Sunday, September 10, 2006

Cheney and 9/11

“He’s just Dick Cheney,” Simpson said. “He has not changed in my mind. He has some very conservative thoughts he believes in deeply. He wouldn’t be doing anything in his role as vice president that the president didn’t want him to do. That’s what people have to understand.”

The Caspar Star-Tribune reports:

The weekend after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on the talk show "Meet the Press" and declared that “the world shifted” that Tuesday.

The attacks had fundamentally changed the federal government’s duties for the long haul, he said.

“It’s also important for people to understand that this is a long-term proposition,” Cheney said. “It’s not like, well, even Desert Storm, where we had a buildup for a few months, four days of combat, and it was over with. This is going to be the kind of work that will probably take years, because the focus has to be not just on any one individual. The problem here is terrorism.”

As second-in-command of the country, Cheney’s role also changed that fateful Tuesday. With national security and foreign affairs rising to the top of the government's agenda, the former Wyoming congressman helped shaped policies in the aftermath of the terror attacks in a way that has led political analysts to call him the most powerful vice president in American history.

“He was already an extraordinarily significant vice president even before 9/11, and 9/11 turned an important vice presidency into a historic one,” said John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College who worked as a congressional fellow for Cheney in 1984.

The day itself

On that Tuesday morning, Cheney sat in his White House office going over upcoming speeches with his speechwriter. Prompted by a call from his secretary, Cheney turned on the television and saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Immediately sensing a deliberate act, Cheney convened a staff meeting in his office -- until the Secret Service whisked him to an underground facility in the White House.

“First thing I did (once underground) was pick up the telephone and call the president again, who was still down in Florida, at that point, and strongly urged him to delay his return,” Cheney said on Meet the Press. “I said, ‘Delay your return. We don’t know what's going on here, but it looks like, you know, we’ve been targeted.’”

In the basement, Cheney had secure communications with the FAA, Air Force One, the CIA and the departments of State, Justice and Defense. “And so I was in a position to be able to see all the stuff coming in, receive reports and then make decisions in terms of acting with it,” Cheney said.

He added that the toughest decision that day was whether to shoot down a hijacked plane full of passengers if it posed a threat. Cheney said the president made the decision, on the vice president’s recommendation.

“(Cheney) was the one who relayed the order to shoot down Flight 93,” Pitney said. “That was an extraordinarily significant role for a vice president to play.”

Cheney in effect stood as the central leadership figure on Sept. 11, said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and author of “The Modern American Vice Presidency.”

“There’s this sense of the vice president on that day really assuming, really being the center of the American government, in terms of coordinating the response of the American government,” Goldstein said.

Immediate aftermath

For a while after the Meet the Press interview, Cheney became less visible, trying to counter the impression that he had been in command, Goldstein said. “After that it becomes necessary for the Bush administration to make it clear that the president really is in charge,” he said.

For security reasons, the president and vice president often stayed in different locations after the attacks. Cheney became the butt of late-night television jokes for often staying in “undisclosed locations.”

But what the American people don’t understand is that an office in the White House itself can be a secure, undisclosed location, said Cheney biographer John Nichols, who wrote two books about the vice president.

“He wasn’t gone, he was in Washington and in the surrounding locations,” said Nichols, also the Washington correspondent for The Nation. “The White House is secure, and if you don’t tell people he’s there, it’s undisclosed.”

The public came under the false impression that Cheney was hiding out in a bunker when in reality he had a central role in decisions, Nichols said. “He took a lead role in the White House in long term to address threat of terrorism,” he said. “There’s no question he’s been central to that question, part of the discussion.”

Long-term effects

The terror attacks and response changed Cheney’s long-term role in two main ways, Nichols said. It made the public aware of just how central Cheney was to the daily operations of the White House. It also shifted the administration’s focus from domestic policy to national security and foreign policy, Cheney’s areas of expertise.

President Bush had rarely traveled outside the country before becoming president. Cheney had served in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, as a member of Congress from Wyoming for 10 years, and then as secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.

“It moved the administration toward a focus that was very in line with Cheney’s interests and concerns,” Nichols said. “That was very advantageous to him, because he had a lot of background in the area, and it moved him to a forefront position. He was in a critical place in the administration to advance his vision of where the United States should position itself in a difficult world.”

Cheney became one of the strongest believers in the need to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. He also has publicly defended the administration’s need for new and sometimes controversial surveillance and intelligence programs after 9/11.

Goldstein said Sept. 11 created a situation that lent credibility to some of Cheney’s long-standing beliefs, including the importance of a strong executive, of taking military action in a proactive way and of beefing up covert intelligence.

“The whole nation gets mobilized to respond to 9/11 and in responding, some of the things Cheney wants to happen naturally do happen,” Goldstein said. “(Sept. 11) made some of his views on things like executive power, on secrecy and so forth more palatable than perhaps they otherwise would have been.”

Like other scholars, Goldstein says Cheney is the most powerful vice president in history. “He exercises power to a greater extent across a broader swath of issues than any other vice president,” he said.

But former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who has known Cheney since the 1960s, said the extremely loyal Cheney would never take that role on his own. He would only do what Bush wanted of him, Simpson said.

“He’s just Dick Cheney,” Simpson said. “He has not changed in my mind. He has some very conservative thoughts he believes in deeply. He wouldn’t be doing anything in his role as vice president that the president didn’t want him to do. That’s what people have to understand.”