Rising to the occasion

The Washington Post kicks off a series on Vice President Cheney’s role in the Bush adminstration with a report on the influence Cheney was able to exert during the period immediately following 9/11. It’s impressive stuff. According to the report, before the end of the very day on which we were attacked, Cheney had put together a legal team consisting of David Addington (Cheney’s counsel), Alberto Gonzales, Tim Flanagan (Deputy White Counsel), and John Yoo of the Justice Department. Cheney’s team promptly came up with the “authorization for the use of military of force” that Congress approved on Sept. 18. Soon thereafter, it put into place, with the president’s approval, the program under which the NSA intercepted communications by al Qaeda into the U.S. without a warrant.
In doing so, Cheney kept various bureaucracies out of the loop. For example, he excluded John Bellinger, the ranking national security legal advisor in the White House, as well as the State Department’s legal team. Cheney and his team also out-maneuvered Bellinger and others when they persuaded President Bush to treat captured al Qaeda fighters as unlawful combatants with no rights under the Geneva Conventions.
The Post points out that Cheney’s efforts to bypass large chunks of the bureaucracy were inconsistent with his own philosophy for White House decision-making, as he had articulated it on various occasions in the past. Under the extraordinary circumstances created by 9/11, I find it commendable that Cheney did not feel wedded to his prior, hyper-cautious approach — let’s call it “growing in office.” Having his recommendations vetted by each agency with a stake would have created delay at a time when the government needed to act. It would also have increased the likelihood of leaks which, in the case of the NSA intercept program, would have effectively negated the surveillance tool. It’s also possible, though not likely, that the policy outcomes would have been different. In my view, this would have left us more vulnerable to attack.
Fans of bureaucratic vetting in the national security context can look back fondly on the Clinton years. It was during that time that, for example, Clinton had his Cabinet vote on whether to strike with cruise missiles against al Qaeda in Afghanistan (the Cabinet voted no). It was also under Clinton that the Attorney General nixed a plan to attack bin Laden’s compound in 1998. I’m grateful that, when we finally got around to fighting back against global terrorism, Vice President Cheney saw to it that, at least in the early stages, the bureaucracy didn’t once again act as a brake.
JOHN adds: I agree. However, just as the second Star Wars movie was titled The Empire Strikes Back, events in Washington since 2002 could be summed up as The Bureaucracy Strikes Back.
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