Bad heart, errant shotgun, and Halliburton stock options in tow, Dick Cheney has ruled the White House roost for the past five years, amassing enough power to give rise to the joke that George W. Bush is “a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

Yet, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of words have been written on Cheney's role in the Bush administration, most of what's been written fails to explain how the vice president wields his extraordinary authority. Notoriously opaque, the Office of the Vice President (OVP) is very difficult for journalists to penetrate. But a Prospect investigation shows that the key to Cheney's influence lies with the corps of hard-line acolytes he assembled in 2001. They serve not only as his eyes and ears, monitoring a federal bureaucracy that resists many of Cheney's pet initiatives, but sometimes serve as his fists, too, when the man from Wyoming feels that the passive-aggressive bureaucrats need bullying. Like disciplined Bolsheviks slicing through a fractious opposition, Cheney's team operates with a single-minded, ideological focus on the exercise of American military power, a belief in the untrammeled power of the presidency, and a fierce penchant for secrecy.

Since 2001, reporters and columnists have tended to refer to Cheney's office obliquely, if at all. Rather than explicitly discuss the neoconservative cabal that has assumed control of important parts of U.S. policy since September 11, they couple references to “the civilians at the Pentagon” with “officials in the vice president's office” when referring to administration hard-liners. But rarely do the mainstream media provide much detail to explain who those people are, what they've done, and how they operate.

At the high-water mark of neoconservative power, when coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, the vice president's office was the command center for a web of like-minded officials in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and other agencies, often described by former officials as “Dick Cheney's spies.” Now, thanks to a misguided war and a bungled occupation, along with a string of foreign-policy failures that have alienated U.S. allies and triggered a wave of anti-American feeling around the globe, the numbers and influence of those Cheneyites outside the office have receded. No longer quite so commanding, the office seems more like a bunker for neoconservatives and their fellow travelers in the administration. Yet if only because of Dick Cheney's Rasputin-like hold over the president, his office remains a formidable power indeed.

Still, for the first time, nervous Republicans are raising serious questions about Cheney. With his public approval plummeting to previously unknown depths for a major U.S. politician -- by late February he had fallen to just 18 percent -- he has lost all but the most reflexive of knee-jerk conservatives. With the vice president increasingly seen as a liability, there is a quiet murmur among GOP insiders about dumping him. The Moonie-linked Insight magazine, wired into right-wing Republicans, last month reported that moves are afoot to “retire” Cheney in 2007. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, former Bush Senior speechwriter Peggy Noonan gave full voice to the dump-Cheney idea. “I suspect what they're thinking and not saying is, ‘If Dick Cheney weren't vice president, who'd be a good vice president?'” she wrote. “And one night over drinks at a barbecue in McLean one top guy will turn to another top guy and say, … ‘wouldn't you like to replace Cheney?'”

More often than not, from policy toward China and North Korea to the invasion of Iraq to pressure for regime change in Iran and Syria, and on issues from detentions to torture to spying by the National Security Agency, the muscle of the vice president's office has prevailed.

Usually, that muscle is exercised covertly. Last February, for example, after Hamas won the Palestinian elections, King Abdullah of Jordan visited Washington to discuss the implications of the vote. With the support of some officials in the State Department, the young king suggested that Washington should bolster beleaguered President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, to counter the new power of Hamas.

Then John Hannah intervened. A former official at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Zionist think tank founded by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Hannah is a neoconservative ideologue who, after the resignation of Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, moved up to become Vice President Dick Cheney's top adviser on national security.

Hannah moved instantly to undermine Abdullah's influence. Not only should the United States not deal with Hamas, but Abbas, Fatah, and the entire Palestinian Authority were no longer relevant, he argued, according to intelligence insiders. Speaking for the vice president's office, Hannah instead sought to align U.S. policy with the go-it-alone strategy of Israel's hard-liners, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his stricken patron and predecessor, Ariel Sharon. Olmert soon stunned observers by declaring that Israel would unilaterally set final borders in the West Bank, annexing large swaths of occupied land, by the year 2010. His declaration precisely mirrored Hannah's argument that Israel should act alone.

Whether that viewpoint will prevail in the United States is unclear, but early indications are that the Bush administration is swinging in that direction. Hannah's intervention is typical of how the OVP staff has engaged at all levels of the U.S. policy-making process to overcome opposition from professionals in the State Department, the intelligence community, and even the National Security Council (NSC) itself.

