The New York Review of Books
Cheney: ‘The More Ruthless the Better’
By Mark Danner
April 21, 2014
If you want to be loved, you know, go be a movie star.
—Dick Cheney, in The World According to Dick Cheney
I came upon the half-destroyed truck atop a highway overpass outside Fallujah, the cab all shot to hell, the trailer bloodstained and askew, propped at a crazy angle on its blown tires. On the highway below a great black burn scarred the concrete and over it a rust-red slash, the soot and blood marking the spot where, earlier that day in October 2003, the insurgents had used a cheap remote control to ignite barrels of concealed explosives just as the US armored patrol rumbled by, killing one paratrooper, wounding several. Insurgents, hidden in houses nearby, followed with bursts from their AK-47s.
The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M-16s and M-14s began “hosing” everything they could see, starting with the truck passing on the highway above—eviscerating the unfortunate driver—and then poured fire into the houses.
How many Iraqis had they killed and wounded? The more the better, as far as insurgent leaders were concerned. “The point,” the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne told me the next day, “is to get the Americans to fire back and hopefully they’ll get some Iraqi casualties out of that and they can publicize that.” By week’s end family and close friends of those killed and wounded would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame.
American firepower plus Iraqi deaths equals more insurgents: an axiom in the strategy of provocation. Provoke your enemy to kill civilians and thereby call to battle the sleeping population. You have no army? Use the occupier’s to help raise one of your own. In Iraq insurgents used that strategy to grow and prosper, recognizing the characteristic American quickness to react with overwhelming firepower as their best friend. Across continents, al-Qaeda used it as well. Blow up towers in New York, creating an indelible recruiting poster for the worldwide cause while provoking self-defeating responses. Lure the Americans into Afghanistan, where they’ll sink into the quagmire that trapped their superpower rival twenty years before.
Such was Osama bin Laden’s strategy. Who dreamed that the Americans would prove so cooperative by also invading Iraq? Like a celestial slot machine daily pouring forth its golden bounty, the September 11 attacks had produced a wonderfully telegenic invasion of a major Muslim country. To an attack by a small group that called for a worldwide uprising of Muslims to throw off American oppression, the United States had responded by sending 150,000 armed Americans to oppress a Muslim country. The tiny fringe movement could point to the television screens as American tanks rumbled down the streets of an Arab capital, as American soldiers rousted Muslims from their beds, threw them to the ground, placed unclean boots on their backs—as they stripped them and tortured them at Abu Ghraib, as they had hooded them and forced them to their knees at Guantánamo.
If the Iraq insurgency sat atop the worldwide jihadist insurgency like the second layer of a cake, it was the Americans who made that possible. Guantánamo did for al-Qaeda what Abu Ghraib had for the Iraqi insurgents, affirming in powerful images their political arguments about who Americans were, what they did to Muslims, and why they must be defeated.
“But it’s not Guantánamo that does the harm,” Dick Cheney writes in his memoirs.1“It is the critics of the facility who peddle falsehoods about it.”
Even if, for the sake of debate, one were to accept the image argument, I don’t have much sympathy for the view that we should find an alternative to Guantánamo…simply because we are worried about how we are perceived abroad.
If it was true, as Barack Obama said, that Guantánamo was “probably the number one recruitment tool” of al-Qaeda, Cheney wrote,
one would expect to see al Qaeda mention Guantánamo frequently, but a review of thirty-four messages and interviews by top al Qaeda leaders issued in 2009 and 2010 shows the word Guantánamo appearing in only three.
Instead, this “recruitment tool theory,” Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in the spring of 2009,
after a familiar fashion,…excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the Left, “We brought it on ourselves..”2
Dick Cheney is a highly experienced public official, but what strikes one about these comments is how shallow, provincial, and uninformed they seem, and also how tendentious, mistaking a discussion about facts—for the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency are facts—for a dispute about politics. That images of repression and torture were enormously important as a means to stoke Muslim anger and recruit insurgents was a commonplace for any soldier who fought in Iraq—or indeed anyone who noticed the graffiti and improvised murals on the walls. “Top al-Qaeda leaders” had no need to talk about Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib in interviews; the images were everywhere.
In Baghdad in the fall of 2003, six months before the photographs of them were broadcast, the tortures at Abu Ghraib already formed part of a generalized rage among Iraqis over their treatment at the hands of Americans. Indeed, a grim joke I heard often in Baghdad at the time melded the anger over the Americans’ failure to restore power with rumors of what they were doing to helpless prisoners in Saddam’s former torture chambers:
I knew the Americans would finally get the electricity back on but I didn’t know that when they did they’d be shooting it up my ass….
