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Some initial reports about former president George W. Bush’s new memoir, “Decision Points,” suggest that it refutes the theory that Dick Cheney was the true power behind the throne.
It’s hardly surprising, of course, that in Bush’s reimagining of his presidency he would not give that theory any ammunition, at least not overtly. But Cheney is everywhere in the book, if you know how to look.
As several observers have previously noted, Bush in his memoir repeatedly complains of being “blindsided.” He was “blindsided” by the pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib, an utterly predictable outcome of his administration’s decision to disregard previously inviolable rules respecting the basic human rights of detainees. He was “blindsided” by the controversy within his own Justice Department about warrantless surveillance techniques that were blatantly illegal. He was “blindsided” by the financial crisis, a side effect of an administration ethos that big business could do no wrong and that regulators were the problem.
The common theme is that these three areas were among the many that Bush essentially abrogated to Cheney.
Cheney critics — including Col. Larry Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell — have long maintained that there is ample evidence tracing the practice of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers directly back to Cheney’s office.
Back in 2006, for instance, Wilkerson wrote that “what started with John Yoo, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes at the Pentagon, and several others, all under the watchful and willing eye of the Vice President, went down through the Secretary of Defense to the commanders in the field, and created two separate pressures that resulted in the violation of longstanding practice and law.”
If Bush was surprised at what was going on — or even if he feels justified in pretending that he was surprised — it was because Cheney had developed his own veritable chain of command when it came to any number of matters related to intelligence in general, and interrogation in particular.
In the book, Bush also describes his shock upon finding out in early March 2004 that many of his top Justice Department officials were about to resign if he insisted on continuing a warrantless surveillance program they considered legally indefensible.
That story went public in May 2007, when former deputy attorney general James Comey dramatically testified at a Senate hearing about his high-speed race to then-attorney general John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside — and the ensuing standoff with senior White House aides.
At issue were certain secret and to this day still undisclosed elements of a National Security Agency program that monitors domestic communications without any court oversight. Several Justice officials who were not in office when the program was first launched refused to reauthorize it in 2004 because it so obviously violated federal wiretapping statutes.
In his memoir, Bush admits that he sent chief of staff Andy Card and then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to the hospital to talk to Ashcroft, who was recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery. But, Bush writes, he was “stunned” when he learned the next day that Comey had been named acting AG for the duration. “If I had known that, I never would have sent Andy and Al to John’s hospital room,” he writes.
In the end, Bush briefly reauthorized the program with his own signature, but after a meeting with Comey and FBI Director Richard Mueller, decided to jettison its most controversial features (whatever those were).
In his memoir, Bush writes that Comey was horrified that Bush hadn’t known about the matter earlier. “Your staff has known about this for weeks,” Comey told him.
Bush writes: “I made it clear to my advisers that I never wanted to be blindsided like that again.”
Who could Bush have been talking about? From Comey’s Senate testimony, being questioned by Sen. Arlen Specter:
“SPECTER: Well, Mr. Comey, did you have discussions with anybody else in the administration who disagreed with your conclusions?
“COMEY: Yes, sir.
“SPECTER: Who else?
“COMEY: Vice president.
“SPECTER: Anybody else?
“COMEY: Members of his staff.
“SPECTER: Who on his staff?
“COMEY: Mr. Addington disagreed with the conclusion.”
David Addington, in case you’ve forgotten, was sort of Cheney’s Cheney.
Bush writes that after his decision, “[s]ome in the White House believed I should stand on my powers under Article II of the Constitution and suffer the walkout.” Gee, I wonder who he’s talking about.
Finally, when it comes to the excesses of Wall Street that led up to the financial crisis, it’s true that no one was a bigger cheerleader for homeownership than Bush — but no one was more hostile to regulation than the former CEO of Halliburton, who put a lot of effort into dismantling and booby-trapping the government’s regulatory apparatus.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.