Richard Perle, who formerly served on the Defense Policy Board, insists that the power of those who share his worldview is exaggerated. “The myth of the power of the neoconservatives in the administration is exactly that,” says Perle. “The president holds the views that he holds. And the people you're talking about are much closer to the president's view than the people they are arguing against.” But officials who have opposed Cheney believe that President Bush has “views” only about basic principles, and that in making dozens of complex decisions he relies on pre-determined staff papers. Says one insider deeply involved in U.S. policy toward North Korea: “The president is given only the most basic notions about the Korea issue. They tell him, ‘Above South Korea is a country called North Korea. It is an evil regime.' … So that translates into a presidential decision: Why enter into any agreement with an evil regime?”

Last fall, when U.S. envoy Christopher Hill was planning to visit North Korea to try to resolve the impasse over that country's nuclear weapons, Cheney's staff intervened to kill Hill's mission, according to sources involved in planning his trip. That the Office of the Vice President can kill a major initiative by the State Department and the NSC, on an issue of the highest priority, is stark testament to the sustained power of the vice president's office. And despite Cheney's unpopularity -- and the parallel decline of neoconservative influence -- it remains a potent force.

* * *

Devoid of well-known names and faces, the OVP was nearly invisible to the public until last fall. That's when “Scooter” Libby was indicted for lying to federal investigators in the Valerie Plame case, focusing the media spotlight on the vice president's chief of staff and top national security adviser, who resigned immediately. Aside from Libby, however, virtually none of Cheney's current aides has endured any scrutiny. Outside the Washington cognoscenti, it's a safe bet that not one in a hundred Americans could name a single Cheney aide. Since 2001, the list has included David Addington, who replaced Libby; top national security advisers such as Eric Edelman and Victoria Nuland; radical-right Middle East specialists such as Hannah, William J. Luti, and David Wurmser; anti-China, geopolitical Asia hands like Stephen Yates and Samantha Ravich; an assortment of conservative apparatchiks and technocrats, often neoconservative-connected, including C. Dean McGrath, Aaron Friedberg, Karen Knutson, and Carol Kuntz; lobbyists and domestic policy gurus, such as Nancy Dorn, Jonathan Burks, Nina Shokraiil Rees, Cesar Conda, and Candida Wolf -- and a host of communications directors, flacks, and spokespeople over the years, notably “Cheney's angels”: Mary Matalin, Juleanna Glover Weiss, Jennifer Millerwise, Catherine Martin, and Lee Anne McBride.

It is the latter, especially Cheney's press secretaries -- he has run through seven of them -- whose job is saying nothing, and saying it often. His press people seem shocked that a reporter would even ask for an interview with the staff. The blanket answer is no -- nobody is available. Amazingly, the vice president's office flatly refuses to even disclose who works there, or what their titles are. “We just don't give out that kind of information,” says Jennifer Mayfield, another of Cheney's “angels.” She won't say who is on staff, or what they do? No, she insists. “It's just not something we talk about.” The notoriously silent OVP staff rebuffs not just pesky reporters but even innocuous database researchers from companies like Carroll Publishing, which puts out the quarterly Federal Directory. “They're tight-lipped about the kind of information they put out,” says Albert Ruffin, senior editor at Carroll, who fumes that Cheney's office doesn't bother returning his calls when he's updating the limited information he manages to collect.

The OVP's enduring obsession with absolute secrecy first became obvious during the long court battle early in Bush's first term over the energy task force chaired by Cheney. Neither the coalition of watchdog and environmental groups that sued the ovp nor members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office discovered much about the workings of the task force. Addington, then Cheney's general counsel, enforced the say-nothing policy ultimately upheld by federal courts. “He engineered an extraordinary expansion of government power at the expense of accountability,” says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the conservative gadfly group that sued Cheney. “We got a terse letter back from Addington saying essentially, ‘Go jump in the lake.'”

Addington, 49, has spent almost exactly half of his life working for or working alongside Dick Cheney, from an impressionable youngster in his early 20s to the hard-nosed ideologue that he is today. They first met in the early 1980s, when Addington served as a counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Iran-Contra Committee, and then the House Intelligence Committee, when Cheney was a member of the committee. When Cheney became secretary of defense, Addington was his special assistant and then the Defense Department's general counsel. When Cheney toyed with running for president in the 1990s, Addington ran his political action committee. In the ovp, Addington has emerged as the single most militant advocate for the unfettered power of the presidency. “Early on, with the detainee issues, the torture issues, even before Abu Ghraib, people [would say] that David Addington is the source of all this stuff,” says a senior national security lawyer in Washington. “This stuff” includes the spectrum of controversial counterterrorism powers, from military tribunals for captured terror suspects, to justifying torture of prisoners, to detention of alleged terrorists without access to courts or counsel, to the legal rationale for ignoring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in allowing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans. “He believes that in time of war, there is total authority for the president to waive any rules to carry out his objectives,” is how Congresswoman Jane Harman, the intelligence committee's ranking Democrat, described Addington to The Washington Post. “Those views have extremely dangerous implications.”

