A Strong Executive
Dick Cheney discusses presidential power and foreign policy.

The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, January 28, 2006

WASHINGTON--In the vice president's office in the West Wing of the White House hang portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson--or "No. 1 and No. 2," as the current occupant of the office calls them. No. 46, Richard B. Cheney, sat at his desk Tuesday morning for an interview with Paul Gigot, editor of this page, and me.

A day earlier, the vice president had attended a farewell dinner for Alan Greenspan, who steps down next week after more than 18 years at the Federal Reserve. Our conversation began with Mr. Cheney reminiscing about when, as a 30-year-old appointee in the Nixon administration, he first met Mr. Greenspan, then an economist consulting for the government. "I was the assistant director of the Cost of Living Council in charge of operations"--that is, of administering wage and price controls. "I had about 3,000 IRS agents trying to enforce those damn things," Mr. Cheney recalls with rueful humor. "I don't put [it] on my résumé."

Not that Mr. Cheney, who turns 65 on Monday, has any need to pad his résumé. In 1975 he became President Ford's chief of staff, at 34 the youngest man ever to hold that job. Three years later he ran successfully for Wyoming's House seat. He served just over a decade in Congress, and in January 1989 he became minority whip, the No. 2 Republican. Two months later, George H.W. Bush tapped him as defense secretary. After spending the Clinton years in the private sector, Mr. Cheney returned to government with the help of another George Bush.

This career path gives Mr. Cheney a unique perspective on today's debate over executive vs. legislative power. He formed his views on the subject during the Ford administration, a time when presidential authority was ebbing. "In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate . . . there was a concerted effort to place limits and restrictions on presidential authority--everything from the War Powers Act to the Hughes-Ryan Act on intelligence to stripping the president of his ability to impound funds--a series of decisions that were aimed at the time at trying to avoid a repeat of things like Vietnam or . . . Watergate.

"I thought they were misguided then, and have believed that given the world that we live in, that the president needs to have unimpaired executive authority. It doesn't mean, obviously, that there shouldn't be restraints. There clearly are with respect to the Constitution, and he's bound by those, as he should be. . . . But I do think the pendulum from time to time throughout history has swung from side to side--Congress was pre-eminent, or the executive was pre-eminent--and as I say, I believe in this day and age it's important that we have a strong presidency."

That lesson was reinforced for then-Rep. Cheney in 1987, when he was the ranking Republican on the congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Democrats accused President Reagan of violating the Boland amendment, intended to prevent aid from reaching Nicaragua's anticommunist guerrillas. "If you go back and look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra report, you'll see a strong statement about the president's prerogatives and responsibilities in the foreign policy/national security area in particular."

Today some argue that the Bush administration finds itself in a roughly analogous position. Critics of the National Security Agency's surveillance of terrorists claim that the administration is violating a statute, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, that purports to limit the president's power to act in the interest of national security. That power, Mr. Cheney counters, is inherent in the office: "The combination of the president's constitutional authority under Article II as commander in chief, the resolution Congress passed after 9/11 [authorizing the use of force against al Qaeda], as well as the historical precedent that all presidents have claimed in terms of their authority with respect to intercepting enemy communications" all establish "ample justification for the NSA program."

Does this mean the vice president endorses the argument made in the 1970s by former Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman that FISA may itself be unconstitutional because it empowers judges to overrule presidential decisions on national security? "That's an interesting issue," Mr. Cheney says. "There are a number of propositions . . . that never really get tested, like the War Powers Act. Everybody sort of walks around the edges of it, but we never really have a confrontation over it."

After 9/11, surveillance of terrorists would seem an odd subject for a confrontation. Mr. Cheney explains that the program in question is quite modest: "This notion [is] peddled out there by some that this is, quote, 'domestic surveillance' or 'domestic spying.' No, it's not. It is the interception of communications, one end of which is outside the United States, and one end of which, either outside the U.S. or inside, we have reason to believe is al-Qaeda-connected. Those are two pretty clear requirements, both of which need to be met."

Mr. Cheney says key members of Congress--the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, and sometimes both parties' top leaders from each chamber--were fully informed. "These sessions with Congress, most of which I presided over . . . answered every question that they wanted to ask. We've always said, look, if there's anything else you need to know, just let us know."

The lawmakers, Mr. Cheney says, shared the administration's view that secrecy was essential. "Public debate and discussion about the program would have done--in our view and in the view of members of Congress who were consulted--damage to our capabilities in this respect. We'd rather not have this conversation about this program, except for the fact that the New York Times went public with it."