Like any insurgency, the “war on terror” was in its essence a political struggle in which occupier and insurgent fought over the allegiance of the population. In 2004, long after the Iraq war had descended into fiasco, this larger dynamic was captured by Cheney’s one-time mentor, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in a single question: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”
This was about the time that Cheney was boasting that the insurgency was “in its last throes.” His comments on the dynamics of the war were blinkered, ignorant, ideological: that American repression and atrocity help fuel insurgency he believes an echo of “that same old refrain from the Left” about crime. The comparison is striking and peculiar and it serves as a window into a worldview that, generally concealed beneath a crisp technocratic mastery born of deep experience in government, is dogmatic and deeply reactionary. In answer to the vice-president’s complaint, in the bunker beneath the White House on September 11, that “the comms in this place are terrible,” counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, as he tells us in his memoir, Against All Enemies, bemoaned the fact that the funds he’d requested to renovate the bunker’s communications had never been approved:
“It’ll happen,” Cheney promised. “Are you getting everything you need, everybody doing what you want?” Cheney asked, placing his hand on my shoulder. I had known Dick Cheney for a dozen years and for that long had been fascinated at how complex a person he was. On the surface, he was quiet and soft-spoken. Below the surface calm ran strong, almost extreme beliefs.
Only rarely did these beliefs become visible—for example, during the 1980s, when, as Clarke notes, Cheney “had been one of the five most radical conservatives in the Congress.” But mostly, as a powerful official within the executive branch—as White House chief of staff when he was in his thirties, secretary of defense when he was in his forties, and now, in his sixties, as a vice-president whose power and influence were unmatched in the history of the country—Cheney kept his own counsel. “The quiet,” as Clarke delicately observes, “often hid views that would seem out of place if aired more broadly.”3 Views, he might have added, that would surely have attracted opposition. Mostly Cheney chose to air those opinions in private, to the one man who could give them life: George W. Bush. In those weekly lunches and daily private conferences, the words could be passionate, even taunting: “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Cheney demanded of Bush about Saddam Hussein.4
Self-directed, restrained, disciplined, Cheney was concerned not with words but with power and what it brought. In the aftermath of September 11, the silent vice-president, serving a fledgling president who had won half a million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, who knew little of the workings of government and less of the world, and who had just failed to prevent the most damaging attack on the homeland in the history of the United States, had an unprecedented opportunity to embody, in matters of interrogation, detention, counterterror, and war, his “extreme beliefs” in the policies of the country. That those beliefs originated in a mind that seems not to have grasped, or credited, the basic dynamics of the war itself was a particular misfortune that still weighs on American foreign policy.
Late in the afternoon of September 11, Dick and Lynne Cheney and a few aides, as he tells filmmaker R.J. Cutler, emerged from the bunker, “went out and got on a helicopter on the south lawn on the White House and flew off to a secure undisclosed location.” The flight path took them across the Potomac:
Everything I’d seen up till that point had been, you know, over television and so forth. But when you fly over the Pentagon and there’s a big hole in the side of it and all the signs of the attack and it’s still smoking from the damage that was done that morning was a dramatic sort of reinforcement of what we knew was happening. I started thinking about how we should respond, how can we bring to bear the power and influence of the United States to take down whoever had launched this attack against us.
It is indeed a problem: How does one “bring to bear the power and influence of the United States”—the greatest military power in the history of the world and now, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the great unrivaled champion of “the unipolar moment” in international affairs5—on a tiny group of a few hundred conspirators hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and scattered across various other hard-to-find places in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? The United States, the muscle-bound giant, with technology generations more advanced than any in the world—what nation could produce fighter planes that could survive a dogfight with those of the United States, or aircraft carriers that could remain afloat in the seas?—had been presented with its gravest military challenge by…a small, lightly armed network of insurgents.
Thus the problem of “asymmetrical warfare”: How could the giant, groping about in the caves and crevices, even find that group, let alone join it in a worldwide struggle commensurate with its own “power and influence”? Thus the consternation over the fact that Afghanistan, “since it was so primitive that there were few targets,” as Paul Wolfowitz put it at the first war cabinet meeting after the attacks, “would not be a particularly satisfying place to wage a war.”
