So there we were last week hanging out on the banks of the pristine Eagle River, just north of Juneau, awed by the bald eagles right over our heads, feeling the clean Alaskan wind on our faces, looking out at the snow-capped mountains beyond -- and I'm thinking of Dick Cheney.
Even on vacation, the dark shadow of this guy intrudes. This time, amidst all the gorgeous natural surroundings, I was thinking of Cheney's mysterious Energy Task Force in mid-2001 -- the oil and gas and coal moguls who set the Administration's environmental (and very likely some of the war) policies that have turned out to be so ruinous to the air and water and a wide variety of species, including humans.
But Cheney is at the heart of most of the disastrous decisions that have substituted for well-thought-out policy over the past six years, so I would have been led back to him no matter what I was thinking about.
Of course, I was also reading a book about the Administration that fingers Cheney as the eminence grise, the puppetmaster behind the White House curtain. In the wake of Cheney's recent declaration that he is not part of the Executive Branch, thus beholden to nobody, I dipped again into "The One Percent Doctrine," by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ron Suskind. The book, based on interviews with more than 100 officials inside the government, is an eye-opening history of the Administration's so-called "war on terror" as seen from the inside, and it's Cheney, of course, who is the locus of the whole shebang.
KEEPING INFO FROM AN INCURIOUS BUSH
But often he wouldn't, even when vitally important matters were at stake. Such as when Saudi Arabia's all-powerful Prince Abdullah came to Crawford to meet with Bush; this meeting was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach an agreement that would have long-lasting consequences for the region, for the Iraq War, for the Saudi-U.S. relationship, for Israel-Palestine. Here's how Suskind describes what happened:
"[The Saudis] went down the items. Sometimes the President nodded, as though something sounded reasonable, but he offerred little response.
"And, after almost an hour of this, the Saudis, looking a bit perplexed, got up to go. It was as though Bush had never read the packet they sent over to the White House in preparation for this meeting: a terse, lean document, just a few pages, listing the Saudis' demands and an array of options that the President might consider. After the meeting, a few attendees on the American team wondered why the President seemed to have no idea what the Saudis were after, and why he didn't bother to answer their concerns or get any concessions from them, either, on the 'war on terror.' There was not a more important conversation in the 'war on terror' than a sit-down with Saudia Arabia. Several of the attendees checked into what had happened.
"The Saudi packet, they found, had been diverted to Dick Cheney's office. The President never got it, never read it. In what may have been the most important, and contentious, foreign policy meeting of his presidency, George W. Bush was unaware of what the Saudis hoped to achieve in traveling to Crawford."
OILING THE TRACKS TO WAR
Or here's an even more egregious example, because it greased the tracks leading directly to the disastrous Iraq invasion and occupation. The CIA was tasked at the last minute in 2003 to come up with a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) laying out the evidence for going to war. Suskind writes about the 90-page document and what parts Bush was permitted to read:
"Cheney, as far back as the Ford presidency, had experimented with the concept of keeping certain issues away from the chief executive. ... Cheney's view, according to officeholders from several Republican administrations, is that presidents, in essence, needed a failsafe if they were publically challenged with an importunate disclosure about the activities of the U.S. government. They needed to be able to say they had no knowledge of the incident, and not be caught in a lie.
"...With this new George W. Bush presidency, however, Cheney was able to shape his protective strategy in a particularly proactive way. Keeping certain knowledge from Bush -- much of it shrouded, as well, by classification -- meant that the President, whose each word circles the globe, could advance various strategies by saying whatever was needed. He could essentially be 'deniable' about his own statements. ... Under this strategic model, reading the entire NIE would be problematic for Bush: it could hem in the President's rhetoric, a key weapon in the march to war. He would know too much.