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Tilting at Windmills

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June 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE PANOPTICON WHITE HOUSE....There's nothing wrong with the fact that Dick Cheney is a powerful vice president. Jimmy Carter began the transformation of the vice presidency decades ago when he gave Walter Mondale more than just the veep's usual ribbon cutting and funeral attendance duties, Bush Sr. continued the transformation, and Al Gore took it up yet another notch when he was Bill Clinton's vice president.

That's all fine. Since the vice president is the guy who takes over the country if the president dies, we're all better off if the VP is deeply involved in the operations of the executive. The Washington Post's series on Dick Cheney, however, describes a man who's not just involved, but nearly pathological. The most telling moment comes in a passage that involves Condoleezza Rice, back when she headed up the National Security Council, and her top lawyer, John Bellinger. The subject is Cheney's belief that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to the war on terror:

At the White House, Bellinger sent Rice a blunt — and, he thought, private — legal warning. The Cheney-Rumsfeld position would place the president indisputably in breach of international law and would undermine cooperation from allied governments. Faxes had been pouring in at the State Department since the order for military commissions was signed, with even British authorities warning that they could not hand over suspects if the U.S. government withdrew from accepted legal norms.

One lawyer in his office said that Bellinger was chagrined to learn, indirectly, that Cheney had read the confidential memo and "was concerned" about his advice. Thus Bellinger discovered an unannounced standing order: Documents prepared for the national security adviser, another White House official said, were "routed outside the formal process" to Cheney, too. The reverse did not apply.

The article doesn't explain how this process happens, but it's astonishing that even the NSC director and her top aides are not allowed to exchange private memos in the Bush/Cheney White House. Apparently the West Wing has been transformed into a panopticon for the benefit of Dick Cheney and his staff: they can watch you, but you can't watch back. Jeremy Bentham's passion for "invisible omniscience" must have struck a chord with them.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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It's amazing how easily the norms and traditions of two centuries of American democracy can be subverted by one man and his dog (Cheney and Addington).

Posted by: JS on June 24, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Thus we have the Go Fuck Youself governance of the VP.

Posted by: jcricket on June 24, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Panopticon. I'll have to remember that one.

Posted by: BRussell on June 24, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Fear not...

Al, or egbert, or ex-liberal, or someone, will be along shortly to explain why this is the optimum, desired state of affairs, sagely forseen that summer 220 years ago in Philadelphia.

Unless the VP is a Democrat.

That's what comes of having a foam "We're #1" finger where your brain should be.

Go team.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on June 24, 2007 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

I hate the way this administration makes me feel like a conspiracy theorist.

I forget who said it first, but I've always thought it was dead on.

Posted by: Ghebs on June 24, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the Wikipedia link, Kevin. Some of your younger and less intelligent readers, like myself, might never have heard of Bentham or the panopticon. Interesting idea.

Oh, and Dick sucks.

Posted by: Steve W. on June 24, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Funny idnit?

Not one word about Cheney on the talkfests this morning?

Posted by: angryspittle on June 24, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Ghebs: That would be Teresa Nielsen Hayden. "I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist." Link:


Posted by: Kevin Drum on June 24, 2007 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Cheney is functioning here as what Irving Janis would call a "mindguard".

When you go back and read Janis's writings on Groupthink, and in particular his case study of the Bay of Pigs invasion, it seems like it was written as a direct critique of everything that has gone wrong with the Bush administration, and in particular Iraq.

Posted by: wagster on June 24, 2007 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Gee, I wonder how Clinton handled this? Did he allow side deals bypassing the executive?

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis on June 24, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

"The Panopticon" I like that, it's quite catchy. Now if Pink Floyd can get together again and do a follow up to "The Wall" and title it "The Panopticon" or just "Panopticon", that would be great.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 24, 2007 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

Clinton was never the VP.

The VP can't "bypass the executive", because by definition it cannot bypass itself.

Nice try at derailing the thread. The subject matter is this morning's WP article. Please read it.

Posted by: jcricket on June 24, 2007 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

It sounds more and like Cheney was operating a shadow government behind Bush's back and, arguably, against the President's best interest. Isn't this the essence of treason?

