amounted to an opening gambit in negotiations with Congress over the rules of tribunals, in what could amount to bargaining over the scope of Mr. Bush’s powers.

Mr. Hadley said in an interview that in recent weeks Mr. Cheney had offered advice to Mr. Bush about how to deal with the court’s decision. But Mr. Hadley, not Mr. Cheney, has been acting as negotiator with Congress, a decision that administration officials said reflected the rockiness of the vice president’s relationship with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Cheney discovered the depth of that opposition last summer, when Republicans began to rebel against the White House after he tried to block a bill by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, that would bar cruel and inhumane treatment of all prisoners in American custody.

In a tense, 30-minute meeting in July 2005, Mr. Cheney scolded three Republicans — Mr. McCain, Mr. Graham and Senator John W. Warner of Virginia — for proposing legislation that he said interfered with the president’s authority to protect Americans against terrorist attacks.

But the senators did not budge despite the threat of a veto. “The three of us were firmly of one view, he of another,” Mr. Warner said.

After the Senate and the House voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Cheney’s position, the White House decided that the vice president had become so radioactive that his interventions were losing votes, rather than winning them, White House officials acknowledge. So Mr. Cheney stepped aside, and the less ideological, more lawyerly Mr. Hadley was sent to deal with Mr. McCain. The result was a deal that Mr. Cheney had previously rejected.

The White House also appeared to yield this summer when it agreed to allow a secret intelligence court to rule on the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s program of eavesdropping without warrants. Civil rights groups and lawmakers from both parties have since criticized the agreement and cast doubt on whether it will be approved by Congress.

Shifting Constellations

At the height of his influence in the Bush White House two years ago, Mr. Cheney stepped into the Oval Office early one evening and raised an alarm about an agreement that American negotiators were about to sign in Beijing.

The negotiators, mostly from the State Department, were trying to entice North Korea to sign a document outlining the steps for resolving the standoff over the country’s nuclear weapons. But it lacked the tough language on disarmament that North Korea had rejected and that Mr. Cheney knew Mr. Bush wanted.

With Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, at a black-tie dinner where they could not be easily reached on secure telephones, Mr. Cheney “declared this thing a loser,” said a former senior official involved in the discussions that night.

Mr. Bush sent new instructions to the negotiators — through the National Security Council, rather than the State Department — that essentially killed the deal. “Powell and Armitage were not happy,” one official said. “But it was too late.”

It would be hard to imagine a similar course of events today. Soon after the start of the second term, Mr. Bush began signaling to foreign leaders visiting him in the Oval Office that he knew much had gone wrong in his first term, and that he empowered Ms. Rice to put a new emphasis on consultation and teamwork with allies. Ms. Rice, aides said, asserted her authority early, sending her own envoy to the North Korean nuclear talks last September, though the process has so far proved fruitless.

This spring, Ms. Rice determined that the only way to hold together the international coalition against Iran was to volunteer to join negotiations with Tehran, but only if it first agreed to suspend its production of uranium. (So far, the Iranians have refused.)

The proposal was notable because in the first term, Mr. Powell’s top aides, led by Richard N. Haass, the director of policy planning, had tried and failed to promote direct engagement with the Iranians.

Ms. Rice said that when her proposal to engage Iran was presented to the president this spring, Mr. Cheney agreed that it was worth a try and that changed circumstances required a changed strategy.

“The constellations have shifted somewhat,” said Dov S. Zakheim, who served as an undersecretary of defense in Mr. Bush’s first term, giving an image used by others to suggest that Mr. Cheney has been partially eclipsed.

In particular, Mr. Cheney has fewer allies in crucial posts than he once did. Those who have left the administration include Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, who quit as deputy defense secretary and undersecretary of defense last year.

Mr. Cheney’s associates said the departure of Mr. Libby was particularly severe. As Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, Mr. Libby served as the vice president’s eyes and ears around Washington, working the bureaucratic machinery deftly and choking off ideas Mr. Cheney opposed before they rose to the Oval Office. “Scooter was a big loss,” Mr. Feith said.

For his part, Mr. Cheney brushes off poll approval ratings now hovering around 20 percent.

“I suppose, sometimes, people look at my demeanor and say, well, he’s the Darth Vader of the administration,” Mr. Cheney told CNN in June. “I’m not running for anything. My career will end, politically, with this administration. I have the freedom and the luxury, as does the president, of doing what we think is right for the country.”

Mr. Cheney still appears regularly in public, mainly in front of military crowds or campaigning for Republicans. His stump speech denounces Democrats who have called for withdrawal from Iraq and news organizations that have revealed secret counterterrorism programs.

Mr. Cheney maintains that what matters now is convincing the country that it is really at war and that defeat is not an option. And at 65, he seems willing to wait for his vindication. As Mr. Cheney recently told NBC, “History will decide how I did.”