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The Unseen Path to Cruelty

John D. Ashcroft, who was attorney general at the time, declined to discuss details of the dispute but said the vice president's views "carried a great deal of weight. He was the E.F. Hutton in the room. When he talked, everybody would listen." Cheney, he said, "compelled people to think carefully about whatever he mentioned."

When a U.S. District Court ruled several months later that Padilla had a right to counsel, Cheney's office insisted on sending Olson's deputy, Paul D. Clement, on what Justice Department lawyers called "a suicide mission": to tell Judge Michael B. Mukasey that he had erred so grossly that he should retract his decision. Mukasey derided the government's "pinched legalism" and added acidly that his order was "not a suggestion or request."

Cheney's strategy fared worse in the Supreme Court, where two cases arrived for oral argument, shortly after Padilla's, on April 28, 2004.

For months, Olson and his Justice Department colleagues had pleaded for modest shifts that would shore up the government's position. Hamdi, the American, had languished in a Navy brig for 2 1/2 years without a hearing or a lawyer. Shafiq Rasul, a British citizen at Guantanamo Bay, had been held even longer. Olson could make Cheney's argument that courts had no jurisdiction, but he wanted to "show them that you at least have some system of due process in place" to ensure against wrongful detention, according to a senior Justice Department official who closely followed the debates.

Addington, the vice president's counsel, fought and won again. He argued that any declaration of binding rules would restrict the freedom of future presidents and open the door to further lawsuits. On June 28, 2004, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in the Hamdi case that detainees must have access to a lawyer and an opportunity to challenge their status as enemy combatants before a "neutral decision maker." The Rasul decision, the same day, held 6 to 3 that Guantanamo Bay is not beyond the reach of federal law.

Eleven days later, Olson stepped down as solicitor general. His deputy succeeded him. What came next was a reminder that it does not pay to cross swords with the vice president.

Ashcroft, with support from Gonzales, proposed a lawyer named Patrick Philbin for deputy solicitor general. Philbin was among the authors of the post-Sept. 11 legal revolution, devising arguments to defend Cheney's military commissions and the denial of habeas corpus rights at Guantanamo Bay. But he had tangled with the vice president's office now and then, objecting to the private legal channel between Addington and Yoo and raising questions about domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Cheney's lawyer passed word that Philbin was an unsatisfactory choice. The attorney general and White House counsel abandoned their candidate.

"OVP plays hardball," said a high-ranking former official who followed the episode, referring to the office of the vice president. "No one would defend Philbin."

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'Administration Policy'

Rumsfeld, Cheney's longtime friend and mentor, gathered his senior subordinates at the Pentagon in the summer of 2005. He warned them to steer clear of Senate Republicans John McCain, John W. Warner and Lindsey O. Graham, who were drafting a bill to govern the handling of terrorism suspects.

"Rumsfeld made clear, emphatically, that the vice president had the lead on this issue," said a former Pentagon official with direct knowledge.


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