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PBS Frontline: 'Cheney's Law'

Michael Kirk
Producer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007 11:00 AM

Frontline producer Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Cheney's Law," which examine's the legal strategy adopted by the Office of the Vice President to expand the executive branch's war time powers.

" Cheney's Law" airs Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Kirk has produced more than two hundred national television programs. A former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, Kirk was the senior producer of Frontline from the series' inception in 1983 until the fall of 1987. His most recent Frontline productions include "Endgame," "The Lost Year in Iraq," "Rumsfeld's War," "The Torture Question," and "The Dark Side," which give an in-depth assessment of the war on terror and the state of the nation's military establishment, and "The War Behind Closed Doors," an analysis of the political infighting that led to the war with Iraq.

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Michael Kirk: Hello everyone. ... I'm on board, there are lots of questions waiting and I'll get to them as fast as I can...

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Los Angeles: A very interesting show sir, but a bit rushed. There's so much ground to cover that many aspects that ended up as passing details deserve "Frontline" shows of their own -- David Addington for example. I do hope you'll return to Cheney, specifically as regards Halliburton, his bizarre family and his service to Bush I.

Michael Kirk: I agree. Every time we think we've finished telling these stories (this is our tenth documentary since Sept. 11) we find more to let you all know about. I'm sure we're not finished quite yet.

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Washington: I liked your program, although I think it's possible that Mr. Goldsmith is not exactly the white knight as portrayed and that Mr. Yoo is perhaps not Darth Vader, as he does work at Berkeley -- but no matter, I think your documentary showed that anytime you find a lawyer who agrees with you all the time, that's not a good lawyer by definition. Now if you could only figure out why Dick Cheney's limo has tinted windows you can see through? Seems to defeat the purpose.

Michael Kirk: If I've learned one thing it is that nothing is as simple as it seems.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Thanks for the "Frontline" piece. What did Addington do before he discovered "public service"? Like Addington, how many other top White House officials declined to be interviewed? Can you tell us who they are and what they do? Is this Trappist -- busy hands, quiet mouths -- aspect to government employment just a recent Bush administration requirement or do you expect this is a trend that will carry over to his successor's regime? Even though Addington wouldn't come forward and discuss his work, do you have any idea what he intends to do once he leaves the service of Cheney? Thanks much.

Michael Kirk: Michael Kirk: I sincerely wish Addington, the vice president and many other members of the administration would talk to us. We have spent years accumulating serious, in-depth questions for them and obviously we believe the American people would be well served if they agreed to talk to us. I'm not sure what David Addington intends to do after his service in the Bush administration.

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Anonymous: Does the expansion of powers of the executive branch appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle? I haven't heard this issue brought up by any of the Democrats running for president.

Michael Kirk: Asking the Democratic candidates what their position is about this matter is an important question. Asking them which of the powers the current president is exercising they would keep is even one step better. And today, Congress could ask the new attorney general designee the same kind of questions. Will they?

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Daytona Beach, Fla.: Because enough information was available to discount the tubes, the yellow-cake and the mobile chemical labs before the war, and in February Powell had said that Saddam did not have WMDs, and the inspectors said he did not have WMDs, how much responsibility rests on the media's shoulders for dropping the ball on the Watergate of their era?

Michael Kirk: Between the Office of the Vice President, the Office of Special Plans, the Central Intelligence Agency, a host of office holders and the media -- there's plenty of blame to go around

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Columbia, S.C.: I respect Cheney for working within the system to advocate and get what he wants, but where do you feel the line is drawn -- or is it? Is that his aim? Where does the greater benefit to the people of the country come into the equation, and not just what the executive branch desires?

Michael Kirk: These are all good questions. Presumably it's what we have the courts and congress for...

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Washington: Why do you think John Yoo still advocates his position on plenary power of the president when others have backtracked? Does he truly believe in his legal arguments (specious at best) or is he simply too stubborn and proud to concede?

Michael Kirk: John Yoo has told "Frontline" he stands firmly by his positions.

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Dorchester, Mass.: I watched your program last night. It was interesting but held nothing new for readers of newspapers and news magazines. Why was the topic chosen? I always expect new ground and exceptional reporting from "Frontline." While I cannot fault the reporting I surely missed the new ground. It was good, though, to see Charlie Savage -- Pulitzer Prize winner of the Boston Globe -- in the show discussing the effect of "signing statements." What is the next topic for "Frontline"?

Michael Kirk: My sense is that people value an in-depth examination of a topic that "connects-the-dots". Newspapers "break" news and print magazines often go into some depth, but television rarely does. Every time we do the audience responds quite positively because we offer context.

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Alexandria, Va.: While the President clearly is a strong believer in the executive approach to the "war on terror," is there any evidence that he or his staff actually have initiated any of these approaches, or is it clearly all the work of the Vice President and his people?