Posted by: beb on June 24, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Al, Egbert, ex-liberal, American Hawk, etc will never post in this thread.

Even they can't come up with a reasonable defense of Cheney's argument this time.

Posted by: An Anonymous American Patriot on June 24, 2007 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think that it makes sense to talk about this being "behind Bush's back". Bush either approves of everything does, or is too weak to stand up to him. Bush gets no pass whatever on this.

Posted by: Ken D. on June 24, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

I don't see what's wrong. Cheney's terrific past experience (as Secretary of Defense, as White House Chief of Staff, and as CEO of a large company) surely justifies President Bush's decision to rely on him as a top advisor. As a top advisor, Cheney was naturally kept in the loop on memos from the National Security Advisor. Further, as Kevin pointed out, since the vice president is the guy who takes over the country if the president dies, we're all better off if the VP is deeply involved in the operations of the executive.

I suspect that Hillary was similarly kept in the loop by Bill Clinton. If so, I approve. She's a bright, knowledgable person whose advice could have great value.

BTW, I would be prepared to argue in favor of Cheney's position that the Geneva Convention ought not apply to the War on Terror, but I don't want to hijack this thread.

Posted by: ex-liberal on June 24, 2007 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

Ken D: you are spot on with that comment.

Posted by: jcricket on June 24, 2007 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

That picture of the panopticon is pretty cool, but the analogy isn't very close; after all, the prisoners can at least look back at the guards and see them in their tower. Cheney's doings are, by contrast, largely opaque to the rest of the inmates in the White House.

It's not terribly original, but the best comparison is still to a black hole:

A black hole is a body which takes in all forms of energy and matter, including light, and allows none of it to escape; so nothing that has crossed its event horizon is observable. The doorway to the Vice President's office has similar properties.

A black hole can only be detected indirectly, by tracing the effects of its massive gravitational influence on surrounding bodies, or by measuring the radiation 'noise' given off by objects that are about to be destroyed by it. In the same way, Cheney's doings have to be reconstructed from the actions and sounds made by people who have fallen under his influence.

A black hole destroys all forms of information which pass its event horizon save for mass, charge, and angular momentum. This principle is nicknamed the "No Hair Theorem," and thus is doubly appropriate for the balding Cheney.

Finally, the original Black Hole was actually a dungeon in Calcutta where the Nawab of Bengal held captured British troops after the fall of Fort William in 1756. The conditions were said to be so terrible in it that most of prisoners died. Thankfully, advances in modern medicine have made it possible to keep the prisoners in the American dungeon at Guantanomo alive for years at a time.

Posted by: lampwick on June 24, 2007 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

I read that WaPo artical this morning, Kevin. I don't think it says what you say it says.

Nothing illegal was done. Cheney merely is a strong minded individual, who leads a disciplined ship. The message is tightly controlled. Thats neat.

The WaPo artical even states that Cheney has the best interests of the people of America at heart. Not some tired ideology like communism or athiesm.

Would you rather have a do-nothing, shiftless, lazy VP, collecting a government paycheck and doing meaningless public appearances?

Whats more, Cheney and his advisors correctly noted early on that enemy combatants are not covered by the Geneva conventions, which are a quaint, tired old treaty of a bygone era. The war on terror demands ruthless persecution. The terrorists thought they were going to laugh at us. Who's laughing now?

Come on, Kevin, give the man his due.

Posted by: egbert on June 24, 2007 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think

If scrambled-eggs-for-brains would have limited his previous comment to those three words, he would have finally made an intellectually honest post in this forum, after all this time. Alas, no. We are still waiting. Won't bother holding my breath, as I'm already blue...

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 24, 2007 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

I doubt this ambiguous position (of Veep not in Executive) will hold up for very long. But, I don't know just how it would be challenged and overturned by the Court.

In the meantime curious things can happen.

Posted by: MarkH on June 24, 2007 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

If we give him his due, it would be an 8'x9' at Leavenworth. Or better yet, a cage at Guantanamo. Since he's so hot for rough treatment and dunks in the water, maybe he should experience it first hand? I for one want to know who was on the "Energy Task Force" and I want that information by any means necessary. Waterboard him in the well of the Senate. On C-SPAN.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 24, 2007 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Who's laughing now?

