Washington Post National Reporter
Monday, June 25, 2007 1:00 PM
Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman will be online Monday, June 25 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his stories about how Dick Cheney built one of the most powerful vice presidencies in U.S. history and his role in post-9/11 decisions.
Gellman ( contact info and story archive) is a special projects reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post. He shared the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2002 and has been a jury-nominated finalist (for individual and team entries) three times.
Marshall, Va.: Fantastic series. Thank you for the good work. How long did it take putting this together? When did you finish it? Thank you for your fantastic work.
Barton Gellman: It took about a year for Jo Becker and me to report and write this. Obviously we accumulated a lot more information than fits into (only!) 14 open pages of the newspaper. There's so much to this package -- main stories, sidebars, graphics, interactives -- that it won't be finished until the final tweaks in day 4. There were mature drafts of the stories a few weeks ago, but producing all the add-ons and final refinements took some time. We didn't want to rush it unless we had to.
New York: Do you know if any U.S. military or CIA detainees have tried to sue their interrogators under the War Crimes Act?
Barton Gellman: I'm not well enough informed on this to answer Live. Anyone want to pitch in?
Jacksons Gap, Ala.: Is what he has done legal? Is there anything that can be used to get him out of office? Very good article. Thanks!
Barton Gellman: We make no judgment whether the vice president's actions are good, bad, legal or illegal. Some of the legal arguments offered by the vice president have been rejected in court, which means that subsequent reliance on them -- given substantially similar facts and circumstances -- would be unlawful. But there's always room for new disputes in the world of law....
Roeland Park, Kans.: Where's the documentation? I tend to believe what has been written but I preach to my right-wing friends that there must be documentation. You make a lot of claims that involve secret memos and meetings -- how do we know there is any truth in those claims without some kind of documentation? We've been scammed by the media before.
Barton Gellman: I commend that attitude, which is exactly that of a good reporter. We've managed to put an unusually high fraction of our sourcing on the table for readers -- on the record quotes from principals in the events we describe, direct quotation of documents, links to some of those documents. But there's no way to get all of it that way. No one is going to speak on the record about national security secrets, or about privileged legal advice that's offered to the president. And some of our sources do fear retribution, which is not irrational in the circumstances. At some point we ask for the reader's trust, and attempt to earn it with our track record, and with the way we use the evidence we can display.
Asheville, N.C.: I can't help but wonder what the outcome of all the wrangling and manipulating about policy was. Do you have any idea what the value of the intelligence gathered using these questionable techniques was? Has Cheney continued to champion them because he was seeing useful intelligence gathered using the cruelty? Thanks.
Barton Gellman: Very important question, no good answer available on the public record. Even among professional interrogators, the use of strong coercion (sometimes referred to as "fear up--harsh") is highly controversial. I've spoken to some who appear to believe sincerely that these techniques produce life-saving results. Others, including one who has served multiple tours overseas post-9/11 and has taught advanced interrogation courses in the "black" world -- i.e. clandestine operations and military special ops -- tell me that you lose much more than you gain because you give up on alternative techiques that prove more effective in the long term. There's also the controversy over whether you get more false leads than good ones when your subject is suffering. I tend to think it's a cop out to assert that cruelty never works. First of all, we don't have enough information to know whether that's true. And second, we have to make a decision as a society whether there are lines we won't cross even if doing so would produce results. The usual way that novices think about this question -- epitomized on Fox's drama '24' -- is the "ticking time bomb," in which you *know* someone has information that would save many lives, and that there's almost no time to extract it. Nearly anyone who knows this business seriously will say that scenario has seldom if ever presented itself to real life investigators. I'd commend to you this piece in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/02/19/070219fa_fact_mayer
Arroyo Grande, Calif.: Has Cheney considered the possibility that creating the "unitary presidency" sets a precedent for future Democratic presidents as well as Republicans? Or does he even care what happens beyond his lifetime?
Barton Gellman: One of the early defenses he offered for his concept of executive authority came on behalf of Jimmy Carter, in the Desert One rescue debacle in Iran. I think he is sincere in believing the nation needs a president with these powers. Doesn't mean he has no preference which flavor of president.
Milwaukee: How where you able to get all this information about Cheney released?
Barton Gellman: On some subjects, such as the economy (tomorrow's installment), the vice president's staff encouraged knowledgeable people to cooperate. On other subjects, not so much. But there are a great many people in and out of government who have had access to pieces of this story -- paperwork, emails, participation in meetings and so on. Some speak because they like Cheney and want to show why; others, the opposite; some, to promote themselves; others, because they care about whether the public record is accurate. We recognize that there are many mixed motives, and look for ways of triangulating on a given factual claim so that we can judge its authenticity.
If you really want to explore this question, you can read this:
Nieman Reports, Summer 2004.