Michael Kirk: Many in Washington spend a great deal of time trying to figure out the power equation between the President and Dick Cheney. Clearly there is a division of labor but my sense is that George W. Bush is still the president.

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Boodletown, Md.: Great show last night. I think some people might say there wasn't much in it that was "new," but I think that's beside the point. Most of the info has dripped out piecemeal over time; the great thing about a documentary like yours is that it summarizes and encapsulates events and shows the "landscape" and pattern. My question is, do you think there was anything in what Cheney and his gang did that was outright illegal and therefore "actionable" and prosecutable under law? (There's no doubt in my mind he ought to be strung up by the heels, but proving a case in a court of law or the court of public opinion is a different matter.)

Michael Kirk: I am not aware of any credible allegations of illegal behavior by the vice president or his staff.

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Seattle: Is it fair to assume that, should control of the White House shift to the Democrats, the powers put in place by this administration would not be rescinded?

Michael Kirk: Historically (take a look back at FDR and Harry Truman) interest in expanded executive power is not the exclusive realm of one party.

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Menomonie, Wis.: It's surprising and reassuring to know that there are decent Republican lawyers who opposed Cheney's power grab. I'm especially impressed with Ashcroft, Goldsmith and Comey. On the other hand, Cheney's legal hit squad of Addington and Yoo is positively frightening. These guys are intellectual thugs who represent a true threat to democracy. Is their power waning, and is there any way to excise them from the body politic?

Michael Kirk: There is a very real political struggle underway between some in Congress and the White House over these matters, but as we mentioned in our program last night the administration continues to prevail.

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Minneapolis: Thanks for taking questions. My wife had an interesting question: She caught the last few minutes of "Cheney's Law" and asked me "is 'Frontline' always so liberal?" I tried to explain that while the tone might appear anti-Republican, it's a pretty factual telling of reality, not a partisan hack job on the administration. What are your thoughts?

Michael Kirk: The people who were taking the hardest positions on our broadcast last night were hardly liberal -- John Ashcroft, James Comey, Jack Goldsmith, Brad Berenson, FBI Director Mueller. We were reporting the details of an intense behind-closed-doors struggle inside the Republican administration of George W. Bush.

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Riverdale, N.Y.: What should Congress do under the next president -- as they obviously lack the guts to confront this one -- to roll back the damage done to their power and to individual rights?

Michael Kirk: My sense is that the struggle with Congress will continue. There is a bit of an ebb and flow quality to this issue, but that said...many people we talked to told us the inroads made by the vice president and his lawyer David Addington will be the last legacy of this administration.

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Alexandria, Va.: Once again "Frontline" hits the mark. I can't help but think that the Senate Judiciary Committee was glued to its collective screen last night. My only question is, who does the voiceovers for the "Frontline" series?

Michael Kirk: Will Lyman has been the voice of "Frontline" for 26 years.

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Washington: Thank you, Mr. Kirk, for another interesting installment in a series that seriously has eroded any confidence I still may have had in our federal government. What do you think about the revelation from the Nacchio (Qwest) case in California that the Bush administration had approached the telecoms before Sept. 11? It certainly seems that these efforts to circumvent the law started almost the minute Cheney and Addington could get them moving.

Michael Kirk: I read that story (in The Washington Post). It bears close examination and raises important questions. I have a feeling we haven't heard the last of this matter.

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washingtonpost.com: Verizon Says It Turned Over Data Without Court Orders (Post, Oct. 16)

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Austin, Texas: Thank you, Mr. Kirk, for your work and the special that aired last night. Did any of the people you interviewed for this piece think that the legal contortions used for the warrantless surveillance program, or anything else for that matter, rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors"?

Michael Kirk: I didn't go there with people I interviewed. We were really trying to pull together what has happened and to place it in a context that established a new way of looking at events that we have all heard bits and pieces about. I'm never really comfortably talking prospectively about these matters. I'll leave that to pundits, lawyers and academics.

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Boston: You said in this session that there is no evidence that Cheney has done anything illegal. Your program made quite clear that he and the president disregard valid laws that they dislike. Is this not illegal? And if it is illegal, does it constitute grounds for impeachment?

Michael Kirk: I didn't say they haven't done anything illegal -- I said I had not heard of any credible allegations that they had. That doesn't mean that someone somewhere right now isn't assembling a case.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Mr. Kirk, do you think Cheney and the other architects of this radical expansion of executive power are readers of history? Do they see the conventional American belief that we live in a Republic as "quaint," with our traditional balance of powers being as outdated as the quill pen? Is most of this power grab permanent, no matter who gets elected in 2008? Could you just imagine a Sen. Richard Russell or Sam Rayburn sitting still while a president took away all their powers? What's wrong with these people?

