Cheney's Motives

By Dan Froomkin
1:50 PM ET, 05/14/2009

I'm taking Friday off. Blogging will resume Monday morning.

I've been amazed at how little media pickup there's been of the
revalation by the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the White House started pushing the use of torture not when faced with a "ticking time bomb" scenario from terrorists, but when officials in 2002 were desperately casting about for ways to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks.

Now comes Lawrence Wilkerson, the firebrand former chief of staff to Colin Powell, who writes on the Washington Note blog with more on that story.

And he traces it right back to former vice president Dick Cheney.

"[W]hat I have learned," Wilkerson writes, "is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002--well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion--its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

"So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee 'was compliant' (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, 'revealed' such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

"There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just 'committed suicide' in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi....)"

Wilkerson first came to my attention in October 2005, when he went public with his conclusion that a secret cabal led by the vice president has hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies.

Was he wrong? Hardly. And Wilkerson, a Republican, has been a persistent and prescient critic of the Bush/Cheney regime -- and its effect on his party -- ever since.

As for Cheney, his sudden visibility is stirring up a lot of strong feelings -- and dark humor. For the last three days, my "Cartoon Watch" has been dominated by Cheney cartoons.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Cheney is the most visible -- and controversial -- critic of President Obama's national security policies and, to the alarm of many people in the Republican Party, the most forceful and uncompromising defender of the Bush administration's record. His running argument with the new administration has spawned a noisy side debate all its own: By leading the criticism, is Cheney doing more harm than good to the causes he has taken up and to the political well-being of his party?

"His defenders believe he has sparked a discussion of vital importance to the safety of the country, and they hold up Obama's reversal of a decision to release photos of detainee abuse as a sign that Cheney is having an effect. But there is a potential political price that his party may pay in having one of the highest officials in an administration repudiated in the last election continue to argue his case long after the voters have rendered their decision."

Despite the public's decisive rejection of the man, "Cheney remains powerful enough that most of his GOP critics are not willing to take him on in public. 'The fact that most people want to talk [without attribution] shows what a problem it continues to be,' said one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid."

Maureen Dowd wrote in her New York Times opinion column yesterday: "Cheney has replaced Sarah Palin as Rogue Diva. Just as Jeb Bush and other Republicans are trying to get kinder and gentler, Cheney has popped out of his dungeon, scary organ music blaring, to carry on his nasty campaign of fear and loathing.

"The man who never talked is now the man who won't shut up."

Dan Eggen wrote yesterday in The Washington Post: "For the Cheneys, attacks on the Obama administration have become a family affair.

"Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president and a former State Department official, made a round of cable television appearances yesterday to defend her father's stinging assessments of President Obama, and to toss out a few barbed observations of her own."

He also notes: "The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that enjoyed a prominent role during the Bush years, announced yesterday that Cheney will deliver a May 21 speech on 'keeping America safe.'"

Time's Michael Duffy explores various possible reasons Cheney has gotten so chatty. Among them: "Cheney, who championed the idea of pre-emptive attack doctrine as vice president, knows that in politics as well the best defense is often a good offense....'He's trying to rewrite history,' says a Republican consultant who has experience in intelligence matters. 'He knows that as time goes by, he will look worse. And so he's trying to put his stroke on it.'"

Duffy notes: "Cheney's reappearance delights Democrats — 'Bring it on!' quipped a White House official Tuesday afternoon when asked about Cheney's re-emergence — and dismayed Republicans. Said one: 'We're trying to turn the page and he's climbing out of the grave to haunt us.'"

Cheney's most recent interview was with reliable sidekick Neil Cavuto of Fox News.

"I think the proposition that a new administration can come in and -- and, in effect, launch an attack on their predecessor because they disagreed with the legal advice that was given by the Justice Department or because they find that they don't like the policies that were pursued by the prior administration -- it's one thing to come in and change the policy. It's an entirely different proposition to come in and say that you're somehow going to go after the lawyers in the Justice Department or the agents who carried out that policy. I just -- I -- I think that's outrageous."

As for why he's speaking out, Cheney said "the notion that I should remain silent, while they go public, that I shouldn't say anything, while they threaten to disbar the lawyers who gave us the advice that was crucial in terms of this program, that I shouldn't say anything when they go out and release information that they believe is critical of the program and critical of our policies, but refuse to put out information that shows the results that we were able to achieve -- the bottom line is, we successfully defended the nation for seven-and-a-half years against a follow-on attack to 9/11....

"I don't think we should just roll over when the new administration says -- accuses of us committing torture, which we did not, or somehow violating the law, which we did not. I think you need to stand up and respond to that, and that's what I have done."

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