Cheney Unmasked

Posted Oct. 05, 2008, at 6:42 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:24 a.m.

For those want to know more about Vice President Dick Cheney’s role in the troubled Bush administration, a gold mine awaits. It is a new book, “Angler,” by Barton Gellman, a Washington Post special projects reporter.

It starts off with a bang, about how Mr. Cheney, as head of the search committee for a vice-presidential nominee, drew a mass of personal secrets from a “short” list of eight candidates through a questionnaire of nearly 200 questions, studied them in secret, and then proposed himself for the job — without submitting to the questionnaire.

The dossiers, including embarrassing details, were studied by only four people — Mr. Cheney; his elder daughter, a lawyer; David J. Gribbin III, a loyal Cheney retainer since high school, and David Addington, the hard-boiled attorney who now is his chief of staff.

At least one of the personal secrets leaked out and ruined the career of Republican Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma. Others have ever since had reason to worry, according to the book.

Similar secrecy, even while the disputed 2000 election was in litigation, surrounded the selection of top officials for the new administration. Mr. Cheney volunteered for the job, and Mr. Bush let him handle it. Working with much the same small group at his kitchen table in McLean, Va., Mr. Cheney started with secretaries of state, treasury, justice and defense. He interviewed them and escorted them to Austin for Mr. Bush’s approval. He not only filled out the rest of the Cabinet but also chose like-minded allies for subordinate posts.

It was all with Mr. Bush’s acquiescence and made the first Master of Business Administration president a manager who left much to his subordinates — and to the vice president’s office.

The heart of the book is an account of a struggle over warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. It started as a secret vice-presidential project. Authorizing orders and memos were locked, not in the White House, but in the vice president’s office in the adjoining Executive Office Building.

Questions about its legality arose early and boiled up when high Justice Department officials refused to continue a routine sign-off on the program. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Addington insisted that the president’s inherent powers as commander in chief sufficed. Mr. Bush, unaware of the secret details and the seriousness of the struggle, at first signed an order without the Justice Department’s OK.

But when he learned that Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and a half-dozen top Justice Department officials were determined to resign over the issue, Mr. Bush reversed himself and ordered acceptable changes in the program. Details still are so secret that few Americans realize that the Cheney-Addington demands came close to pushing the first Bush administration over a cliff and dooming its re-election prospects.

The little known story helps explain Mr. Bush’s relative independence of Mr. Cheney’s influence in the second administration.

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