Adam Ash

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

What kind of a Veep doesn't pick up the phone to tell his Prez he just plugged a pal full of birdshot? It's beyond bizarre, isn't it?

The Looser the Cannon, the Wilder the Salvo -- by Elizabeth Sullivan

Apart from the vice president's Texas quail-shoot ing incident is the curious affair of the call to the president.

There was no call. That was what was so curious.

You'd think that after filling a major Republican donor full of birdshot Saturday, Vice President Dick Cheney would pick up a telephone to tell President George W. Bush what he'd just done.

Instead, he had one of his Secret Service agents or aides - no one is saying exactly who - call the White House about the mishap. That person omitted the essential detail that it was Cheney on the business end of the shotgun, yet that was the version Chief of Staff Andy Card first relayed to President Bush at about 7:30 p.m. The president didn't find out the full story for another half hour - finally getting it from Karl Rove, who heard it from one of Cheney's millionaire hunting-party hosts.

Even odder, the veep decided to bypass Rove, the White House's practiced strategist of spin, to fashion his own public-relations disaster on the fly.

Seizing presidential prerogatives in wartime suits Cheney, but it isn't enough.

He also has to show his disdain for the Constitution's checks and balances through countless means, big and small.

If that means not cluing in his boss about a potential political embarrassment like peppering a big shot with birdshot and then ducking the media, that's the way it will be.

If that means operating his own intelligence-gathering and dirty-tricks operation independent of the Oval Office to counter the ill wind of criticism over Iraq WMD, that's also as Cheney wants it.

Deferring to the president is so vexatiously messy and slow. So on a number of key occasions, Cheney has taken matters into his own hands.

The first and possibly most telling was on Sept. 11, 2001.

Cheney was at the White House. The president was 850 miles away in a Sarasota, Fla., elementary school classroom. The vice president advised Bush to remain airborne aboard Air Force One as the capital braced for possible further attacks and Cheney was rushed into a bunker. With communications erratic from there on, the president was effectively out of the loop of immediate decision-making.

Cheney was not.

Sometime between 10:10 and 10:15 a.m., according to the 9/11 commission report, the vice president was told that a presumably hijacked airplane was inbound toward Washington, D.C.

"In about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing," his chief aide Scooter Libby later recalled to Newsweek magazine, Cheney authorized the U.S. military to engage and shoot down the plane if necessary.

Cheney later told 9/11 investigators that he didn't issue this order to bag a civilian aircraft on his own, but previously got authorization from the president. No phone logs or other notes exist to support this version, although it can't be ruled out.

Yet aboard Air Force One, it was not until after a 10:18 a.m. phone conversation with Cheney that Bush told his press secretary Ari Fleischer that he'd authorized aircraft to be shot down.

The sequence strongly suggests Cheney issued the shootdown order before consulting Bush, not after.

There were subsequent moments.

Bush let Cheney take the lead on the drumbeat for war in Iraq, for which Cheney amassed a kitchen cabinet of CIA sources. He even got his own intelligence briefings independent of the president.

Yet Cheney has never been required to reveal the full range of intelligence he reviewed that caused him to tell a veterans convention in August 2002, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

He has never, so far as is publicly known, been required to testify under oath on what he told Libby as critics zeroed in on the administration's shaky WMD intelligence.

A January letter from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to Libby's lawyers quotes Libby purportedly telling a grand jury investigating administration leaks that his "superiors" authorized him to leak information to reporters from the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate.

One insider is even blunter.

"What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made," retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, ex-chief of staff to Colin Powell, alleged last October in a speech to the New America Foundation.

A vice president dedicated to the notion that wartime demands trump constitutional checks and balances - even the overriding check that places in the president the role of commander in chief - is a direct danger to the foundation stones of this nation.

Is Cheney such a man just because he neglected to make one important telephone call to the White House? The evidence is suggestive.

(Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. Email to:

2. Cheney's Dodge: Taking Responsibility -- by Norman Solomon

When Dick Cheney surfaced on Wednesday long enough for an interview with Fox News eminence Brit Hume -- an event that CNN's Jack Cafferty promptly likened to "Bonnie interviewing Clyde" -- the vice presidential spin emerged from a timeworn bag of political tricks. Cheney took responsibility. Whatever that means.

The New York Times website swiftly made its top headline "Cheney Takes Full Responsibility for Shooting Hunter." Just before Fox News Channel aired interview segments at length, the summary from anchor Hume told viewers that Cheney had accepted "full responsibility for the incident." Hours later, the Washington Post's front-page story led this way: "Vice President Cheney accepted full responsibility yesterday..."

Ironically -- while news outlets kept using the phrase "full responsibility" -- the transcript of the interview posted on shows that Cheney never used any form of the word "responsibility."

Whatever their exact words, the politicians who can't avoid acknowledging culpability are often the beneficiaries of excessive media plaudits for supposedly owning up to what they've done wrong. But those politicians rarely do more than just what the spin doctor ordered.

It's not brave or even forthright for an official to express the contrition that seems advisable from a public-relations standpoint. When a convicted defendant voices remorse just before sentencing, the statement is often viewed as little more than a ploy dictated by circumstance. But when a politician ostensibly "takes responsibility" in the court of public opinion, much of the media coverage attaches great significance to an essentially hollow statement that is a transparent effort to extinguish a scandal-fueled firestorm.

In almost every instance when a politician "takes responsibility" with great fanfare, there's no penalty attached to the proclamation. Across the terrain of political media, the I-take-responsibility maneuver is the equivalent of a hit-and-run driver offering an over-the-shoulder yell of "Sorry about that" while speeding away from a grisly scene.

On July 30, 2003 -- several months after the occupation of Iraq began -- President Bush held a news conference while U.S. forces continued to search in vain for weapons of mass destruction. High up in a front-page story, the New York Times reported that Bush "took responsibility for the first time for an assertion in his State of the Union address about Iraq's nuclear weapons program that turned out to be based on questionable intelligence."

Bush told reporters: "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course. I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace. And I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence, good, solid, sound intelligence that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power."

In that instance, as in so many others, the president's declaration about taking responsibility was nothing more than hot air for inflated rhetoric -- a dodge to divert attention from indefensible actions and evident deceptions.

Last year, on Sept. 13 at the White House, the president said: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility." Policies during the five months since then have compounded the administration's deadly negligence in response to Hurricane Katrina, underscoring the diversionary significance of the I-take-responsibility scam.

When Brit Hume and Dick Cheney did their Fox trot, they were performing the kind of spectacle we've seen many times on television. Network correspondents and powerful politicians know the boundaries and the steps. Their footwork may look simple, but it's fancy and well-practiced. Contrary to pretense, the probing journalist doesn't probe too much, and the forthcoming politician merely hunkers down with a new twist.

And so it goes: Whether the media uproar has to do with a quail hunt, or lethal negligence in connection with a hurricane, or chronic deception for a war, top officials may finally opt to "take responsibility." But that's nothing more than a propaganda technique for those who view lying as an essential means of governance.

(Norman Solomon's latest book is "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." For information, go to:


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