In memoir, Cheney defends decisions, Bush as president
By Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung,
Former vice president Richard B. Cheney provides an unapologetic defense of the George W. Bush administration in his memoir to be released next week, including explanations of his own decisions on contested national security and domestic policies that often come at the expense of former Cabinet members and colleagues.
Those include the justification to invade Iraq in 2003, a judgment he blames on CIA failures, and the lack of support for his urging that the United States strike a Syrian nuclear reactor site in 2007. Israel ended up doing so despite recommendations from then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that it “choose the path of diplomacy,” which Cheney correctly predicted the Israelis would reject.
Although he praises Bush for his leadership and many of his decisions, Cheney said he warned him that nominating White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court would be “a tough sell.” Bush eventually withdrew the nomination amid questions about her qualifications to serve on the high court.
“The president later said he was sorry he had put his friend through such a meat grinder,” Cheney writes in “In My Time,” a copy of which The Washington Post obtained on Thursday.
Cheney's “personal and political memoir,” as he describes it, confirms the central role he played in the eight tumultuous years of the previous administration. He notes that “from the transition onward, there were media stories that I was somehow in charge,” echoing accounts of his time in office that portray him as one of the nation’s most powerful vice presidents.
“They weren’t true,” Cheney quickly adds. “And stepping out too publicly would only have fed them.”
But at times he belies that statement with details that suggest Bush relied on his opinion. For example, Cheney writes that he received his daily intelligence briefing at 6:30 a.m., then attended the president's briefing a few hours later.
“If I was traveling or at an undisclosed location, the president would often be briefed in the White House Situation Room, so I could join by secure videoconference,” Cheney writes.
Cheney also recalls Bush, then the governor of Texas, bringing him a cup of coffee in his room at the governor’s mansion in Austin where in February 1999 he was meeting with the emerging campaign team. He calls it the “highest-ranking room service I've ever had.”
Later, Bush asked Cheney to lead his vice presidential search. Cheney writes that “it is harder to find a good vice presidential candidate than you might think,” adding that “everyone has negatives.”
Sen. Connie Mack (Fla.) told Cheney that he did not want to be considered, and Cheney discloses that Donald H. Rumsfeld, who would later become Bush’s defense secretary, was briefly on the list of possibilities. Finally, Bush turned to him.
“He said to me more than once, ‘Dick, you're the solution to my problem,’ ” he writes.
Mindful of his weak heart, Cheney left a signed resignation letter with David Addington, his general counsel, to be given to Bush if he were ever incapacitated.
Addington “double-wrapped the letter in two manila U.S. government envelopes, took it home and put it in a dresser drawer” for easy access, Cheney writes.
He almost resigned another way. On three occasions leading up to the 2004 campaign, Cheney writes, he offered to “take myself off the Republican ticket.”
He knew he had become “a lightening rod for attacks from the administration’s critics,” he writes, and getting Bush reelected had become “critically important” to continuing the fight against terrorism. Bush brushed him off twice, Cheney writes, but on the third occasion, “he went away and thought about it” before saying several days later that “he wanted me to run with him again.”
The memoir unfolds largely chronologically, although it is dominated by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Cheney’s role in the construction of the intelligence and national security framework to manage the aftermath.
He recounts being flown along with his wife, Lynne, to Camp David shortly after the attacks, and a meeting there a few days later with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser.
“We were embarking on a fundamentally new policy,” he writes. “There would be no easy, quick victory followed by an enemy surrender. I thought it probable that this was a conflict in which our nation would be engaged for the rest of my lifetime.”
Cheney notes that he was “surprised by the intensity of the media interest” in the “undisclosed location” where he was sometimes reported to be, mentioning a “Saturday Night Live” skit that imagined him in a cave in Afghanistan.
But, he writes, the “undisclosed location” was the more mundane Vice President’s Residence, his home in Wyoming and, most often, Camp David.
Cheney sheds little new light on the development of some of the Bush administration’s more controversial national security policies, and echoes his previous criticism of President Obama’s effort to end harsh interrogation tactics and to close the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Cheney defends the use of harsh interrogation methods on terrorism suspects, practices some human rights groups have called torture, and the National Security Agency’s former eavesdropping program on communications from the United States.
“The Terrorist Surveillance Program is, in my opinion, one of the most important success stories in the history of American intelligence,” he writes. “If I had to do it all over again, I would, in a heartbeat.”