Addington is typical of the staffers brought on in 2001, when Cheney began assembling what was dubbed, even then, a “shadow NSC.” Unlike previous administrations, including Bill Clinton's, Cheney's office was loaded for partisan bear from day one. Leon Fuerth, who led Al Gore's office of national security affairs for eight years, says that their far smaller operation was led by nonpolitical or military staffers who weren't vetted for political loyalties or ideology.

“The people who worked for me were all seconded from federal agencies, every one of them. They were uniformed officers from all three branches, people from the Department of Commerce, from the CIA, but all of them were professionals and civil servants,” says Fuerth. “I was the only politically appointed person. My deputy was at first an Air Force colonel, and after he retired, an Army colonel.” He recalls that one appointee, settling into an office in Fuerth's shop, hung a portrait of Ronald Reagan.

There probably aren't any portraits of Bill Clinton or FDR on the walls of Cheney's OVP, which sprawls throughout the executive office building across the street from the White House. Instead, the staff -- hand-picked by Libby -- was drawn from the ranks of far-right think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and WINEP, and from carefully screened Cheney loyalists in law firms around town -- all of whom hit the ground running.

Larry Wilkerson, formerly a top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, is a no-nonsense, ex-military man who has spoken out bluntly about what he calls a “cabal” led by Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their top aides. Time after time, in various interagency meetings, all the way up to the Cabinet-level “principals committee,” Wilkerson would watch in astonishment as Cheney's staffers muscled everyone else.

“The staff that the vice president sent out made sure that those [committees] didn't key anything up that wasn't what the vice president wanted,” says Wilkerson. “Their style was simply to sit and listen, and take notes. And if things looked like they were going to go speedily to a decision that they knew that the vice president wasn't going to like, generally they would, at the end of the meeting, in great bureaucratic style, they'd say: ‘We totally disagree. Meeting's over.'” At that point, policymakers from the nsc, the State Department, the Defense Department, and elsewhere would have to go back to the drawing board. And if a policy option that Cheney opposed somehow got written up as a decision memorandum and sent to the Oval Office, he showed up to kill it. “The vice president's second or third bite at the apple was when he'd walk in to see the president,” says Wilkerson. “And things would get reversed, because of the vice president's meeting in the Oval Office with no one else there.”

According to Fuerth, such a skewed modus operandi was unthinkable in the Clinton-Gore administration. “There is no doubt that we exercised a great deal of influence, but it was never in the form of a peremptory, you-may-not-go-down-this-path, or you-must-go-down-this-path,” he says. “It was advisory.”

Former Cheney aides tend to confirm Wilkerson's version of how the OVP operates. Dean McGrath, who served as Cheney's deputy chief of staff under Libby from 2001 until last year, says he didn't hesitate to express the vice president's views during the policy-making process. “I tried to convey at meetings where he would come down on issues,” says McGrath. An important mission of the OVP was to do battle with a resistant bureaucracy. “Often you'd have the permanent bureaucracy that was not on board, especially on all of the issues where you're trying to change things,” he says.

Aaron Friedberg, who served as Cheney's director of policy planning for three years, agrees that the bureaucracy was often an obstacle. “It's not an active resistance. It's a passive skepticism about the whole direction of policy.” Friedberg, who says that he worked on issues of “terrorism, Asia, Europe, Russia, North Korea, Iran, just about everything outside of Iraq,” suggested that the biggest issue on which Cheney had to confront the bureaucracy was over the administration's push for democracy, especially in the Middle East. That program's overseer is his daughter Liz Cheney, a top State Department official.

Wilkerson portrays the vice president's office as the source of a zealous, almost messianic approach to foreign affairs. “There were several remarkable things about the vice president's staff,” he says. “One was how empowered they were, and one was how in sync they were. In fact, we used to say about both [Rumsfeld's office] and the vice president's office that they were going to win nine out of ten battles, because they are ruthless, because they have a strategy, and because they never, ever deviate from that strategy … They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly foist it on the government -- and the rest of the government is all confused.”

Often the rest of the U.S. government -- including even the NSC -- would operate outside the normal interagency process to prevent the OVP from interfering, according to officials who asked to remain anonymous. Perhaps most startling is the sidetracking of the NSC, which is by statute the ultimate arbiter for policy options and recommendations that go to the president's desk.

