February 7, 2004

The Day Dick Cheney Was Rocked To The Core


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

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 judgment."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 inferentially.

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 destruction programs.

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

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, Republican 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, Cheney himself.

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 growing steadily.

Of course, there's always another day.