Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, June 24, 2007

  WaPo dishes on Cheney: Why now?

The Washington Post this week will have a series of reports on Dick Cheney's secretive role in shaping George Bush's policies and in reshaping the Executive Branch. The first installment today has some important revelations, which I'll comment on later. But the most basic question goes unasked: Why is the Post reporting about this only now?

The damage that Cheney has done to the rule of law, to the credibility of the Bush administration, to an extensive array of its policies, and to the nation's standing in the world, was accomplished and widely noted already by 2004 at the latest. This week's reporting, though useful, comes a tad late for the public to demand answers or set things right. It's a bit like getting a diagram in the mail of exits and escape routes for a barn that burned down fully three years ago.

The Post's reports are detailed and extensive; clearly they took a long time to prepare. I can't shake the feeling, however, that their publication this week owes a lot to the latest story of Cheney's excesses, which got so much traction last week.

I'm referring of course to Cheney's bizarre claim that the vice presidency is not an "entity of" the Executive least when it's a question of submitting his records to the scrutiny of the National Archives. Cheney claims that the Vice President is sometimes a member of the Executive Branch, and sometimes a member of the Legislative Branch. The choice, however improbable, seems to be determined by which form of stonewalling Cheney is engaged in at the moment.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI'll call this Cheney's Scarlet Pimpernel Theory (SPT) of the vice presidency.

How can Cheney have supposed that he might escape devastating ridicule for the Scarlet Pimpernel Theory? A partial answer, I think, lies in one of the other puzzling aspects of this scandal: Why did it take the national news media so long to latch onto this story of hubris? Cheney's ludicrous claims have been tracked for the last four years by Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News, and were even detailed in May 2006 by Mark Silva for the Chicago Tribune. That was followed in the national media, however, by near silence.

So Cheney has grown used to escaping scrutiny from the corporate media. He must have supposed that he could stiff-arm the National Archives by means of the SPT, and then retreat to his undisclosed and immaculate absurdities, as always.

But oddly enough, after years of lying dormant, the Scarlet Pimpernel scandal broke into the corporate media with a passion last week. You could tell almost from the start, with the mounting ridicule heaped on the Vice President, that this was a different kind of Cheney scandal altogether. This one could crack Cheney's facade of deep, purposeful seriousness forever, I thought; it won't any longer be just Rolling Stone, the New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker writing profiles of this lunatic and his merrie band of lawbreakers.

And right on cue, this Sunday the Washington Post begins to print a series that pulls back the curtain on Cheney (and his merrie band). Coincidence?

There's a curious quality to the first installment. I'm not sure that "timeless" is the right word to describe it. Maybe it's a whiff of staleness I sense. But it sure feels like it could have been written, say, months ago before the bottom fell out of this rotten administration.

Even the internal indications of time in this article seem a bit odd:

The vice president's reputation and, some say, his influence, have suffered in the past year and a half. Cheney lost his closest aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to a perjury conviction, and his onetime mentor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a Cabinet purge. A shooting accident in Texas, and increasing gaps between his rhetoric and events in Iraq, have exposed him to ridicule and approval ratings in the teens.

Only one of those things is even close to a year and a half old—unless we assume (what seemed the obvious inference when I read it) that the reference to Cheney's preposterous rhetoric on Iraq refers to his infamous "last throes" statement. But that dates to May 2005. Is it possible that this series was first drafted half a year ago, with some modest updates since then?

Once, in passing, the Post mentions an October 2006 interview with Josh Bolten, at which a former confrontation between Ashcroft and Cheney (not made public until now) came up for discussion:

According to Yoo and three other officials, Ashcroft did not persuade Cheney and got no audience with Bush. Bolten, in an October 2006 interview after becoming Bush's chief of staff, did not deny that account. He signaled an intention to operate differently in the second term.

That seems to suggest that interviews for this series were underway last October.

* *

After I'd finished this (which I'd meant originally as an introduction to a much longer post on the substance of today's Post report), I became aware of this intriguing commentary at War and Piece. Laura Rozen says that a veteran newspaper editor sent her the following comments about today's WaPo article on Cheney.

A careful reading of the story of Cheney's coup against a feeble executive reveals that paragraphs 7 through 10 were written and inserted in haste by a powerful editorial hand. The banging of colliding metaphors in an otherwise carefully written piece is evidence of last-minute interpolations by a bad editor whom no one has the power to rewrite.

("Waxing or waning, [moon metaphor], Cheney hold his purchase [grasping image, a monkey?] on an unrivaled portfolio [business metaphor]...." A monkey with a gibbous face clutching a briefcase stuffed with investments?)

(Worse is this garble: "Cheney, they said. inhabits an operational world [?] in which means are matched with ends [is there any other way?] and some of the most important choices are made." [Where's the rest of the sentence? What does this pseudo-sentence even mean?])