In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Cheney portrays Bush as more rigorous about intelligence claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction than has been previously suggested.
On the evening of Dec. 22, 2002, with the White House decorated for Christmas, Bush led his national security team in a review of the CIA assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the administration's chief argument for war.
Cheney describes Bush as turning to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet, who delivers the now infamous appraisal: “It’s a slam-dunk, Mr. President. It’s a slam-dunk.”
“The president wanted a better presentation,” Cheney writes. “What he envisioned, he said, was a case against Saddam that was like a closing argument in a trial.”
In a lengthy discussion of the Valerie Plame case, Cheney is scathingly critical of the administration’s public apology for Bush’s claim in his State of the Union address in January 2003 that Hussein has “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Many accounts of the episode have discounted the claim — including that of former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, whom the CIA sent to Africa in 2002 to investigate it, and whose marriage to Plame, a CIA official, was later reported in media accounts suggesting that she had arranged his trip.
Once her clandestine identity was revealed, Plame had to leave the CIA. Several administration officials later acknowledged discussing Plame with reporters, but only I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was convicted of lying to federal investigators about it.
Cheney calls the public apology, issued by Rice, a “major mistake,” and says that she later “came into my office, sat down in the chair next to my desk, and tearfully admitted I had been right.”
“On many occasions,” Cheney says, he told Bush that Libby deserved a pardon, invoking Bush’s father’s pardon of former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger after Weinberger was indicted in the Iran-contra scandal. As Bush was leaving office, Cheney says, “I was under the impression that he agreed with me.”
But at the last of their private lunches, he says, Bush told him he had changed his mind. “George Bush made courageous decisions as president,” Cheney says, “and to this day I wish that pardoning Scooter Libby had been one of them.”
Although he offers sympathy for the “difficult” task of intelligence agencies, Cheney lays the blame squarely on them for the administration’s claims, writing that “the intelligence that Saddam had stockpiles of WMD was wrong.”
He repeatedly criticizes Tenet, but says that Tenet’s decision to resign in June 2004, as the WMD story was unraveling, was “unfair to the president,” especially during the reelection campaign.
Cheney also describes his pre-war diplomacy, drawing on relationships he had formed over decades in Washington.
On Jan. 11, 2003, Cheney invited Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, to his West Wing office at Bush’s request. Bandar was mindful of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when his country backed U.S. forces but Hussein remained in power.
“Is Saddam going to survive this time?” Bandar asked, according to Cheney.
“ ‘Bandar,’ ” I said, “ ‘once we start this, Saddam is toast.’ ”
Although they served amiably together during the administration of George H.W. Bush and jointly managed the first Gulf War, the relationship between Cheney and Powell, as secretary of state, quickly disintegrated under George W. Bush. Powell has publicly faulted Cheney for much of what he thinks went wrong, and Cheney returns the favor.
Powell, Cheney writes, repeatedly took policy differences outside the government — to the media and allies in Congress — rather than voicing them on the inside.
When Bush began to consider Cabinet changes after he was reelected, Cheney thought that “getting a new secretary of state was a top priority.” After Bush accepted Powell’s requested resignation letter, Cheney writes, “I thought it was for the best.”
As he has in previous accounts, Cheney notes his unwavering support for Rumsfeld as defense secretary, saying he twice talked Bush out of replacing him until Bush finally decided, in November 2006, that Rumsfeld had to go.
As Bush’s suggestion, Cheney says, he was the one to call Rumsfeld with the news.
Cheney devotes two pages to post-war failures after the Iraq invasion.
As have other members of the administration, he notes that “we had anticipated a number of dangerous contingencies that failed to materialize,” including the presence of weapons of mass destruction and Hussein’s torching of the oil fields.
But, he writes, “it is fair to say that we underestimated the difficulty of rebuilding a traumatized and shattered society.”
U.S. officials sent to run the government “didn’t always get it right,” he acknowledges, “and we didn't always get it right in Washington.”
By the summer of 2010, Cheney writes, he was “rapidly descending into end-stage heart failure.” After having emergency surgery to receive a battery-operated heart pump, he was unconscious for weeks.
“I had a prolonged dream,” he writes, “more vivid than any I've ever had, about a beautiful place in Italy.” In a country villa, he “walked stone paths to get coffee and newspapers,” he writes.
“I have some medical choices to make in the future,” Cheney, 70, notes without elaboration, “but I'm doing well for now. I've gotten used to the various contraptions that are always with me.”