One answer was to make the enemy larger. The insurgents of al-Qaeda, the president told the nation on September 20, were “heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions…they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.” Al-Qaeda, with no state under its control, no army, no nuclear missiles, nonetheless would assume, in the administration’s eschatology, the mantle of the Nazis and the Soviets; the war against it would be a new cold war—or rather a continuation of the old one, which, it turns out, had only been suspended. The Communist threat became the terrorist one. Though the weapons of choice on September 11 had been mundane—box cutters and airliners—terrorists henceforth would be considered armed with “weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, though it was well known that the organization had kept up a steady rhythm of attacks against American targets that required careful planning and one and two years of delay in between—
November 1995—Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
August 1998—US embassies, Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam
October 2000—USS Cole, Aden, Yemen
—now the country was panicked with the false certainty of near-immediate “second-wave” attacks, perhaps even “dirty bombs,” that might destroy shopping centers or high-rises or cities at any time. Against this imminent, apocalyptic threat, anything—anything—was justified, even if that anything was quite demonstrably counterproductive. Thus the heart of Cheney’s “one percent doctrine,” which he set out during a CIA briefing in November 2001:
If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis…. It’s about our response.6
The response, by definition, meant acting: though the chance might be one in a hundred, the danger of that tiny possibility, if realized, was so great that one must act as if that one percent were in fact a hundred percent certainty. One must always act. The Cheney Doctrine was put into effect in Iraq—which, as Wolfowitz said, “had plenty of targets”—and it was in those Iraqi streets that the doctrine showed itself to be a crackpot faux profundity of the most damaging kind. For to act has its own risks. To act can place one in a weaker, more vulnerable position than before—for example, by attacking a Muslim country that has no al-Qaeda presence and, by so acting, encouraging in that country a rebellion full of such insurgents (who fight on in Iraq to this day).
The philosophy of leadership embodied in terse, tough action, the tougher and more ruthless the better—“it was more important to be successful than it was to be loved,” Cheney tells Cutler—was already well displayed in that bunker beneath the White House on September 11. At 10:39 AM that day, Vice President Cheney spoke to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, his old mentor who had first brought him to the White House:
VP: There’s been at least three instances where we’ve had reports of aircraft approaching Washington—a couple were confirmed hijacked. And, pursuant to the president’s instructions, I gave authorization for them to be taken out. Hello?…
SecDef: Okay, let me ask the question here. Has that directive been transmitted to the aircraft?
VP: Yes, it has.
SecDef: So, we’ve got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?
VP: That is correct. And it’s my understanding they’ve already taken a couple aircraft out.
SecDef: We can’t confirm that….
Secretary Rumsfeld couldn’t confirm that because it wasn’t true. In fact, very little of what Cheney said in this exchange, which he quotes in full in his memoir, turned out to be true. Two aircraft approaching Washington had not been confirmed hijacked. His directive to “take them out” had not been transmitted to the aircraft. And though it was his “understanding” that the US pilots had “already taken a couple aircraft out,” they in fact hadn’t.
The military ignored the vice- president’s terse, tough orders—and in any case, Cheney had not “conveyed” the order to “take out” the Washington-bound airliner until eight minutes or so after it crashed in Pennsylvania. President Bush finally gave the authority to shoot down planes fifteen minutes after the plane had crashed. Indeed, despite a lot of misleading testimony to the contrary, the simple fact is that if the passengers on that plane hadn’t desperately tried to seize control of it, causing it to crash into a field, the plane likely would have destroyed the Capitol or the White House itself. What saved the country from damage and loss of life of a much greater magnitude on September 11 was not tough and ruthless orders by the vice-president, which were literally falling on deaf ears, but the random fact that that flight had been forty-two minutes late taking off from Newark—which allowed the passengers time to learn while in the air that the earlier planes had been made into suicide flights.
That the government’s real-time response to the attacks was a maelstrom of panic and confusion is not news.7 What strikes one is Cheney’s insistence on reprinting this error-riddled and embarrassing transcript in his memoirs a decade after the fiasco. What is he trying to tell us? Not that he “took out” civilian airliners but that however impotent the actual result, he had not hesitated to try to do so, and that he displayed that willingness with some pride in reporting to his former mentor. He writes that “the enormity of the order I had just conveyed”—and conveyed, he tells us, “without hesitation”—“struck all of us in the [bunker], and a silence fell over the room.”
It is doubtful, as Barton Gellman shows in a painstaking reconstruction in his studyAngler, that Cheney was “conveying” an order at all, for though he claims that the president had “approved my recommendation” that fighter pilots be authorized to fire on hijacked airliners “in one of our earlier calls,” in fact, as the 9/11 Commission noted, “there is no documentary evidence for this call,” and as Gellman writes, the relevant two-minute conversation with Bush “began shortly after the vice president cleared”—or thought he had—“Air Force fighters to open fire.”
Cheney, though both he and Bush have steadfastly denied it, seems to have given the order to “take out” the plane at least ten minutes before Bush had actually approved it. Both directives came long after United 93 crashed. Even if the airliner hadn’t crashed, the two fighter pilots, who—like their flight controllers—had no idea where it was and who did not receive clearance to fire until long after the airliner would have reached Washington, almost certainly could not prevented its striking the Capitol or the White House, its intended targets.8
For al-Qaeda, phase one of the attack—causing mammoth destruction and loss of life—would be an unprecedented success. Phase two, luring the superpower into taking actions that would foster the movement by producing more insurgents, had already been set in motion, confirmed with the determination of Dick Cheney to “bring to bear the power and influence of the United States to take down whoever had launched this attack against us.”