Michael Kirk: People I have talked to about this matter say the vice president and David Addington read a great deal of history. By all accounts the lessons they draw from past events may be different from yours. As to Rayburn and Russell, who knows what would have happened if they had come up against the formidable skills of Dick Cheney and David Addington. I would like a front row seat for that one...

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Jamestown, N.D.: How are presidential signing statements (similar to the one profiled on "Frontline") different from a line-item veto (which I understand to be unconstitutional)? And is the president's signature valid apart from the signing statement, or is the statement considered part of the signature? In other words, can the signing statement be negated without reconsidering the bill? Thank you for an excellent program.

Michael Kirk: Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe has written extensively about this subject. I bet he knows the answer.

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Re: Your answer to Columbia, S.C.: With all due respect, Cheney has advocated for, and received, much power towards eliminating the authority of the courts and Congress. I for one do not feel that there are many checks and balances left in the system. It is hard to see anyone standing up to Cheney to define where the line might have been crossed. He has achieved the perfect storm of a compliant OLC, a conservative Supreme Court and a spineless Congress.

Michael Kirk: Take this up with your Sen. Graham -- he's taken on the Office of the Vice President over these matters. He's also complained about Congress's lack of spine.

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Washington: The key really does seem to be, what was the change that was made to accommodate Ashcroft? The program indicated that that could not be divulged.

Michael Kirk: Whatever President Bush did to make the program acceptable to the Justice Department is a secret. As far as I know only a handful of people know what the change was.

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Westcliffe, Colo.: You had Suskind on the show but not the Treasury Secretary O'Neill? Why not. The gentleman from Alcoa must have known a lot about working with his pal, Dick Cheney.

Michael Kirk: Ron Suskind, as an author, has a much broader view of these matters than the former Treasury Secretary.

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Orlando, Fla.: You have served your country well. What will be your next investigation, and do you think the money is a good thing to investigate -- like "deep throat" said?

Michael Kirk: The oldest adage -- "follow the money" is always useful. I'm starting a new film now ... I can't say what it is ... but I'm hopeful you all will find it useful as you make decisions about who our next president should be.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Its curious to me why other presidents haven't flexed the muscle of there office in this way; or have they? Or is it just that this administration has proven so adroit at confounding the Congress and usurping more power? In the end, the tactic really hasn't worked out for this administration as Goldsmith wrote in a New York Times magazine piece -- but it seems to me it can't be that other presidents haven't tried because they were perceptive enough to predict a backlash. I'd like to leave the blundering Nixon administration out of this as an easy example of another administration. Please name another. Thanks much. I'm a big fan.

Michael Kirk: Well, you can't really leave the Nixon Administration out of it. But if we must...there are examples in every administration of an effort to flex this muscle...and sometimes the president has been successful (Truman, FDR), but not in the directed, and long-lasting way that seems to be the intent and result of Dick Cheney and David Addington. Most of the knowledgeable observers we talked with say this administration has been much more successful (and directed) than any other. I think ... of course ... that Sept. 11 had/has an awful lot to do with their success.

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San Antonio: Based on your report one assumes that as the 2006 elections unfolded so did hearings targeting those that left Justice Department at the end of the first term of the presidency. Those people portrayed part of the story presented. In a way one view of the report is that a few within the administration have hijacked the government and taken action as if they own the truth, making all of us and the rest of all the government irrelevant. Why have the check and balances failed, and why is "Frontline" the only organization providing this view (apparently)?

Michael Kirk: It remains to be seen if the checks and balances have failed ... some tell us a necessary correction is inevitable (they believe the vice president has overreached and his actions will actually result in a setback for the cause of enhancing executive power). As to your statement that "Frontline" is the only organization providing this view -- let's give credit to The Washington Post team that wrote a very strong series of stories in this area; and Charlie Savage at the Boston Globe; and Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas at Newsweek; Jane Mayer at the New Yorker; and James Risen and Scott Shane and the New York Times -- their reports throughout the years have kept the spotlight focused on this important subject.

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St. Louis: I had to step out of the room for a little bit, but I believe you never mentioned Karl Rove and his influence on "selling" all of the moves of the administration. I think he, sadly enough, did a magnificent job of convincing our citizens to accept our loss of human rights and the Iraq War. His mastermind made these heinous acts more palatable to the public, and therefore we saw unbelievably misguided "patriotic" calls to support this lawless administration. Will we see you follow that path, too? Though ... I must admit, as a 25-year journalism veteran, you did a masterful job on this installment of "Frontline." My hat goes off to you sir!

Michael Kirk: Thank you. My time is up. It has been a real pleasure reading your questions. I'm sorry if I didn't get to yours ... perhaps next time.

Signing off...

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