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The Radical Mind of Dick Cheney: An In-Depth Look at the Vice President

StoryNovember 26, 2003
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We take an in-depth look at the historical role Vice President Dick Cheney has played in U.S. foreign policy, his treatment of the intelligence community and his hawkish influence on President George W. Bush. We speak with The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman who co-wrote this week’s cover story on Cheney. [Includes transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Spencer Ackerman, assistant editor of the "New Republic." Welcome to Democracy Now!.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s good to have you. Why don’t we start from where you begin tracing the odyssey of Dick Cheney going back to the first Bush.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Well, what we wanted to figure out, when we undertook this project, was why someone who many people thought in 2000, when he became the Republican vice presidential nominee, would be a voice of advocacy for stability and, in general, real politic like the first Bush administration generally was, became someone who was so eager to reverse what many consider in retrospect sort of the central aspect of the Bush administration— the first Bush administration’s foreign policy, which was essentially ending the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein in power. And, the more we looked at Cheney’s record in the Pentagon, the more we saw that he wasn’t within the mainstream in that first Bush administration. He was more of its ideological outlier.

When it came time to formulate policy towards the Soviet Union during the waning days of the Cold War, Cheney wasn’t interested, like his colleagues James Baker or Brent Scocroft or even the first President Bush, in arms control or supporting Mikhail Gorbachev and sort of bringing the Soviet Union to what some would call a soft landing. He wanted to really press a very radical approach and sort of shock the system by supporting uprisings in the rebellious Ukraine to create something of an outpost in the region that he would hope would become something of a linchpin for a democratic transformation. Similarly, support Boris Yeltsin, who would then challenge the regime at its core. And you can hear some of the overtones in the— when you— in the Iraq War today, looking at that. There would be the end of that 40 years worth of ideological confrontation that would be solved on the United States’ terms if we first found someone we could support, who would have our interests at heart in this figure, that they would convince themselves is a world historical figure, like Yeltsin, and similarly creating an outpost in the region would then provide a foothold through which the ideological problems of the region, communism, in so many words, as it was falling down in the end of the 1980’s, would then provide this sort of regional positioning towards which the region would then sort of look more like the United States and sort of an open liberal democratic region.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Spencer Ackerman, who is assistant editor at the "New Republic." His piece is called "The Radical Mind of Dick Cheney." So, you look at the last ten years. Talk about Wolfowitz and Cheney.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: They had a very interesting relationship. Both men have— it’s somewhat overlooked— both men have, in fact, rather similar backgrounds. They’re both academics. They both spent their lives thinking very seriously about defense policy. They both— even something of a meritocratic idea— sort of finding bright, young intellectuals who are willing to challenge the received wisdom and then placing them in important policymaking places. And that came to its germination in the first Bush administration. Cheney was secretary of defense. Paul Wolfowitz was Cheney’s policy director, the undersecretary of defense for policy.

And over that time, Cheney saw his policy shop run by Wolfowitz as less of a 400-man unit that would think a about basing rights and weapons procurement, and formulating military to military ties with other countries, and more of an incubator for really strategic ideas. This was something that Wolfowitz was very keen on. There was a document that comes out of Wolfowitz’s policy shop in 1992 called the "Defense Planning Guidance," that was very controversial. It eventually becomes the 1993 "Regional Defense Strategy." That was the first time a document for American policymakers spelled out circumstances under which it would be justified to undertake preventive military action, in this case to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. What does that sound like right now?

Similarly, Wolfowitz saw that, with this "Defense Planning Guidance," that with the end of the Soviet Union and the birth of what we now call the Unipolar Moment, would be a unique opportunity for America to exercise its ability to intervene in other moments of foreign policy crises with a lot greater freedom than it would during this period of ideological confrontation. Similarly, Wolfowitz advocated that if America shrinks from its rather dominant role on the world stage, then the ideological gains of the Cold War would be perhaps momentary and fleeting, and so America needed to stay with its presence on the world stage, is what it was, in order to encourage that these games— particularly, he was thinking more in Eastern Europe at this point. It would sort of be locked in. And, finally, America had to retain its very robust military capabilities to make sure that no rival emerged to challenge the United States over this period.

