Big-Time Trouble

As far as we know, Vegas isn't taking odds yet on whether Dick Cheney will remain vice president until noon on January 20, 2009. But Cheney is increasingly under siege from a variety of separate but interrelated lines of inquiry, and of all the hot seats in the administration right now, “Big Time's” is arguably the hottest.

If the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence follows through with a serious Phase II report on administration manipulation of prewar intelligence, the crumbs we've seen thus far lead pretty directly to the vice president's office. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has already laid the ultimate blame for the stonewalling at Cheney's doorstep, and Cheney and his staff have blocked the Senate panel from examining several documents that Democrats feel would be crucial to a thorough investigation.

Based on what's known today, Cheney has good reason to embrace obstructionism.

As far back as December 2002, Robert Dreyfuss reported for the Prospect [see “The Pentagon Muzzles the CIA,” December 16, 2002] on clashes between administration hawks and professionals in the intelligence community and cited “the support of Vice President Dick Cheney” and his daughter Elizabeth's presence as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs as crucial to muzzling skeptics of the case for invading Iraq. “Iraq on the Record,” a compendium of administration misstatements on Iraq compiled by the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee, shows that on the two key questions of Iraq's nuclear program and supposed ties to al-Qaeda, Cheney was the administration figure most likely to mislead. Even after the war, Cheney referred in public statements to “overwhelming evidence” of threatening links between the Iraqi government and the terrorist group. He once recommended a Weekly Standard article based on a memo that had already been disavowed by the intelligence community as the “best source of information” on the subject.

That memo was the product of then–Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who oversaw the Policy Counterintelligence Evaluation Group (PCTEG), which was the source of much of the very worst prewar intelligence. The “group” was, in fact, only two people: Michael Maloof, who worked for Feith, and David Wurmser, who was in the Pentagon at the time and is part of Cheney's unprecedentedly large national-security staff. The Iraq-related activities of PCTEG, the better-known but less-important Office of Special Plans, and Feith's office are supposed to be central to the Senate's Phase II investigation.

As Clinton-era National Security Council staffer Daniel Byman has observed, Cheney was PCTEG's “patron” in an administration that included several prominent skeptics of its work, including, most notably, CIA Director George Tenet. The vice president's office was the conduit through which PCTEG work and unreliable reports from Iraqi exiles went straight to the West Wing, without scrutiny from intelligence-community professionals. Cheney's staff also wrote the first draft of Colin Powell's infamous United Nations speech -- which the former secretary of state famously dismissed as “bullshit.”

According to a November 8 Daily News report, some White House advisers -- and possibly the president himself -- are already trying to distance themselves from Cheney before increasingly widespread knowledge of his misdeeds further taints the rest of the administration. Political strategist Dick Morris has taken to speculating publicly about the potential benefits to the Republican Party of replacing Cheney as vice president with Condoleezza Rice. Morris has an ulterior motive -- his new book touts the virtues of a Rice presidential campaign -- but if Democrats get the serious investigation they're asking for, his dreams just might come true.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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