That in turn suggests that this piece has been ready to run for some time. Insertions like the one about the veep's office not being part of the executive branch and seriatim "softenings" show that jamming it into the paper at the end of June, when only cats and the homeless are around the read the paper, was made at the last minute.

Why? My guess is that this series ready to go during the debate over the supplemental funding of the Iraq war and that Downie or someone at the top held it back until Gellman and others started carrying snub-nose .38s to work under their seersuckers.

A key element of the coup is also ignored: the role of the press as revealed in the Libby scandal ... : Note in particular paragraph seven the phrase that Cheney's subversive roles "went undetected." The correct verb is "unreported."

This series is a landscape of an internal war. Parts of it are still smoking and some reputations are visibly dying--anonymously, for the moment. The journalistic graves registration people will go in later and tag the corpses.

There does appear to be something to that initial observation—that several paragraphs of purple prose don't seem to fit in with the otherwise fairly dry writing style. The purple patch occurs right after the article summarizes the content of each of the reports that will appear in the series. Thus it's the perfect spot for a grandiose insertion by an out-of-control editor. See what you think; these are the paragraphs in question.

In roles that have gone largely undetected, Cheney has served as gatekeeper for Supreme Court nominees, referee of Cabinet turf disputes, arbiter of budget appeals, editor of tax proposals and regulator in chief of water flows in his native West. On some subjects, officials said, he has displayed a strong pragmatic streak. On others he has served as enforcer of ideological principle, come what may.

Cheney is not, by nearly every inside account, the shadow president of popular lore. Bush has set his own course, not always in directions Cheney preferred. The president seized the helm when his No. 2 steered toward trouble, as Bush did, in time, on military commissions. Their one-on-one relationship is opaque, a vital unknown in assessing Cheney's impact on events. The two men speak of it seldom, if ever, with others. But officials who see them together often, not all of them admirers of the vice president, detect a strong sense of mutual confidence that Cheney is serving Bush's aims.

The vice president's reputation and, some say, his influence, have suffered in the past year and a half. Cheney lost his closest aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to a perjury conviction, and his onetime mentor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a Cabinet purge. A shooting accident in Texas, and increasing gaps between his rhetoric and events in Iraq, have exposed him to ridicule and approval ratings in the teens. Cheney expresses indifference, in public and private, to any verdict but history's, and those close to him say he means it.

Waxing or waning, Cheney holds his purchase on an unrivaled portfolio across the executive branch. Bush works most naturally, close observers said, at the level of broad objectives, broadly declared. Cheney, they said, inhabits an operational world in which means are matched with ends and some of the most important choices are made. When particulars rise to presidential notice, Cheney often steers the preparation of options and sits with Bush, in side-by-side wing chairs, as he is briefed.

The last paragraph in particular is atrocious. It's hard to believe an editor, much less a copy-editor, would have permitted it to see print in this form, if it were written by a reporter. So I'm attracted to the theory offered by the anonymous friend of Rozen, that this is a late insertion by a loopy editor at the Washington Post.

If that's right, that it betrays a large, slobbering last minute insertion by an editor, then there's a reasonably good case to be made that this series was ready, sitting on a shelf and waiting for the go-ahead.

That doesn't mean, however, that the anonymous friend's explanation for the release of the series now is necessarily right. I see little so far that would suggest it was designed to run during the debate over funding the Iraq war, except the fact that a large part of the series will be devoted to Cheney's role in the Iraq debacle. But how could it be otherwise?

It's perfectly possible that the series was not conceived as a backdrop to any particular political debate. Nevertheless, once the series had been written, it may have been deemed too confrontational to put into print given the enduring power that Cheney wields within this administration.

I think I'm going to stick with my hunch, that the secret behind its publication now is the absolute beating that Cheney administered to his own profile in Washington by insisting that he's some kind of centaur: both man and horse, and yet neither, but also both. A horse's ass is what Cheney is, and the Scarlet Pimpernel business must have been greeted with horse-laughs all around the salons of DC last week.

I'm open to other suggestions, however. Today's story does open by drawing attention emphatically to Cheney's disastrous role in creating the "military commissions" at Guantanamo. Bush & Co. have suffered a series of black-eyes in recent weeks concerning the kangaroo courts in Gitmo. Most recently, as I commented on Friday, a JAG officer who served on one of the tribunals filed an affidavit in federal court that publicly tore the facade of legality off from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The CSRTs form the basis for all other Gitmo proceedings, so that's pretty bad news on the whole. Meanwhile, there's a nasty fight within the White House over whether to shut down Guantanamo.

So it's also quite possible that the WaPo decided, because of the renewed scrutiny of Gitmo, that it was now worth the risk of publishing this report on Cheney.

One way or another, there can be little doubt that the Post and every other major newspaper in the US should have been producing reports such as these years ago.

crossposted from Unbossed

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