According to Wilkerson, Cheney's office and the NSC were completely separate on foreign policy. Cheney, says Wilkerson, “set up a staff that knew what the statutory nsc was doing, but the NSC statutory staff didn't know what his staff was doing. The vice president's staff could read the statutory NSC's e-mail, but the NSC couldn't read their e-mail. So, once someone on the statutory NSC figured it out, they used various work-arounds. Like, for example, they would walk to someone's office, rather than send an e-mail, if what they were going to talk about they didn't want to reveal to the vice president's very powerful staff.” But that was difficult because of Cheney “spies” within the bureaucracy, including people like John Bolton at the State Department, Robert Joseph at the NSC, certain staffers at WINPAC (the arms control shop at CIA), and various Pentagon officials, he adds.

Two of the people most often encountered by Wilkerson were Cheney's Asia hands, Stephen Yates and Samantha Ravich. Through them, the fulcrum of Cheney's foreign policy -- which linked energy, China, Iraq, Israel, and oil in the Middle East -- can be traced. The nexus of those interrelated issues drives the OVP's broad outlook.

Many Cheney staffers were obsessed with what they saw as a looming, long-term threat from China. Several of Cheney's highest-ranking national security aides came out of Congresswoman Christopher Cox's rather wild-eyed 1990s investigation of alleged Chinese spying in the United States, tied to the overblown allegations about Chinese contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign. Cox, a California Republican, chaired a highly partisan committee that issued a scathing report about China. According to The New York Times, his 700-page report portrayed China as “nothing less than a voracious, dangerous, and fully-equipped military rival of the United States.” Among the top Cheney aides who joined the OVP in 2001 from Cox's staff were Libby, who served as legal adviser to the committee; McGrath, a key staffer for Cox; and Jonathan Burks, a senior Cox aide who became Cheney's special assistant. Yates, who joined the team from The Heritage Foundation, is a China specialist who has long urged a more confrontational policy. In 2000, he wrote a Heritage paper offering advice to the Bush administration, and slamming Clinton for accommodating China. He urged a stronger, pro-Taiwan policy while predicting a Chinese attack. Charles W. Freeman, who served as U.S. ambassador to China and has known Yates for many years, puts him in the same category as former Defense Department officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, who “all saw China as the solution to ‘enemy deprivation syndrome.'”

Yates, who left Cheney's office recently to join the ultraconservative lobbying and law firm of Barbour, Griffith, Rogers, had an important impact on Asia and Middle East policy. Says Wilkerson: “Generally Steve was quiet. But when there came a time for him to speak, the room grew very silent, and that did it. We weren't going any further in that discussion item if Steve said that the vice president didn't like it. And it didn't take too long to understand that the real power in the room was sitting there from the vice president's office.” Yates declined to comment for this story, but in an interview with National Journal he pooh-poohed the idea that Cheney's office had set itself up as a shadow NSC. “The idea that 10 or 15 people can replicate or supplant the work of the 100 to 200 people on the NSC … is a bit unrealistic,” he said.

For the Cheneyites, Middle East policy is tied to China, and in their view China's appetite for oil makes it a strategic competitor to the United States in the Persian Gulf region. Thus, they regard the control of the Gulf as a zero-sum game. They believe that the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military buildup in Central Asia, the invasion of Iraq, and the expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf states have combined to check China's role in the region. In particular, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a pro-American regime in Baghdad was, for at least 10 years before 2003, a top neoconservative goal, one that united both the anti-China crowd and far-right supporters of Israel's Likud. Both saw the invasion of Iraq as the prelude to an assault on neighboring Iran.

Several of Cheney's top aides, as well as the vice president himself, were early supporters of the neoconservative flagship Project for a New American Century, whose founding statement called for a return to a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” Among them were Libby, Friedberg, and Robert Kagan, who is married to Victoria Nuland, the U.S. ambassador to NATO who served as national security adviser in the OVP. She, in turn, succeeded Eric Edelman, another neoconservative who left the vice president's office to serve as ambassador to Turkey before taking over Douglas Feith's job as chief of policy for the Department of Defense.