And this was just simply not something that was really on the radar in 1992. It was not something that anyone was really thinking about at that time. People were expecting a peace dividend in the Cold War, the 1992 election was all about domestic politics, domestic problems, solving longstanding domestic issues. And, so, it caused a great deal of controversy in the first Bush administration. When the White House heard about it, they repudiated it. But, an interesting thing happened, which is that Cheney, while he did accede to White House pressure and sand down the edges and make sure it got leaked to the same people the original draft got leaked to so that people could see it was no longer quite so aggressive.

Nevertheless, he retained most of its key ideas, most importantly about the necessity, at times, for preventive action and a forward-leaning military presence and most importantly, this idea that American security was really— was really dependent on what he called zones of democracy. Different areas around the world, which were former security threats, which through American intervention could be transformed into sort of democratic outposts. That’s all retained in a January, 1993 document called the defense plan— I’m sorry, called the "Regional Defense Strategy." And, so, it really shows that the— the alliance between Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney wasn’t sort of a marriage of convenience. It was really more of a meeting of two minds, people who really did see the world in a very similar way, and were very eager to see that their vision was implemented.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Spencer Ackerman. You talk about Dick Cheney leaving his position as Defense Secretary to become head of Halliburton and how he circumvent— how his disgust with the CIA led him to hire retired intelligence people, a policy he has carried on through this day. Can you talk about the kind of brain trust he set up at Halliburton to deal with the world, to deal with countries?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Well, basically, he comes out of the— out of the first gulf war with a really acute sense— and so does Paul Wolfowitz and so do others who work in the Pentagon— with a really acute sense that in many very important respects the American intelligence establishment has failed. It’s failed to —- it’s failed to see that the Soviet Union had a bioweapons program, that we only found out about that in September of 1992, because Boris Yeltsin just flat-out told us. And, you know, that’s the whole—- the Soviet Union was the whole reason, more or less, that the CIA existed. So, how could they have missed something so important. Very, very few analysts in the intelligence community accurately predicted the invasion of Kuwait, and so on. There were several failures that proved to be somewhat seminal.

And by the time Cheney gets to Halliburton, like— like any businessman, he wants to have the most accurate information he can, and so as he hires people who have been former intelligence professionals and others to sort of help him with his forecasting as he ran the company— we talked to one of them— and this person told us that, in very florid and not perhaps broadcastable language, how angry Cheney was at the CIA, and how little faith he had in it. And, by the time that Cheney becomes vice president, that’s a deeply held belief that he carries over with him. And it’s what leads Cheney and his bureaucratic allies to set up channels within the government to sort of second-guess, challenge, outsource and almost replace the judgments of the established intelligence community.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about his relationship with Ahmed Chalabi.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Chalabi, in the 1990’s, as he’s— as he goes through his period where he falls out of favor with the Clinton administration, and with the Clinton administration CIA, cultivates more and more contact in Washington among conservatives. Importantly, Richard Perle and other scholars and former defense officials and other government officials who end up at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. And that’s where Cheney goes after his stay as Secretary of Defense and before he becomes head of Halliburton, and through annual conferences that— that AEI would set up in Beaver Creek and elsewhere, Cheney comes to meet Chalabi. And it’s at these conferences where Chalabi would be making his case if only the U.S. would support the Iraqi National Congress and its insurgents, a democratic Iraq could very easily flow out of a very brief period of uprising and instability and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