Revealing a Reporter’s Relationship With Secrecy and Sources
Cotter, Ark.: Your compelling story seems to contain an error of omission. In "The Canary in the Coalmine," Jesselyn Radack reports a December 2001 memo from Rumsfeld's counsel authorizing the torture of American John Walker Lindh. The memo is in her book. Is there a reason this was omitted?
Barton Gellman: Oh, we've omitted a lot more than that. There are several good compilations of memos on detainee treatment, one of the best being The Torture Papers edited by Karen Greenberg et al, and we certainly don't discuss all of them. No way we could. We selected the ones in which we knew the vice president played an important role, plus the essential context.
Preston, Minn.: I have seen patients that have had startling and profound personality changes following coronary events and other life threatening health problems. Has there been any evidence Cheney has had such an effect? I remember reading a quote by someone to the effect he is no longer the person he once was.
Barton Gellman: There have been two main grounds of speculation that Cheney has changed fundamentally: grave health threats and the experience of 9/11 itself. We can't see inside his head, so we can't know. But I don't think you need either theory. Cheney's views have been remarkably stable over the years; what's changed is his power to apply them. Brent Scowcroft famously said "Dick Cheney, I don't know any more" (that's pretty close if not verbatim). I'd submit that the Dick Cheney he knew had about the same views in the first Bush administration, but lost many of the internal debates to Scowcroft, Jim Baker and of course President Bush (41) himself. Even now you don't hear about Cheney's disagreements with George W. Bush, because he's highly disciplined and secretive, but we describe some of them in tomorrow's story.
Granite City, Ill.: Could Congress legally defund the Office of the Vice President?
Barton Gellman: I don't know specifically -- in general Article I gives Congress authority over expenditure of public funds, subject to presidential veto. But constitutional scholars would surely debate whether that power could be used, in effect, to make the coordinate executive branch disappear. Taken to its extreme, this claim would mean Congress could forbid all expenditure of funds by or on the president, which would leave us effectively with no president. Whenever fundamental constitutional powers collide, the questions get interesting. I'm not a lawyer and don't even play one on the web, so perhaps there's an actual constitutional scholar lurking in this discussion.
Washington, D.C.: Given the subject I really thought your reports would be much worse, like maybe he drowned a Senator as in "The Manchurian Candidate." Where does "Angler" come from?
Barton Gellman: The Secret Service never says where its code names come from. Often the names seem to have a sly double meaning -- i.e. Sawhorse for Al Gore. Cheney's a well known fisherman. He also plays the angles effectively in government, so we liked it as a series sig.
Washington, D.C.: Many commentators apparently believe that your stories so far insinuate that Cheney and his staff have somehow acted improperly. Yet under the Constitution it is the elected president, and not his subordinates, who ultimately have the authority and responsibility for making decisions in the Executive Branch. Today's piece also noted that Cheney and his aides "didn't circumvent the process," one participant said. "They were just very effective in using it." So, is the insinuation of some kind of impropriety fair, and if so why?
Barton Gellman: This is a highly polarized political climate, and we know that readers will accuse or applaud us for making normative points. We're not. We're saying as best we can what happened and is happening, and anyone can judge whether it's good or bad. In our internal conversations in the newsroom, we all agreed from the beginning that it would be absurd to begin with the premise that there's something untoward about a vice president exercising great influence or even power. He's an elected constitutional officer, he does what the president permits him to do, and the president can change his portfolio any time. We're insinuating nothing there. The secondary question is whether Cheney is bypassing normal vetting procedures, or following his own advice as chief of staff. But politics ain't beanbag, and he's not the first to roll over or around internal opponents. He's probably more powerful than any non-president, at least since Kissinger, but this kind of bureaucratic combat happens in every administration.
San Francisco: Did you get any sense, in your reporting, why these highly trained attorneys deferred to their "client" the vice president, who lacks legal training and war experience? Was it simply his power?
Barton Gellman: Within ethical limits, a lawyer follows his client's preferences. Sometimes clients ask, can I do this? A lawyer might offer extraneous advice on whether it's a good idea, and might offer a view on the odds of a successful defense in court, but neither of these assessments is exactly a science. There's another layer of questions when your "client" is both an individual person and a U.S. constitutional officer, which is why we need those highly trained attorneys.
Seattle: To what degree is Cheney's attempt to classify his office as "legislative" motivated by personal conviction, and to what degree is it motivated by his desire to run out the clock on any potential oversight into his less-than-savory dealings?
Barton Gellman: Let me borrow your soul-scanner and I'll tell you. Motives are pretty hard to establish.
On executive power in general, Cheney's convictions are longstanding, bipartisan and sincere, even if they do come in awfully handy when he's the guy in the White House.
The claim to which you refer -- actually his lawyer says "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch" - is fascinating. It's not groundless, based on the structure of the Constitution, but what it means about Cheney's obligations under laws and executive orders is not obvious. Certainly no vice president has made this kind of claim before.