Osama bin Laden?

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 24, 2007 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

I would have thought that when Cheney was drunk and shot Harry Whittington in the face, there would have been consequences. But apparently criminal law doesn’t apply to Cheney either. This is such a sad period of American history – when we have two incompetent criminals running the government and the opposition party is too timid to even hold a hearing on their criminal behavior. God help us all.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 24, 2007 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

I don't see what's wrong.

I always like these kinds of threads, they help us learn the difference between your average Reich-wing posters and the professional shills among them.

Posted by: Thumb on June 24, 2007 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

The relationship is still boy to daddy. Cheney is the strong daddy that mommy Barbs' sniping showed he didn't have at home as a wee boy. Now daddy saying things like 'stick with principle' to an inferior little boy who has none.

We've heard before that the last to talk to Bush was the way to policy would turn because Bush is clueless. Bush could use any arrangement he wants, but to cede the authority to Cheney is more that just lazy, it shows that he regards himself as a front man for his intellectual superiors. It shows that, contrary to the 'manly' image his sycophants project onto him, he is a weakling, a White House houseboy, and not too bright a one at that. For 200 years, the vice prez was the wedding-and-funeral man in the White House
; in this administration, the prez is the proxy.

The funniest part is that Bush regards himself as the policy salesman, but he is so inarticulate and his ability to communicate so limited, that his efforts are counterproductive, as in the failure to sell Social Security Reform and now Immigration reform. Not that I have a problem with that: The few successes this government have had, have all been failures in one sense or another.

The worse problem was the old Republican congress: also ceding authority to Cheney who had one of the biggest offices on Capitol Hill. When you show Republicans the money and the whip, they melt like schoolyard bullies: cringing and crying with their palms up.

Posted by: Mike on June 24, 2007 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

The article doesn't explain how this process happens...

Calling it a process may be too generous, although I wouldn't be surprised if it has many of the attributes of a formal intelligence operation, complete with Cheney moles/loyalists who are tasked with gathering information, and where needed using fronts to overtly and explicitly leverage Cheney's authority to ensure access.

As the article states:

Cheney preferred, and Bush approved, a mandate that gave him access to "every table and every meeting," making his voice heard in "whatever area the vice president feels he wants to be active in," Bolten said.

Cheney has used that mandate with singular force of will. Other recent vice presidents have enjoyed a standing invitation to join the president at "policy time." But Cheney's interventions have also come in the president's absence, at Cabinet and sub-Cabinet levels where his predecessors were seldom seen. He found pressure points and changed the course of events by "reaching down," a phrase that recurs often in interviews with current and former aides.

I'm sure that's one reason why Gates has been working to remove the Rumsfeld/Cheney loyalists at Defense. And while maybe not as obvious, Rice has likely been doing the same at State.

That said, Cheney has been effective only because Bush has sanctioned him to run what has essentially been intel operations against the rest of the government--as if it were an adversary--using "every table and every meeting".

In short, Cheney, like Gonzales, is nothing more than a soldier. Let's not forget who turns a blind eye to their excesses, and who is ultimately responsible.

Posted by: has407 on June 24, 2007 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

"it's astonishing that even the NSC director and her top aides are not allowed to exchange private memos in the Bush/Cheney White House."

It's astonishing that Kevin thinks that memos prepared by public servants as part of their official duties and regarding matters of the greatest concern to the public are or can be private.

(No endorsement of Dick Cheney intended.)

Posted by: Ross Best on June 24, 2007 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

Ross Best: Don't you think that Kevin meant, that the people sending messages had some right to working "privacy" between themselves and the recipient relative to others in the government, not to be confused with hiding it ultimately from the public (which of course the current group finds nothing wrong with anyway.) Even if you can excuse the sharing, it shouldn't be a surprise, and it shouldn't be confused with the other "private/public" issue. This sort of misframing is so wasteful in discussions.

Posted by: Neil B. on June 24, 2007 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

The problem is Dick Cheney, not Dick Cheney's access to the memo.