The pivotal role of Cheney's staff in promoting war in Iraq has been well documented. Cheney was the war's most vocal advocate, and his staff -- especially Libby, Hannah, Ravich, and others -- worked hard to “fit” intelligence to inflate Iraq's seeming threat. William J. Luti, a neoconservative radical, left Cheney's office for the Pentagon in 2001, where he organized the war planning team called the Office of Special Plans. David Wurmser, another neoconservative from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), joined the Pentagon to found the forerunner of the OSP, the so-called Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which then manufactured the evidence that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were allies. To that end, Wurmser worked closely with Hannah, Libby, Luti, and Harold Rhode, a Defense Department official in Andy Marshall's Office of Net Assessment. Ravich, along with Zalmay Khalilzad, a neoconservative Middle East analyst and now U.S. ambassador to Iraq, worked hard to build the Iraqi National Congress–linked opposition forces under Ahmad Chalabi. Libby and Hannah produced key propaganda for the war, including the most inflammatory and inaccurate speeches delivered by Cheney and Bush. The Libby-Hannah team also authored a 48-page speech for Colin Powell's 2003 United Nations appearance so extreme that Powell trashed the entire document. That version has never been released.

David L. Phillips, the author of Losing Iraq, was a State Department consultant during the prelude to the war in 2003, and he watched Ravich operate. His account provides a perfect paradigm for the OVP's role in interagency meetings, in this case involving the most important decision of the administration's tenure: the decision to go to war in Iraq. During meeting after meeting in London, in Brussels, or in Washington with Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and the rest of the Iraqi opposition (including its Shiite fundamentalist component), the youthful, inexperienced Ravich dominated the course of events because of her association with Cheney. “The State Department officials showed extraordinary deference to her,” says Phillips. “It was almost a sense that their efforts would be judged by Ms. Ravich and reported to the OVP.” The INC and Chalabi “would run to Samantha when there were disagreements.” In those meetings, the INC “would hold forth on their ties to the OVP as a form of threat over U.S. officials or other Iraqis. And U.S. officials felt that if there was a misstep, the Iraqis would go running to the OVP and they would have their chains yanked,” says Phillips. In Washington, Hannah served as the INC's chief political point of contact, according to Entifadh Qanbar, an INC official who is serving as defense attaché at the Iraqi embassy.

Like Hannah, who came to the OVP from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Wurmser traipsed a roundabout path to Cheney's staff: He worked with Hannah at WINEP in the 1990s, and then went to AEI, where he directed Middle East affairs, to the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, to John Bolton's arms control shop at the State Department, and then to the OVP. Even among ardent supporters of Israel, Wurmser -- and his wife, Meyrav, who runs the Hudson Institute's Middle East program -- is considered an extremist. In 1996, the Wurmsers, Perle, and Feith co-authored the famous “Clean Break” paper for then–Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, which called for radical measures to redraw the map of the entire Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine) to benefit Israel. Later, in a series of papers and a book, Wurmser argued that toppling Saddam was likely to lead directly to civil war and the breakup of Iraq, but he supported the policy anyway: “The residual unity of [Iraq] is an illusion projected by the extreme repression of the state.” After Saddam, Iraq will “be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families,” he wrote. “Underneath facades of unity enforced by state repression, [Iraq's] politics is defined primarily by tribalism, sectarianism, and gang/clan-like competition.” Yet Wurmser explicitly urged the United States and Israel to “expedite” such a collapse. “The issue here is whether the West and Israel can construct a strategy for limiting and expediting the chaotic collapse that will ensue in order to move on to the task of creating a better circumstance.” Later, with former cia director James Woolsey and others, Wurmser proposed restoring the Jordan-based Hashemite monarchy in Iraq. While Wurmser's OVP allies may share his neoconservative fantasies of the willy-nilly reorganization of the Middle East, few experts do. “I've known him for years, and I consider him to be a naive simpleton,” says a former U.S. ambassador. Adds Wilkerson, “A lot of these guys, including Wurmser, I looked at as card-carrying members of the Likud party, as I did with Feith. You wouldn't open their wallet and find a card, but I often wondered if their primary allegiance was to their own country or to Israel. That was the thing that troubled me, because there was so much that they said and did that looked like it was more reflective of Israel's interest than our own.”

Today Wurmser, Hannah, Liz Cheney, and her father are pushing hard for confrontations with both Iran and Syria. Liz Cheney, who exercises enormous power inside the State Department, has secured millions of dollars to support opposition elements in both countries, and she has met with Syria's version of Ahmad Chalabi, a discredited businessman from Virginia named Farid al-Ghadry. Hannah sat in on the meeting with Ghadry, which was arranged through Meyrav Wurmser, a friend of the would-be Syrian leader. Hannah and Wurmser's boss, the vice president, talks freely about the need for a military showdown with Iran to destroy its alleged nuclear program. The true measure of how powerful the vice president's office remains today is whether the United States chooses to confront Iran and Syria or to seek diplomatic solutions. For the moment, at least, the war party led by Dick Cheney remains in ascendancy.

Robert Dreyfuss is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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