Cheney was rocked to the core
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - If United States Vice President Dick Cheney was hoping that the
cold, crisp air of Davos and his private audience with Pope
John Paul II late last month would revive his spirits, as well as his
standing in the polls, he must be deeply disappointed.
Since returning home, he has faced a seemingly unrelenting succession of
disclosures and attacks that appear to get worse with each passing day. What
the albatross was to the ancient mariner, Cheney is fast becoming to George W
Bush's re-election chances.
Just consider what happened to Cheney Thursday: the early morning edition of
the Wall Street Journal ran an article - first reported by Newsweek - on how
Justice Department investigators had asked Halliburton Company for documents
relating to US$180 million in allegedly illegal payments by a consortium of
companies, including Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, in
connection with the construction of a big natural-gas plant in Nigeria in the
late 1990s, while Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive officer.
When the Los Angeles Times hit the news stands a couple of hours later, Cheney
was right there on the front page with the headline: "Scalia was Cheney Hunt
Trip Guest; Ethics Concern Grows." Antonin Scalia is a Supreme Court Justice
who was Cheney's guest on a recent and rather costly (to the taxpayer)
bird-hunting trip to Louisiana, and who also will soon hear a major case on
government secrecy in which the vice president is the defendant.
Legal ethics experts quoted in the story, of course, zeroed in on the question
of whether Scalia might best recuse himself from hearing the case, but there
were also suggestions that perhaps Cheney could have exercised slightly better
judgement. "It is not just a trip with a litigant. It's a trip at the expense
of the litigant," noted one law professor.
Finished with the morning papers, Cheney may have tuned in to watch Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet deliver a passionate defense at
Georgetown University of the official intelligence community's performance in
the runup to the Iraq war, only to find himself a target, if only
While Tenet didn't say anything explicitly about Cheney, he certainly didn't do
much to dispel the increasingly strong impression in Washington - among
Democrats, it's become a conviction - that, of all of Bush's senior advisers,
Cheney and his staff worked hardest to hype what the intelligence community was
saying about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass
While the intelligence community had concluded that Saddam wanted nuclear
weapons, Tenet declared, it also made clear as of late 2002 that Saddam had
none, and that he probably would not have been able to make one until some time
between 2007 and 2009, at the earliest.
That assertion, of course, raises a major question. If the intelligence
community agreed that Saddam had no nuclear weapons, where did Cheney get the
information that would substantiate his statement on the very day that the US
launched its invasion last March: "And we believe he has, in fact,
reconstituted nuclear weapons."
The answer, according to Democratic members of the Congressional intelligence
committees, who have become increasingly outspoken in recent days, is that
Cheney and his staff had an independent source of "intelligence" outside the
formal intelligence community. Lodged in the Pentagon's policy shop under Under
Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the now-notorious Office of Special Plans
"cherry-picked" raw intelligence, interviewed "defectors", and produced its own
talking points and analysis that were "stovepiped" straight to Cheney's office,
notably John Hannah, his top Mideast staffer, and I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his
powerful chief of staff.
When asked about this theory by a Georgetown student on Thursday, Tenet
answered artfully, asserting: "I can tell you with certainty that the president
of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community -
me ... The rest of it, I don't know."
In the legal profession, Tenet's reply is called a negative pregnant, an
apparent denial that suggests that further questioning may be fruitful.
Indeed, Democrat Jane Harmon, the ranking member of the House Intelligence
Committee, noted in a CNN interview on Thursday evening that, in speaking of
"one community", Tenet was effectively confirming that the Pentagon-Cheney
channel, that provided a much more alarmist view of Saddam's capabilities, may
well have been at work
But if Cheney felt displeased by Tenet's performance, things only got worse -
much worse - later in the afternoon when United Press International (UPI)
reported what has been rumored ever since Attorney General John Ashcroft
recused himself from the investigation into the "outing" as a CIA officer by
"two senior administration officials" of Valerie Plame, shortly after her
husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, had published an article in the New
York Times charging that the administration knew that its reports of Saddam's
alleged attempts to buy uranium yellowcake in Africa were bogus.
Quoting "federal law-enforcement officials," UPI's intelligence correspondent
Richard Sale reported on Thursday that the two main suspects were none other
than Libby and Hannah. One official reportedly told Sale that Hannah was being
advised "that he faces a real possibility of doing jail time" in order to
pressure him to implicate higher-ups - presumably Libby, if not, perhaps,
A 1982 law makes deliberately revealing the identity of covert intelligence
officers a felony punishable by as many as 10 years in prison. If either Hannah
or Libby were officially named as suspects or actually indicted, the impact on
Cheney's credibility and electability would be devastating.
According to recent polls, Cheney's approval ratings, hovering around 20
percent, are already far below Bush's, which have themselves sunk below 50
percent for the first time in his presidency. Even Halliburton, whose public
image has become so tarnished that it has launched a controversial television
ad campaign to boost its image, last week listed Cheney's association to the
company as a "risk factor" for its shareholders.
Republicans in Congress, particularly on the intelligence and foreign relations
committees, find themselves having to devote more time and political capital to
defending the vice president, and even some influential Republican donors have
privately suggested that Cheney bow out. Speculation about possible
replacements - most recently, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (the
Republican convention is in New York City, August 30 to September 2.) - is
Of course, there's always another day.
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