Yet after the Times broke the story, Democratic members of Congress changed their tune from the one Mr. Cheney says they had sung in private. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Intelligence Committee Democrat, released a handwritten July 2003 letter to Mr. Cheney in which he said he was "writing to reiterate my concern regarding the sensitive intelligence issues we discussed." We asked Mr. Cheney if he remembered Mr. Rockefeller iterating his concern in the first place. "No, I recall the letter just sort of arriving, and it was never followed up on."

Meanwhile Rep. Jane Harman, Mr. Rockefeller's House counterpart, has opined that the administration broke the law by failing to brief every member of the intelligence committees. Says Mr. Cheney, "If we had done that since the beginning of the program back in '01--I ran the numbers yesterday--if we did the full House and Senate committees, as well as the elected leadership, we'd have had to read 70 people into this program" instead of eight or nine. Expecting that many congressmen to keep a secret is a faith-based initiative.

If the vice president's account is accurate, how does one explain Mr. Rockefeller and Ms. Harman's about-face? It may be that their party's base--the Angry Left--is so implacably opposed to the administration and to the war effort that leading Democrats can afford to be responsible about national security only behind closed doors. If this is so--and given the electoral price the Democrats paid in 2002 and 2004 for their uncertain approach to national security--the public revelation of the NSA program could end up jeopardizing their prospects for taking advantage of the GOP's very real problems this November.

It may also prove costly to the press. The Justice Department is now investigating who leaked the NSA program to the Times, a disclosure Mr. Cheney says has "done serious damage to the national security of the United States. . . . If somebody has been responsible for divulging information that damages national security, then appropriate action ought to be taken." He declines to comment on the possibility that reporters will be forced to testify in the investigation--a more likely prospect given the precedent set by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in a "leak" investigation involving no apparent threat to national security. For those of us who work in the press, it's a grim irony that the New York Times, eager to damage the Bush administration, cheered on Mr. Fitzgerald's appointment, heedless of the damage it would do to reporters' ability to protect confidential sources.

We asked Mr. Cheney to justify the NSA program in practical terms, and his answer was frustratingly vague: "FISA was written nearly 30 years ago, in the late '70s, and doesn't meet all our requirements today." What are those requirements? "I can't be any more precise than that without getting into details of the program. . . . I don't want to get into operational details." It may well be that the administration cannot responsibly reveal more, but this answer seems sure to fuel both the adversary press's hostility and the left's antigovernment paranoia.

On the other hand, Mr. Cheney gave a revealing answer when we asked why President Bush had signed the McCain amendment limiting the interrogation of terrorist detainees--despite Mr. Cheney's opposition, and the constraint it puts on executive discretion. "Well, I don't win all the arguments," he replied.

We also discussed foreign policy with Mr. Cheney, the highest-level official to serve in both the Bush administration that left Saddam Hussein in power and the one that overthrew him. What changed? "I think that 9/11 was a watershed event," he says. "It became clear that we were up against an adversary who, with a relatively small number of people, could come together and mount a devastating attack against the United States." This brought into focus the danger of proliferation: "The ultimate threat now would be a group of al Qaeda in the middle of one of our cities with a nuclear weapon."

By 9/11, Mr. Cheney notes, "we had 10 years of experience with Saddam Hussein defying the international community and refusing to come into compliance with U.N. sanctions . . . and, based upon the best evidence that everybody had at the point, proceeding with his WMD programs." Saddam also supported international terrorism, "everything from $25,000 payments for the family of suicide bombers to a home for Abu Nidal and Palestinian Islamic Jihad."

This newspaper had argued since 1991 for regime change in Iraq, so Mr. Cheney had a sympathetic audience when he made this case. But we wondered why the current administration is taking a much more cautious approach to Iran, a sponsor of terrorism that is eagerly pursuing nuclear weapons. The vice president disputed our premise. "We tried for a long time . . . to resolve the questions with respect to Iraq peacefully, and through international organizations and mechanisms. . . . We didn't immediately jump to Operation Iraqi Freedom." Yet given that those efforts failed, what makes him think the same approach will work with Iran?

"We're not the only ones who've been hit since 9/11," Mr. Cheney responds. "We're not the only ones who'd be threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran that was a state sponsor of terror. And the international community needs to come together and find effective ways of dealing with this to make certain that that situation doesn't arise." Fair enough, but one could have said that about Iraq anytime between 1991 and 2003.

Four years ago tomorrow, President Bush delivered his first State of the Union Address, in which he famously declared that Iraq and Iran, along with North Korea, made up an "axis of evil." In light of the divergent ways in which the administration has approached the three countries, I asked Mr. Cheney, was it a mistake to lump them together like this?

No, he said, it wasn't. "There are ways to approach different problems, and I think we've got to be sophisticated enough to figure out which one is most likely to work." After all, "you wouldn't want to accuse us of being simplistic."

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