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Dick Cheney’s shadow play

Sidney Blumenthal
25 November 2005

In 1976, the new CIA director was prompted to authorise an alternative unit outside the CIA to challenge the agency's intelligence on Soviet intentions. George HW Bush was more compliant in the political winds than his predecessor. Consisting of a host of conservatives, the unit was called Team B. A young aide from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Wolfowitz, selected to represent the interest of secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's, served as co-author of Team B's report. The report was single-minded in its conclusion about the Soviet build-up and cleansed of contrary intelligence. It was fundamentally a political tool in the struggle for control of the Republican Party, intended to destroy detente and aimed particularly at Kissinger.

Both Ford and Kissinger took pains to dismiss Team B and its effort. (Later, Team B's report was revealed to be wildly off the mark about the scope and capability of the Soviet military.) With Ford's defeat in 1976, Team B became the kernel of the Committee on the Present Danger, a conservative group that attacked President Carter for weakness on the Soviet threat. The growing strength of the right thwarted ratification of SALT II, setting the stage for Reagan's nomination and election in 1980.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1978, Dick Cheney became the Republican leader on the House Intelligence Committee, where he consistently fought congressional oversight and limits on presidential authority. When Congress investigated the Iran-Contra scandal (the creation of an illegal, privately funded, offshore US foreign policy) in 1986, Cheney was the crucial administration defender. At every turn, he blocked the Democrats and prevented them from questioning vice-president Bush.

Under Cheney’s leadership, not a single House Republican signed the special investigating committee's final report charging "secrecy, deception and disdain for law." Instead, the Republicans issued their own report claiming there had been no major wrongdoing.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton. He is the author of The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.

Also by Sidney Blumenthal in openDemocracy:

“Bush’s Potemkin village presidency” (September 2005)

“Republican tremors” (October 2005)

“George W Bush: home alone” (October 2005)

“Dick Cheney’s day of reckoning” (October 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The benefit of secrecy

The origin of Cheney's alliance with the neo-conservatives goes back to his instrumental support for Team B. Upon being appointed secretary of defense by the elder Bush, he kept on Wolfowitz as undersecretary. And Wolfowitz kept on his deputy, his former student at the University of Chicago, Scooter Libby. Earlier, Wolfowitz and Libby had written a document expressing suspicion of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalising perestroika and warning against making deals with him, a document that President Reagan ignored as he made an arms-control agreement and proclaimed that the cold war was ending.

During the Gulf war of 1991, Secretary of Defense Cheney clashed with General Colin Powell. At one point, he admonished Powell, who had been Reagan's national security advisor, "Colin, you're chairman of the Joint Chiefs ... so stick to military matters." During the run-up to the war, Cheney set up a secret unit in the Pentagon to develop an alternative war plan, his own version of Team B.

"Set up a team, and don't tell Powell or anybody else," Cheney ordered Wolfowitz. The plan was called Operation Scorpion. "While Powell was out of town, visiting Saudi Arabia, Cheney – again, without telling Powell – took the civilian-drafted plan, Operation Scorpion, to the White House and presented it to the president and the national security adviser," writes Mann in his book. Bush, however, rejected it as too risky. General Norman Schwarzkopf was enraged at Cheney's presumption. "Put a civilian in charge of professional military men and before long he's no longer satisfied with setting policy but wants to outgeneral the generals," he wrote in his memoir.

After Operation Scorpion was rejected, Cheney urged Bush the elder to go to war without congressional approval, a notion Bush dismissed. After the Gulf war victory, in 1992, Cheney approved a new defence planning guidance document advocating US unilateralism in the post-cold-war era, whose final draft was written by Libby. Cheney assumed Republican rule for the indefinite future.

One week after Bill Clinton's inauguration, on 27 January 1993, Cheney appeared on "Larry King Live," where he declared his interest in running for the presidency. "Obviously," he said, "it's something I'll take a look at ... Obviously, I've worked for three presidents and watched two others up close, and so it is an idea that has occurred to me." For two years, he quietly campaigned in Republican circles, but discovered little enthusiasm. He was less well known than he imagined and less magnetic in person than his former titles suggested.

On 10 August 1995, he held a news conference at the headquarters of the Halliburton company in Dallas, announcing he would become its chief executive officer. "When I made the decision earlier this year not to run for president, not to seek the White House, that really was a decision to wrap up my political career and move on to other things," he said.

The reward of experience

But in 2000, Cheney surfaced in the role of party elder, above the fray, willing to serve as the man who would help Governor George W Bush determine who should be his running mate. Prospective candidates turned over to him all sensitive material about themselves, financial, political and personal. Once he had collected it, he decided that he should be the vice-presidential candidate himself. Bush said he had previously thought of the idea and happily accepted. Asked who vetted Cheney's records, Bush's then aide Karen Hughes explained: "Just as with other candidates, Secretary Cheney is the one who handled that."

Also in openDemocracy on Republican travails in Bush’s second term:

Godfrey Hodgson, “’Gimme five! US Republicans’ amoral minority” (June 2005)

Terry Lynn Karl, “Bush’s second Gulf disaster” (September 2005)

Godfrey Hodgson, “The death of American politics” (October 2005)

Most observers assumed that Cheney would provide balancing experience and maturity, serving in his way as a surrogate father and elder statesman. Few grasped his deeply held view on presidential power. With Rumsfeld returned as secretary of defense, the position he had held during the Ford administration, the old team was back in place. Rivals from the past had departed and the field was clear. The methods used before were implemented again. To get around the CIA, the Office of Special Plans was created within the Pentagon, yet another version of Team B. Senior military dissenters were removed. Powell was manipulated and outmanoeuvred.

The making of the Iraq war, torture policy and an industry-friendly energy plan has required secrecy, deception and subordination of government as it previously existed. But these, too, are means to an end. Even projecting a "war on terror" as total war, trying to envelop the whole American society within its fog, is a device to invest absolute power in the executive.

Dick Cheney sees in George W Bush his last chance. Nixon self-destructed, Ford was fatally compromised by his moderation, Reagan was not what was hoped for, the elder Bush ended up a disappointment. In every case, the Republican presidents had been checked or gone soft. Finally, President Bush provided the instrument, 11 September 2001 the opportunity. This time the failures of the past provided the guideposts for getting it right. The administration's heedlessness was simply the wisdom of Cheney's experience.

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