Tucson Q&A

Barton Gellman

Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman is the author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, a comprehensive investigation into the role that Dick Cheney played in the Bush administration. Gellman, who has worked in war zones around the world and covered the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, will speak at 7 p.m., Monday, April 13, at the Catalina Foothills High School Little Theatre, 4300 E. Sunrise Drive. Tickets to the fundraiser for the Pima County Library Foundation are $35. For more information, call 299-6855. Visit The Range at blog.tucsonweekly.com for an expanded interview with Gellman.

How did Dick Cheney change the vice presidency?

He fundamentally transformed it. There had been a gradual trend from about the second term of FDR, and certainly beginning with (Jimmy) Carter and (Walter) Mondale, in which vice presidencies became more important in executive roles, or at least (vice presidents) had more access. But Cheney made it into basically the job of deputy president and super chief of staff. That had never happened before. I think you can't understand the last eight years without understanding what he did. I would say he was the most powerful person who has ever served in government who was not himself the president.

In the process, he also seems to have expanded the power of the executive branch in general.

Certainly, that was his aim. He has very strong and somewhat extreme views about the supremacy of the executive branch in our constitutional order. He usually starts with a proposition that is pretty widely accepted—such as, for example, the president is commander in chief, and you can't second-guess all his decisions on the battlefield—and he takes that past all the usual boundaries to say that no other branch of government has any say at all in the way that he uses those powers. ... He was able to get George W. Bush to go along with a lot of those ideas. In the process, he makes some very strong claims for executive authority. Now, there was backlash and pushback by the second term. Both Congress and the Supreme Court asserted themselves and bent back the executive branch. But I would say that often, without people much knowing it, Cheney managed to win ... most of the battles.

What was Cheney's role in developing the legal framework that allowed the enhanced- interrogation techniques used on detainees?

Cheney played the dominant role. Cheney, his chief of staff and his lawyer—respectively, Scooter Libby and David Addington—were the primary drivers of the idea that in order to break the will of enemy captives quickly, you had to get rid of all restraints against cruelty in interrogation. Now, they would argue that they did not cross the line into torture. But they also were instrumental in creating a legal definition of torture that was so narrow that it was actually almost impossible to commit it. The more important thing to them was that in the Geneva Conventions, there is a ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners. And that also was written into U.S. law. And they set about removing that obstacle.

What kind of relationship did Cheney have with Bush at the end of the administration?

Angler describes a sort of trajectory of the Bush administration, in which (Cheney) creates this enormously powerful office and has enormous influence over a much younger and much less-experienced president in the first term, and gradually, (Cheney's) power diminishes, for lots of reasons. One of them is that Bush lost some confidence in (Cheney's) judgment. There was a moment that's sort of the dramatic center of the book, in which Cheney ... just about brought Bush to the point where his whole Justice Department and the head of the FBI were about to resign, which would have been politically devastating, ... and according to Bush's top advisers, would have cost him re-election. Bush realized he would have been a one-term president if he had followed everything that Cheney advised him to do. He still valued Cheney's expertise, but he understood that Cheney was a zealot. Cheney is as close to an anti-politician as we've ever had in high office. ... Cheney doesn't care what Congress or the public thinks. The most important thing is to get the policy right, and he thinks he knows that better than other people do. The thing about Angler is, I give him his principles. He is not a bad man or a cartoon caricature. He believes that he is serving the national interest.

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