Posted by: Ross Best on June 24, 2007 at 7:43 PM | PERMALINK

As someone who has followed this travesty of a presidential administration for its entire sorry 6 and one-half years, it is somewhat surprising to me to find that so many people appear slightly surprised to find that Cheney has been running the country. Folks, that is why he put himself on the ticket as VICE-President....he(and his cadre of neo-nincompoops)realized that if Bush won, they could run the place...and they have...into the ditch.

Posted by: Dick Hendricks on June 24, 2007 at 7:45 PM | PERMALINK

FWIW, Marcy Wheeler guesses that Steven Hadley is the Cheney mole at NSC. Now that he's NSA, he probably doesn't have to be so underhanded.


Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) on June 24, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

NEARLY pathological? NEARLY pathological? NEARLY??? Are you nuts? Are you suffering from journalism school-itis, evenhandedness-itis? You can't just say the truth because that would sound too "extreme," too "one-sided," too "liberal"? You have to bury it and soften it by inserting the word "nearly"? He IS pathological, he IS suffering from extreme mental illness, it IS in fact psychosis that Cheney suffers from. Cheney's attitudes and behavior don't even make sense unless you come to the conclusion that he IS pathological, he IS psychotic.

This isn't just some cutesyness where a writer feeds "symptoms" regarding, say, President Bush, to a psychologist who, sight unseen and not knowing who he's talking about, then diagnoses various dread mental-health ailments.

These are the demonstrated, documented life, behavior, actions, and attitudes of the vice president.

Posted by: Anon on June 24, 2007 at 8:21 PM | PERMALINK

Usual nut roots rhetoric in this thread. The Geneva Conventions apply to uniformed combatants from nations that have signed the Conventions. The Geneva Conventions does not mention chopping prisoners' head off. Get real.

Posted by: Mike K on June 24, 2007 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

Yep, 220 years ago the Framers must have thought it would be really productive and successful if the runner up to the Presidential election got to make the big calls and the actual winner would just sit back and smoke a crack pipe. Sure.

Posted by: parrot on June 24, 2007 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

Mike K, how many times do you have to have it told you that the vast majority of those imprisoned in Gitmo are not guilty of anything let alone sawing peoples heads off with knives. Most were sold to U.S. forces for pelf.

So let me see if I can get this right in an analogy... Because somewhere in the precinct there exists a John Gacy who does stuff much worse than chop off heads and so is obviously not worthy of due process (a stance I emotionally agree with but that is completely beside the point...) and so because of this now anybody you pick up off the street who the cops suspect may be John Gacy or may in some way be related to John Gacy or just be some clown, these guys too are now to be regarded as having no rights and fit for torture?

If so, get thee to Dick Cheney's office. Pronto.

(and we can see who'd have been a good loyal functionary in the U.S.S.R. - along with most of the modern day Republican party leadership)

Posted by: Don't be such a dishonest shill on June 24, 2007 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, after reading the article I have to respectfully suggest that you're missing the point. The most disturbing aspect of this article isn't that Cheney is so powerful. It's that he operates a sort of shadow executive branch in which he disregards and overrides the experience and opinions of the civil service experts in other agencies in the Executive Branch. We in the civil service run a process that is often scorned as slow and "bureaucratic" by many, but it is a process that is important because it ensures that the voices of all of those who have a stake in an issue are heard. If a shadow government of political hacks supplants and ignores us, what's the point of having a civil service at all?

Posted by: CivServant on June 24, 2007 at 9:25 PM | PERMALINK

"ex-liberal" wrote: I don't see what's wrong.

Of course you don't, you mendacious neocon toad.

That, and your bullshit lauding of Darth Cheney's credentials, indicts you much more than it does Cheney's detractors.

Posted by: Gregory on June 24, 2007 at 10:02 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: pbg on June 24, 2007 at 10:54 PM | PERMALINK

Mike K: The Geneva Conventions apply to uniformed combatants from nations that have signed the Conventions. The Geneva Conventions does not mention chopping prisoners' head off. Get real.

The Geneva conventions don't mention a lot of things, but the intent is clear. But as the primary superpower, and as a civilized nation purportedly devoted to the the rule of law and the pursuit of justice, the means by which that justice is achieved should be as important as the end...

