The Man Behind The Curtain
Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president in history. Is that good?
For his part, Cheney remains resolute and serene. If anything, his private views are even more pointed than those he expresses publicly. He tells aides that throughout the 20th century, the United States used its power sparingly to promote freedom. But now, he argues, the onset of an organized, global movement of anti-American terrorists has forced a change. "The era of optional war is over," he says, because terrorists who can hurt the United States and its allies will do so if they can, and only the United States has the power to stop them.
The vice president wants to keep America on offense, arguing that even if 99 percent of the terrorists are killed or taken out of action, the remaining 1 percent can do great harm. This, he says, requires unprecedented vigilance, patience, and aggressiveness. He told an aide that the war on terrorism must be "unconventional" and "asymmetrical" and added: " It's not like anything we've ever done. But if not us, who?"
"Mattress mice." Cheney doesn't care about polls or media criticism, confidants say. In private, he makes fun of the anonymous sources who criticize him in the media as "mattress mice" and tells friends that it isn't his job to curry favor with anyone except Bush, even if his public reputation suffers.
If he sees a negative story on TV, such as recent reports questioning the progress of reconstruction of Iraq, he often laughs and asks, "Why do they think that?" He believes he has the essential facts, many of them classified, and says the Iraq policy is working.
That kind of certitude unsettles even some in the administration, including officials at the State Department, who see the world in shades of gray rather than in Cheney's stark vision of black and white. "Very little gets through to him that is dissonant or not in agreement with the views he already holds," says a U.S. official. "He's in the old ivory tower." Some of his colleagues say he is obsessed with finding ways to avoid another terrorist attack. They point to a recent episode when Cheney visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and received a briefing on smallpox and its potential toll if used in an attack. "Weeks later, he was still talking about it," says one official. "Even after people pointed out difficulties, including the cost and the repercussions [of using a smallpox vaccine nationwide, such as people dying from it], he was still insisting on it." In the end, the plan for a massive anti-smallpox program was scrapped.
Cheney also remains committed to the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, as agents for positive change, though U.S. officials have concluded that much of the intelligence Chalabi provided to Washington was bogus. Within the past few weeks, Cheney told Secretary of State Colin Powell that the United States wouldn't be having so many problems in Iraq if Chalabi had been put in charge.
In his public comments, Cheney argues that the "defining moment" for the administration was Sept. 11, 2001. "It was, without question, a real watershed," he argued last month at a Republican fundraising luncheon in Dallas. It was, administration insiders say, also a watershed for Cheney. Today he is convinced that America's enemies are determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction and, if successful, "will launch attacks that are far more deadly than anything we have seen up to today."