So, at that point, it becomes more and more enticing to more and more people, the idea that you can be rid of this hideous dictator who seems to be addicted to weapons of mass destruction, who seems to have regional designs on the Middle East even after the Gulf War, and who seems to be sort of a relentless enemy of the United States, replaced with a democratic and free Iraq, which is sort of the bargain of all bargains. And by the time that Cheney becomes vice president, not only does he sort of keep an open line to Chalabi, but many of the people on his staff, including his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, one of his foreign policy advisers, John Hannah, another of his foreign policy advisers who goes over to work in the Pentagon later on, Bill Rooney. A lot of these people have established ties to Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles. And they keep an open line within the vice president to listen to Chalabi and solicit his advice on some cases, to sort of get Chalabi’s perspective on intelligence or get alternative intelligence analyses.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole issue of Joe Wilson and the information— that the information was false about the yellowcake uranium being sold to Iraq. Can you talk about Alan Foley, the director of the CIA’s nonproliferation center and what Cheney and Scooter Libby and the others were doing with him?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Foley was perhaps one of the most impor— he’s retiring now— he ran one of the most important directorates at the CIA in this day and age, which is about weapons proliferation. And, over the course of 2002, there were several visits undertaken both by Cheney personally, by Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and then there were simply reams of other— questioning of documents that would come out of the directorate to sort of, as people who work for Foley have made clear, had the effect of something of a chill factor, that they got the impression that Cheney and his office wanted intelligence reports to conform to what they considered to be the proper conception of the threat, which is Saddam Hussein having reconstituted his nuclear weapons program. And with the Niger issue, a lot of that remains murky.

Basically, the CIA felt— in early 2002, there’s a report that makes its way to Dick Cheney that appears to have originated with Italian intelligence about Saddam seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger, and Cheney asks the CIA in early 2002, do you have anything to corroborate this, do you have any further information, how accurate is it? The CIA said they didn’t know. They wanted someone to find out, because they considered it of sufficient importance on its own merits and such importance to the vice president that it deserved a fuller answer. They asked Joe Wilson, who had been ambassador to several countries in Africa and had been an African specialist on the Clinton National Security Council to go to Niger and check it out.

Wilson went in March— I’m sorry, in February of 2002, concluded that, because of various bureaucratic strictures, because of the structure of Niger, the uranium industry— it’s run by two French-led consortiums in particular— and because of the difficulties in spiriting away uranium or making deals out in the open on uranium without attracting oversight, most importantly by the International Atomic Energy Agency, such a deal almost certainly did not occur. Wilson returns to the United States. He briefs his CIA contact, and that sort of, is as far as he hears. Cheney’s office is adamant that they did not know about Wilson’s trip, that they did not know until they read about it in the papers just this summer that this trip had occurred, and they thought that the CIA had answered its ques— had answered the questions from the vice president’s office in its entirety in 2002.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you talk about Cheney citing a Zogby poll, opposing those who said there was not support on the ground in Iraq, by citing this poll to say that the Iraqi people were with the U.S. military. Can you talk about that?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: This was one of the most bizarre statements Cheney made, both before the war, during the war, and in the post-war. In August, the Zogby organization tried to conduct the first scientific, as they call it, understanding of Iraqi public opinion. And what they found was decidedly not good for the United States. Sure enough, they found overwhelmingly that the Iraqi people, as any oppressed people would be, were overjoyed to be rid of Saddam Hussein, that did not translate into an overwhelming endorsement of the coalition’s occupation. Cheney took the findings on television and spun it in a way that suggested that that was exactly what Zogby had found, and it was used by Cheney as way to vindicate the coalition action. Yet, Zogby, when you analyze the poll, just paints such an overwhelmingly different picture, it’s very strange. Cheney had said that the American model of government was the most popular among the Iraqis.

In fact, a breakaway plurality of 49% wanted a democratic state that was guided by Islamic law. The closest choice to the United States model, which was a secular and democratic Iraq, garnered, by contrast, only 21% support. Cheney had said that about two-thirds of Iraq-I’m sorry, about 60% of Iraqis wanted to stay for at least another year. In fact, what they had said was they wanted the United States to leave in a year. And when you look at just the Sunni population of Iraq, that figure is at 70%. About half of Iraqis said that they expected the United States over the next five years to be harmful to their country. So, only— only— I think a fair reading of the poll would probably say that the Iraqis have somewhat mixed to negative feelings at the point at which Zogby conducted the poll about the American occupation. It was quite far from the enthusiastic reception that Cheney told the public that Iraqis had on "Meet the Press."

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, I want to thank you for being with us. Spencer Ackerman is co-author of the piece, "What Dick Cheney Really Believes, The Radical." You’re listening to Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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