John Adams once called the vice presidency, “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” FDR’s VP, John Nance Garner, said the job wasn’t “worth a pitcher of warm piss."
It’s quotes like these that make Dick Cheney—who pretty much ran his own separate government from the VP’s office—all the more impressive, not to mention terrifying. For not only was Cheney out of control, he was out of control in a job that had no controls attached to it. No one had ever thought them necessary before.
Give the man credit for creativity. Cheney found even more ways to overturn the Constitution, undermine the separation of powers, and possibly make the U.S. government an accessory to murder many times over.
The New York Times broke half the story in Sunday’s paper as Scott Shane explained that “the Central Intelligence Agency withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney.” Congress finally found out eight years after Cheney gave the order, when CIA Director Leon E. Panetta informed the House and Senate intelligence committees upon learning of the program himself.
What was it? The Times—and its copycats—didn’t appear to know; but in a Wall Street Journal followup, Siobhan Gorman informs us “one former senior intelligence official” said the program was an attempt to carry out assassinations against top al Qaeda agents. Another former agent said the situation “was straight out of the movies...It was like: Let's kill them all."
We’ve had an inkling about this program before. As Gorman reports, in September 2001, U.S. officials drafted cables that would have authorized assassinations of individuals if captured during the course of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. While various drafts were proposed and then killed, Bush’s “finding” eventually authorized the murder of some top al Qaeda personnel, should an attempt to capture them prove too risky.
Philosophers and theologians have argued for centuries over the morality of targeted assassinations—a technique that the Israelis use with some frequency—without ever reaching anything approaching consensus. What is beyond argument, however, is that it is illegal for the CIA to carry out such an operation without specifically informing Congress.
According to current law, when a U.S. intelligence agency is involved in a covert action, at least eight members of Congress—the Republican and Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress and of their intelligence committees—must be informed in order for the program to be legal.
CIA defenders insist compliance with the law is actually a gray area because “this program never went fully operational” as one official put it. And Panetta terminated the program as soon as he learned of it. But given the history of both Cheney and many in the CIA’s contempt for both Congress and the Constitution, it’s entirely possible that we still don’t know the full story.
Remember, Nancy Pelosi insisted the CIA lied to her about waterboarding during autumn of 2002. (Regardless of whether the agency did in fact tell her, it would have happened, according to its own calendar, only after Abu Zubaydah had already been waterboarded 83 times.)
And Colin Powell went before the world at the United Nations in February 2003 to accuse Saddam Hussein of building WMDs on mobile weapons labs, based on CIA misinformation about the quality of its sourcing as well. It’s entirely possible that these assassinations were merely the tip of an extremely dirty iceberg.
Seymour Hersh has been going around the country telling of a much more extensive assassination program that reported directly to Cheney. "It is a special wing of our special-operations community that is set up independently," Hersh explained at an appearance at the University of Minnesota (and repeated later to NPR’s Terry Gross), that “reported directly to the Cheney office.”
According to Hersh, “they've been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving." Perhaps we will soon learn that these, too, were part of Cheney’s ever-expanding portfolio.
Such programs would certainly be a piece of other programs Cheney managed to ram through the bureaucracy, absent any ostensible Constitutional authority. According to the conservative constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, who argued for Cheney’s impeachment: “The vice president asserted presidential power to create military commissions, which combine the functions of judge, jury, and prosecutor in the trial of war crimes…. The vice president initiated kidnappings, secret detentions, and torture in Eastern European prisons of suspected international terrorists. The vice president has orchestrated the invocation of executive privilege to conceal from Congress secret spying programs to gather foreign intelligence, and their legal justifications. He has summoned the privilege to refuse to disclose his consulting of business executives in conjunction with his Energy Task Force, and to frustrate the testimonies of Karl Rove and Harriet Miers regarding the firings of U.S. attorneys.”
In other words, Cheney acted very much like an unelected dictator of the kind of banana republic that past U.S. presidents used to enjoy overthrowing. Until now, even though some of his orders have been countermanded—most prominently by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld—he did so with both political and legal impunity.
The Obama administration would like to keep it this way. No matter how shocking the behavior of its predecessor, the president, his chief of staff, and their top advisers have apparently decided that the attempt to hold anyone accountable for crimes committed would inevitably increase partisan rancor and have the ultimate effect of scuttling much of his agenda.
But in an apparently unrelated story over the weekend, Attorney General Eric Holder told Newsweek that he is leaning toward taking a walk off this particular reservation and unleashing a special prosecutor on the Bush torture team. Once under way, who knows where such an investigation may lead.
All the way, perhaps, to a warm bucket of piss?
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.