Cheney in the Bunker

As usual, Dick Cheney insisted on doing business behind closed doors. Last Tuesday, Senate Republicans were winding up their weekly luncheon in the Capitol when the vice president rose to speak. Staffers were quickly ordered out of the room--what Cheney had to say was for senators only. Normally taciturn, Cheney was uncharacteristically impassioned, according to two GOP senators who did not want to be on the record about a private meeting. He was very upset over the Senate's overwhelming passage of an amendment that prohibits inhumane treatment of terrorist detainees. Cheney said the law would tie the president's hands and end up costing "thousands of lives." He dramatized the point, conjuring up a scenario in which a captured Qaeda operative, another Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, refuses to give his interrogators details about an imminent attack. "We have to be able to do what is necessary," the vice president said, according to one of the senators who was present. The lawmakers listened, but they weren't moved to act. Sen. John McCain, who authored the anti-torture amendment, spoke up. "This is killing us around the world," he said. The House, which will likely vote on the measure soon, is also expected to pass it by a large margin.

These are tough times for Cheney. He has always been the administration's most "forward-leaning" force when it came to carrying out the war on terror and the Iraq invasion. Until recently Cheney's own authority was largely unchallenged in Republican Washington. But Congress, mindful of the public's turn against the war, is now openly defying his hard-line policies. Powerful figures--within the West Wing, at the State Department and Pentagon--who once deferred to him are now peeling away, worried that Cheney may have gone too far. His credibility has also been damaged by the CIA-leak investigation, which nabbed his trusted No. 2, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, who pleaded not guilty last week to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The vice president could be forgiven for retreating to his undisclosed location and waiting out the worst of it. Instead, his response has been pure Cheney. He's not budging. If anything--as the Senate meeting shows--the veep has become more convinced that he's right and his opponents are wrong.

In his time of need, he has counted on the help of at least one unswervingly faithful aide. With Libby sidelined, the vice president has elevated David Addington, a loyal acolyte, to be his new chief of staff. Addington has been at the vice president's side since the 1980s, when Cheney was a congressman and Addington a lawyer for the House intelligence committee. When Cheney became secretary of Defense during the first Bush presidency, Addington went with him. A skilled bureaucratic infighter who uses his temper strategically to stun foes into submission, Addington, now 48, has matured into a classic Washington type: the most powerful man you've never heard of. As Cheney's counsel, Addington--a private workaholic who, unlike Libby, shuns reporters--was one of the most forceful voices for tough treatment of terror suspects. It was Addington who drafted the January 2002 Alberto Gonzales memo which argued that captured Taliban and Qaeda fighters shouldn't be covered by the Geneva Conventions. He was behind the presidential order establishing military tribunals. And he passionately argued that in wartime the president has almost unlimited power--a point of view that was spelled out in the "torture memo" that the administration was eventually forced to rescind under public pressure.

Now those policies have become a burden for the White House. When Bush began his second term in 2004, a group of top administration officials, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, began a quiet campaign to back off some controversial detention and interrogation methods that were damaging U.S. credibility around the world. At White House meetings, Rice openly worried that in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib "these policies threatened to be the president's legacy," says an administration official who was present but asked for anonymity about the private sessions. Among the proposals seriously considered inside the bureaucracy: shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, allowing U.N. inspectors to tour Gitmo and pledging to follow Article III of the Geneva Conventions, which bars "cruel, degrading and inhumane" treatment of prisoners. Among Rice's supporters were two staunch defenders of the war on terror: national-security adviser Stephen Hadley, and Gordon England, Donald Rumsfeld's new deputy--an important shift that suggested Rumsfeld had qualms of his own.

Staffers were dispatched to write up the new policies. But in the end, nothing came of them. Cheney and Addington, who usually stayed silent at meetings, used their influence afterward to kill the ideas, according to three administration officials who asked for anonymity to avoid crossing the vice president. "Each time, [we] hit a brick wall--the vice president's office and Addington," says one of the officials. The vice president's office declined to comment for this story beyond saying that Cheney "is motivated first and foremost in support of policies that will save American lives from a brutal enemy that has declared war on us."

Cheney relied on Addington to help him wrestle with the bureaucracy. "He knows it inside and out," says Juleanna Glover Weiss, Cheney's former press secretary. "He's a master of the Rube Goldberg-esque workings of the executive branch." Friends marvel at his ability to wade through hundreds of pages of turgid government reports to seize upon the one fact he needs to win an argument. "If you threw the entire U.S. budget into the air, David Addington could read it and mark it up before it ever hit the ground," says David Gribbin, a former Pentagon colleague. He could also be unforgiving. When a young Justice Department lawyer named Pat Philbin crossed Addington in a policy dispute, Addington made it his mission to block Philbin's promotion to a top Justice job. Addington let it be known that Philbin was a "marked man," says a colleague who spoke anonymously to avoid clashing with Addington. (Addington and Philbin declined to comment.)

Cheney and Addington's single-minded devotion to the idea of a powerful wartime presidency has, at times, led them to ignore important political realities. In 2002, administration lawyers tried to persuade Cheney and Addington to back off from the policy of denying U.S. "enemy combatants" access to legal counsel. But Cheney and Addington refused. But by 2004, the case had reached the Supreme Court and the administration wound up abandoning the position anyway, before the Justices could knock it down as unconstitutional. "David could be principled to a fault," says Bradford Berenson, a former White House colleague. It's a quality the vice president and his loyal aide admire most about one another--and one that will help define the battles to come.

Join the Discussion