Powell said Geneva rules entitled each detainee to a status review, but he predicted that few, if any, would qualify as POWs, because they did not wear uniforms on the battlefield or obey a lawful chain of command. "We said, 'If you give legal process and you follow the rules, you're going to reach substantially the same result and the courts will defer to you,'" Bowker said.
Yet you prefer we dispense with formalities.... and replace it with what? Your definition of justice? Something you and your friends made up while smoking crack? Yeah, let's "get real"...

If you have ever read the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, the UCMJ, or have any understating of their history and their rationale, you show no awareness of it. You have no concept of what this country stands for, or what our troops have died for. You make me sick.

Posted by: has407 on June 24, 2007 at 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

The Geneva Conventions apply to uniformed combatants from nations that have signed the Conventions.

True that. Of course the GC also applies to non-uniformed combatants and civilians from signatory nations as well as uniformed combatants, non-uniformed combatants, and civilians from non-signatory nations, so what the fuck is your point again?

Posted by: Disputo on June 25, 2007 at 12:06 AM | PERMALINK

That's all fine. Since the vice president is the guy who takes over the country if the president dies, we're all better off if the VP is deeply involved in the operations of the executive.

Hmmm...I think Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman did just fine "coming in from the cold" when they took over the job, and Truman did it right in the middle of the planet's biggest war.

I think Clinton/Gore were the real ground breakers on this trend of robust Vice Presidency. I barely remember Carter's Veep, same for Bush's other than that he was joke fodder.

If the VP is going to have that much power, then we should be able to vote on them separate from the Presidential candidate, not as a ticket joined at the hip.

Posted by: Volunteering Red Stater on June 25, 2007 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

Carter needed to promise Walter Mondale a more dignified public role as Vice President to get him on the ticket. Carter, as a one-term governor from the Deep South, was an outsider regarded with suspicion by many of the national Democratic interest groups who all knew and trusted Mondale. Mondale for his part was familiar with how Lyndon Johnson had humiliated his Vice President (and Mondale's own political mentor), Hubert Humphrey, and wanted to avoid similar treatment.

So far as Carter went with Mondale -- that is, making use of the Vice President as a source of advice and trouble-shooter for the President -- an expanded role for the Vice President was at least not harmful and may even have been a good thing. But Clinton went much too far in making of Al Gore a semi-independent and unaccountable power source within his administration (of course, Clinton did the same thing with his wife. At least people had voted for Gore), with a huge staff and the capacity to muck around with the decisions of government agencies in which he was interested.

Gore never came close to being the co-President Cheney has been, but where Cheney represents a revolution in the Vice President's role compared to Dan Quayle (or the elder George Bush, or indeed any previous Vice President), the place he occupies in Bush's administration is only an evolution from the one Gore held.

Both go too far. Frustrating though the traditional role of the Vice President has been for the men who have held the job, the fact is that of the four 20th century Presidents who succeeded to the office from the Vice Presidency two (Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge) were abler than the men they replaced; one (Gerald Ford) led the country back from the political abyss his predecessor had pushed the country toward; and the fourth was Harry Truman. That's not a bad record. It suggests that the traditional practice of having one President at a time worked pretty well. Kevin's enthusiasm for changing it as long as Dick Cheney is not Vice President is enthusiasm for fixing something that wasn't broken.

Posted by: ZAthras on June 25, 2007 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

The above post, through an oversight, omitted Lyndon Johnson. The omission doesn't effect the argument in any way.

Posted by: Zathras on June 25, 2007 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

If we give him his due, it would be an 8'x9' at Leavenworth. Or better yet, a cage at Guantanamo. Since he's so hot for rough treatment and dunks in the water, maybe he should experience it first hand? I for one want to know who was on the "Energy Task Force" and I want that information by any means necessary. Waterboard him in the well of the Senate. On C-SPAN.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.)

There's a suspicion that keeping global warming off the political burner and out of the news, was discussed with coal, oil and electric company and media leaders. That's why there's no Bush administration evidence of global warming. This was so coal could position itself as the savior in the coming oil shortage; to be our next major energy source. Electric plants are owned by the coal companies.

If it uses fossil fuel, it will need to be replaced. Keep coal and oil in the ground the way God and Nature intended. This is what needs to happen if we want our grandchildren to recognize their landscapes in our pictures.

Posted by: slanted tom on June 25, 2007 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK



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