Five days later Cheney would speak from his “secure undisclosed location”—the phrase was his, though in fact he was at the presidential retreat in Camp David—to tell the country on Meet the Press that in responding to the attacks the government would “have to work through, sort of the dark side, if you will.”
We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in….
At the time, one might have found much to commend in these remarks: the proper response to the attacks should have been targeted and discreet, directed solely and effectively at the small group responsible—and careful to avoid any broader actions that could politically bolster that group’s cause. But such measured action was not quite what the vice-president had in mind: “So it’s going to be vital for us to use”—as he put it—“any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
These “means” would include establishing an archipelago of secret prisons—so-called “black sites”—whose existence, with each highly publicized capture of the latest terrorist, soon became all too public—and one, at Guantánamo, that was public from the start, where Muslims were imprisoned indefinitely under harsh conditions and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” improvised by bumbling amateur “experts” hired by the CIA and the military.
It was in creating and pushing through these programs on detention, interrogation, and surveillance9 that the vice-president showed his true brilliance. With his discipline, determination, and experience he was able to show the president how to circumvent the “interagency process” and develop and impose policies on detention and interrogation that would otherwise never have been approved. His genius for working the bureaucracy, and making use of the close associates he had seeded, as head of the Bush transition, at strategic posts within it, allowed him to implement, with the help of only a handful of like-minded people, policies that constituted a revolution when it came to American practices of human rights.
There is little evidence that this tiny group ever did much to think through these policies—for example, when it came to interrogation, to delve into the history of what the country had done in previous wars or to consult allies with rich experience of what worked and what did not. The key words were “any means at our disposal.” To insist on such means was not a mark of knowledge or analysis; it was a necessary sign of will, of toughness, of the unspoken terse readiness to do what Cheney thought needed to be done, even if evidence would have suggested—had evidence been sought—that these were distinctly poor decisions representing not knowledge or experience but a predilection for toughness at any cost. “If you want to be loved,” as Cheney tells Cutler, “go be a movie star.”
In this way, the blinkered narrow ignorance of a few was imposed with great effectiveness on the actions of the entire government. And if the war on terror was still a giant floundering about in search of a small insurgent group, soon Iraq would offer the chance to display American “shock and awe” and—just what al-Qaeda had wanted—American tanks rumbling down the streets of an Arab capital. The tough, terse philosophy of power of Dick Cheney was al-Qaeda’s dream.
Did anyone trouble to point out that such images might be a boon to the small jidhadist group who had attacked the country? In January 2003, with the invasion of Iraq a few months off, President Bush met with his CIA director, George Tenet, and other officials for “an in-depth review of the administration’s counterterrorism efforts.” The mood was dark:
One of the biggest challenges they faced, Tenet said, was al-Qaeda’s continued success in attracting new foot soldiers. Rice and Wolfowitz agreed, fretting that American efforts had failed to stem the influx of jihadist recruits.
Bush waved a hand dismissively. “Victory will take care of that problem.”
At the bravado of this remark, Kurt Eichenwald writes in 500 Days, “some of the people in the room were flabbergasted.” The victory the president meant, of course, was the quick overwhelming one he was certain would come in Iraq:
In a single sentence,…Bush had revealed volumes about his strategic thinking…. Somehow, Bush had come to believe that ousting Saddam would—what? frighten? impress?—extremists so much that they would abandon jihad.
It was, one aide believed, an extraordinarily dangerous assumption.
How might the president have come by this “extraordinarily dangerous assumption”—which, it seemed, would come to motivate the entire government on a war of choice launched halfway around the world against an enemy that had not attacked the country? We are not told. Nor whether one of “the people in the room” was the vice-president—that terse, unsentimental Westerner, the firm believer in the universal effectiveness of power and force, who would offer this wisdom about torturing detainees:
With many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we didn’t think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time….
Asked about waterboarding by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, his retort is equally quick and brutal:
Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your, your honor, or are you going to do your job, do what’s required first and foremost your responsibility to safeguard the United States of America and the lives of its citizens. Now given a choice between doing what we did or backing off and saying, “We know you know their next attack against the United States but we’re not gonna force you to tell us what it is because it might create a bad image for us.” That’s not a close call for me.
Cheney’s is a simple philosophy of toughness, its crystal clarity unblemished by any question of whether torture might actually work or what its use might cost the country. Anyone who hesitates to torture can only be a weakling worrying pitifully about creating “a bad image for us” or struggling to preserve, even more pathetically, “your honor.” Could it be from this terse tough man of action that the president had gotten the idea that, when it came to worries over “al-Qaeda’s continued success in attracting new foot soldiers,” he ought not to worry at all, because “victory will take care of that”?
In truth, we don’t know if Cheney was in the room. If he was, it is pretty certain he would have had nothing to say.
—This is the sixth in a series of articles.