Lansing, Mich.: It looks like the Vice President and his then chief of staff, Lewis Libby, orchestrated the leak and smear campaign against Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. Is there any discussion in your articles about the Libby conviction and the Plame leak etc....?
Barton Gellman: Nope. We and others have said all we know about that, and this series aimed to break some ground in places that had not been much examined before.
Canada: Thank you very much for your reporting. The first two pieces are wonderful. I'm wondering if any of the mainstream media have approached you about this story? What kind of feedback have you being getting from the pieces?
Barton Gellman: Gosh, I thought I was MSM.... Ordinarily I wouldn't expect anything particular from competitors. Some may try to match a story, others to advance it, others to put resources elsewhere. I've been asked to appear on a lot of tv and radio shows to talk about it. Next up is "Hardball" this afternoon on MSNBC.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Should we assume that your articles may have some new information as far as the president is concerned, or is he fully aware of what is going on with Cheney and his staff?
Barton Gellman: We can't know for sure, since no one has access to what happens when the president and vice president are alone in a room. (Anyone with transcripts: feel free to send them here.) I have no reason to doubt that Bush understands Cheney's big-picture role. It's impossible that he could know every detail.
Los Angeles: Why are fellow Republicans who support strong law-and-order initiatives totally mute when members of the executives branch ignore or violate laws and statutes? I just can't understand it.
Barton Gellman: I won't endorse the "ignore or violate" premise, but a similar phenomenon has fascinated me in the Bush years. Why did a Republican Congress allow the Bush administration to step so hard on its oversight prerogatives? There were lots of examples of a GOP-chaired committee asking for information and getting stiffed -- without any serious objection. I don't think there's a huge mystery here. Partisan politics are so polarized in recent years that there weren't enough Republicans who were unhappy enough to do anything contrary to their party interests. It will be interesting to see whether Democrats behave any differently.
Atlanta: In your mind and regarding the war on terror, who is the "acting" chief executive? Your article seems to put Bush in a more passive role; aquiesing to Cheney's direction instead of the other way around.
Barton Gellman: I'll just keep saying we can't know that. It's perfectly plausible, and from all the circumstances seems likely, that Bush told Cheney (whoever brought it up) that yes, he'd like to make sure captured terrorists are kept out of criminal courts where they'd have access to lawyers and technicalities. And that yes, sending them to Guantanamo Bay sounds like a great answer. I doubt that Bush proposed a particular legal mechanism, but it's not uncommon for a president to tell a subordinate to "find me an answer that achieves this result."
Milpitas, Calif.: What got you started on this series now, rather than, say, five years ago?
Barton Gellman: Been busy with other things. ;-)
(See link to my home page above.)
I'd love to have tackled this in 03-04, when it was clear that Cheney loomed unusually large for a vice president, but (1) there was a war on, and we had our hands full with that and (2) the VP is a hard target. It's always easier to look back and reconstruct, because far more information becomes available over time, so Jo and I could not have learned half this much had we tried to do it when you suggest.
Richmond, Va.: How do you think Richard Cheney, Chief of Staff would have handled Richard Cheney, Vice President when it comes to process and protecting the President from "oh, by the way" decisions?
Barton Gellman: Now that would have been a collision worth watching. I'd put my money on this VP. He has a lot more experience, a bigger network, and a spot in the constitution that chief-of-staff Cheney couldn't touch. OTOH, it didn't come out so well for Rockefeller. Cheney helped push him off the ticket in 1976.
Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Barton, in your article you suggest that David S. Addington, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was widely experienced in what Judge Advocates call "operational law." What experience did Addington actually possess?
Barton Gellman: What we meant to suggest is that Addington was highly experienced in, and very well read in, national security law and the authorities of the commander in chief (including the authority to detain and question enemies). He had been General Counsel of the Defense Department, a lawyer at the CIA and counsel on the House intelligence committee. I haven't met a lawyer who knows him -- including lots of those who dislike him -- who doesn't think he's one of the sharpest minds and best informed lawyers in government.
Augusta, Maine: Will your series examine the relationship of KBR and/or Halliburton to the vice president's policies?
Barton Gellman: We've got to leave something for another day.
Floris, Va.: Have been wondering when the next Woodstein might emerge; I hereby dub thee The Gellbeck Gang!
Barton Gellman: With all due respect to Jo, it beats BecGell, which could be subject to embarrassing mispronunciation.
Jemison, Ala.: Was the Vice President ever associated directly with the creation of "Prospect for a New American Century," or part of its think tank? Are any of his top advisors and aides associated with it, besides Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz?
Barton Gellman: At least two of Cheney's staffers, Scooter Libby and Aaron Friedberg, were signatories to the Project for the New American Century. Cheney was not.
Barton Gellman: We're up to around 600 questions here, I believe, and I've got to end this -- so don't take it personally if I didn't get to yours. If you have tips or information, do please find my contacts on the home page above. Thanks for coming.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.