Cheney Circles the Wagons

With his closest aide for the past five years facing arraignment in federal court Thursday on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be hunkering down with a familiar cast of faces.

His choices to replace his now-indicted former chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, suggest a determination to stay the course despite calls from various quarters that his office, as well as the White House itself, look for new blood, if not a complete overhaul.

Libby’s two positions will now be shared by different people, both attorneys. His hardline legal counsel, David Addington, is taking over the chief-of-staff post, while John P. Hannah, who served as Libby’s deputy in the national security position, will move up the adviser’s spot.

Staff changes in the vice president’s office would not normally attract much notice – indeed, scarcely anyone noticed when Libby was first appointed in January 2001 – but Cheney’s status as the most powerful vice president in U.S. history and a key architect of U.S. policy in the run-up to the Iraq war has brought the post far more attention.

Addington has served the vice president in a variety of posts, dating all the way back to the mid-1980s when Cheney was a member of the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives defending then-President Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra affair.

He has reportedly been a strong proponent of both unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy and of sweeping presidential power, particularly in time of war. A close associate of UN Ambassador John Bolton, Addington, who almost obsessively shuns the public spotlight, also regards international law with undisguised contempt.

Addington has been accused by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of being among the strongest advocates within the administration for exempting detainees taken in the "war on terror" of any constitutional due process rights or of the protections of the Geneva Convention.

According to the National Journal, he has also argued aggressively and so far successfully – even over the objections of President George W. Bush’s legal counsel and political aides – for refusing to turn over critical documents concerning the White House’s treatment of pre-Iraq war intelligence to the Congressional Intelligence committees.

Hannah, who was hired by Libby in 2001, has a much shorter history with Cheney and spent two years working as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher.

But he, too, is seen widely seen as a hardliner who, according to published records, acted as the main White House contact for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group led by Ahmed Chalabi, that provided "defectors" and other intelligence in the run-up to the 2003 invasion that later turned out to be bogus.

Hannah has also worked particularly closely with the INC’s main Pentagon contact, Harold Rhode, a Middle East specialist and close collaborator of a group of hardline neoconservatives based mainly at the American Enterprise Institute who have urged confrontation with Syria, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia.

Hannah also served two stints, in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, as senior fellow and deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank established in the mid-1980s by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

Two of AIPAC’s former senior staff members were indicted earlier this summer in connection with classified information provided to them by a Pentagon official who had worked with Rhode on Iran policy.

The two appointments defy growing public and Democratic calls for the Bush administration, and particularly Cheney, to both overhaul their top staffs and disclose all they know both about the case that led to Libby’s indictment – which involved his "outing" of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative whose husband diplomat had publicly accused the administration of going to war under false pretenses – and about their handling of the prewar intelligence.

Democrats took their boldest step yet Tuesday by abruptly forcing the Senate into executive session to discuss the Intelligence Committee’s stonewalling of an investigation into the possible abuse of prewar intelligence in which Cheney’s office, along with political appointees in the Pentagon, is widely believed to have played the leading role.

"The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions," charged Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in an unusually direct attack on the Committee chair, Sen. Pat Roberts, who reportedly has close ties to Cheney and Addington.

According to the special prosecutor Pat Fitzgerald, Libby had repeatedly lied to the FBI and a federal grand jury about his role in telling selected journalists that ret. Amb. Joseph Wilson had been sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium yellowcake there at the suggestion of his wife, Valerie Plame, who was then serving as a covert operative.

The leak was apparently intended to discredit Wilson’s claim, published by the New York Times on July 6, 2003, that the administration knew that the reports were false and yet used them anyway in its campaign to rally the public to support the war.

In his indictment, Fitzgerald disclosed that Cheney himself was informed of Wilson’s relationship with Plame by then-CIA director George Tenet and that he then informed Libby. The unusually close working relationship between Cheney and Libby – they rode together most mornings on the way to the office, and Libby was a frequent guest at Cheney’s Wyoming ranch – has raised questions about whether Cheney authorized or knew about Libby’s subsequent leaking.

Some observers, notably Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have noted Fitzgerald’s finding that the two men discussed the Plame affair on July 12 while aboard Air Force 2, immediately after which Libby told two reporters about Plame’s identity.

Fitzgerald so far has declined all comment on whether Cheney knew about or authorized the leaking. Cheney’s office, citing the fact that Fitzgerald’s investigation has not yet concluded, has refused all comment on the case, including what Hannah or Addington, who have testified before Fitzgerald’s grand jury, may have known about Libby’s role in outing Plame. Separately, Hannah’s attorney has claimed that his client played no role at all.

All of these developments come amid a series of statements by former high-level officials about Cheney that have added to the drama around the vice president. Two weeks ago, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, accused Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld of leading a "secretive, little-known cabal" that effectively ran U.S. foreign policy for much of Bush’s first term.

Rumsfeld Tuesday dismissed that charge, insisting he had never met Wilkerson and did not know what position he held under Powell.

Last week, The New Yorker published an interview with former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who worked closely with Cheney both under the Gerald Ford administration in the mid-1970s (when Cheney was chief of staff) and under George H.W. Bush, whom Cheney served as secretary of defense.

"I consider Cheney a good friend – I’ve known him for 30 years," Scowcroft said. "But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.