Man Without a Shadow: An Interview with Barton Gellman

Bestselling author Barton Gellman, who is currently a fellow at NYU Law School's Center on Law and Security, does not waste time. He orders lunch (soft-shell crab) by cell phone so his meal at a Dupont Circle restaurant will be ready shortly after he arrives. Even more impressively, he did the final interview for Angler on July 4, only ten weeks before the book was published. Here, he talks about sources, subterfuge, and some of the lesser-known things Cheney has done that will have an impact on the United States.

Tara McKelvey: What do you think are the most important things Cheney has done that will last or have a legacy?

Barton Gellman: It's so hard to understand legacy with Cheney. He says he wants to be judged by history, but he has thrown up roadblocks to historians such as the new executive order on presidential records. In other cases, he simply did not keep records. They also invented this curious new form of quasi-classification where they would stamp things as if they were secret or sensitive information, but they would use the words, 'Treat As,' or 'Treat It As.' It could take decades longer than it's supposed to for that information to be released. What archivist is going to look at this stamp and just throw it into the open pile?

McKelvey: It's clever.

Gellman: Cheney is that rare combination of operational and tactical on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a zealot for his principles. Usually, you're one or the other. The operators are usually big on how to survive and are good deal-making. The zealots are, thankfully, not always so good at making things happen. But when you have someone who has both, then you can have a big impact on history.

McKelvey: When I read in your book about the way Cheney eliminated other candidates in the vice-presidential selection, I thought, 'This is so diabolical.'

Gellman: The thing that you have to admire is that he really is serving the principles that he believes are in the national interest. He is not self-dealing, and he is not trying to make a profit. He thinks he is serving the public good, and it's up to readers to decide whether they agree with him. But if you don't give him his principles, you're not going to understand what's just happened in the last eight years.

McKelvey: He's not a show-off.

Gellman: He's sort of an anti-politician. As far as I can tell, he just does not care what we think of him. Now there are two things that can get under his skin. One -- if you drag in his family. Above all, Mary Cheney. And, now and then, attacks on his integrity will piss him off. That's actually what led to the 'Fuck yourself' moment with Senator Pat Leahy. Leahy had been flogging the Halliburton thing. And Leahy was wrong. You can accuse Cheney of many things, but he did no self-dealing in that case. I found absolutely no link to Cheney.

McKelvey: What about things Cheney has done -- that we might not know about?

Gellman: Well, I was blown away that Cheney withheld from the president for three months the news that Justice Department thought the surveillance program was illegal, at least in part. And that Bush was encouraged to reauthorize it over their objections. There was going to be a mass exodus of political appointees, and it would have destroyed Bush's presidency. Cheney was willing to risk that because of his principles. He believes that in doing the right thing, you don't bow to expedient considerations: 'That's our job; we take the hit.'

McKelvey: What does Cheney think of the book?

Gellman: I know of an occasion recently when he said he had read it and liked it, and he recommended that people read it. And then he took issue at some length with part of it. I knew at the time that the series came out [in The Washington Post] that he liked that. I think it was more for instrumental reasons. If you're entering your lame-duck period in the White House, and there's an account that makes you look pretty powerful, then that kind of extends your shelf life.

McKelvey: Can you tell me what else Cheney said about the book?

Gellman: I can't.

McKelvey: You know this phenomenon of mimetic absorption -- when a person takes on characteristics of someone he is writing about.

Gellman: It's so true.

McKelvey: Do you think you've become more secretive since you've been writing about Cheney or were you always like that?

Gellman: I don't know. But, you know, like finds like.

McKelvey: How did Cheney have an affect on the environment?

Gellman: I discovered nuggets that have been buried in federal bureaucracy, in laws that were going through Congress, and in obscure-looking regulations, that show his impact. I'm sure we have not found the last of them, and a decade from now someone's going to say, 'How could the river dry up? How is that suddenly there is much more acid rain?' And you'll go back and look, and you'll go, 'Wow, we didn't notice that. Look at those ten words that got changed. And look what's happened.'

McKelvey: What did happen?

Gellman: In one incident, there was a drought in the Klamath River Basin. [Farmers wanted to irrigate the land in Oregon, explains Gellman in Angler, but using water in nearby canals would imperil fish on an endangered list.] Cheney comes up with the idea of asking the National Academy of Science to review the scientific literature on this subject, and the question is: 'How good is the evidence?' Scientists don't talk in absolutes. And the creation of uncertainty was all Cheney needed to remove the obstacle.

McKelvey: What was the result?

Gellman: About 77,000 salmon washed up dead on the banks of the Klamath River: The biggest man-made fish kill ever.

McKelvey: You talk about lawyers like John Yoo, David Addington, and others who created a new legal framework that is "invisible, unreviewable." What things were done?

Gellman: Well, that's the thing. As the philosopher said -- no unknowns known --

McKelvey: You've quoted the epistemologist [former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld …

Gellman: There's unknown unknowns. There are legal opinions the existence of which has remained secret and not on the public record, and I just couldn't talk about them. I think half of the book was spent trying to persuade people to go from 'off the record and I can use the material' to 'I can quote them by name.'

McKelvey: How did you get people to-

Gellman: I basically tried to shame people. I'd say, 'Is there no obligation to make sure we know what happened, why it happened, and what are the lessons learned?' In a few months, we're about to start this whole thing over again.

McKelvey: The last scene of the book, with Cheney, takes place on July 4, 2008.

Gellman: I just love this: It's a visit to a battered, old, wooden ship called the [USS] Constitution. It let me call him "unsinkable."