Sept. 11: Cheney the iceman

By SHARON OTTERMAN  |  Sept. 6, 2002 at 9:58 PM
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(Part of UPI's Special Package on Sept. 11)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- When the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush was in a Florida schoolroom, reading to children.

The highest-ranking member of the U.S. government in Washington, at the center of the greatest defense and national security complex in the world, was a 60-year-old man with a severe heart ailment who had never served in the armed forces.

But history may show that Vice President Dick Cheney was precisely the right man, at the right place, at the right time, and that in the space of those few hours, he changed the perception if not the reality of the vice-presidency.

In many ways, Sept. 11 was the moment for which Cheney had been training for all his professional life.

A skilled political operator and an experienced White House hand, Cheney had been made Bush's running mate in no small part because of his expertise in foreign policy and national security matters. It helped that Cheney was a famously cool performer under pressure, a man known for not letting emotion get in the way of a tough decision.

"The first word that comes to my mind is 'steady,'" Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told United Press International about Cheney's performance that morning. Rumsfeld is not alone in that estimation.

"Dick Cheney doesn't shake. He's the Grand Tetons -- he is unflappable," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former aide.

During the Gulf War, Cheney had served the first President George H.W. Bush as secretary of Defense, never appearing flummoxed, aides said. As a congressman in 1986, Cheney had calmly faced a room full of irate Wyoming ranchers furious that the federal government was taking their land for missile bases. By the time the low-key but persuasive Cheney was through explaining his case, the men were shaking his hand, remembers legislative aide Bill Connelly.

Cheney had been chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, helped President Ronald Reagan decide what to say to the American people after the Challenger explosion, and solidified a worldwide coalition in 1991 against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But though he was active in foreign policy since the beginning of his vice presidency, until Sept. 11, much of Cheney's work in the area had remained in the background. When American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center, all that changed.

Cheney was sitting in his White House office at the time with his speechwriter. He watched the second plane strike on television.

Immediately suspecting terrorism, he shifted into crisis mode.

According to the version of events which he gave NBC's "Meet the Press" the Sunday after the attacks, he quickly called a meeting in his office with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and some staffers. He spoke with Bush, who was still in the Florida school.

Rushed by Secret Service officers to the security of an underground situation center in the White House, Cheney took command of the situation. "He was, as always, calm and focused," said his Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was with him through most of the day.

Informed the White House might be under attack, he strongly urged the president against returning to Washington and ordered the evacuation of the Cabinet. In telephone contact with the president, Cheney spent the next hours in front of a large bank of computer and TV screens under the White House. Coordinating with the State Department, the military, and the transportation secretary, he personally tracked the Transportation Department's list of planes in the air on his legal pad, according to Libby.

The vice president plays the starring role in his version of events, with the president an off-screen character, appearing in telephone cameos for the major decisions. "I was in a position," Cheney said of those hours on Sept. 11, "to be able to see all the stuff coming in, receive reports and then make decisions in terms of acting with it."

Cheney's work proved his competence at the helm of the nation in a time of crisis.

But Cheney's moment, some said, re-introduced nagging questions about who was really in charge in the Bush White House. Cheney had ascended through the ranks in Washington by being a trusted, behind-the-scenes adviser; a man his bosses knew would never try to steal their spotlight. The crisis offered the public a rare glimpse of the often-obscured influence of the former congressman from Wyoming, shedding a crack of light on why many scholars call Cheney the most powerful U.S. vice president in history.

Some historians said Cheney angered the administration by being so public about his crucial role during the attacks. "Cheney was pulling an Alexander Haig on that Sunday show," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans, referring to the infamous moments after Reagan was shot, when Haig declared, "I'm in charge."

"It was Cheney telling the world that, don't worry about 'Shrub,' I know what's going on. It made Bush realize that the impression that Cheney was in charge had to be erased," adds Brinkley, using the derisive nickname for the president.

The White House strongly denies that reading of events. What is clear, however, is that since Sept. 11, Cheney's role in the White House has become a kind of paradox.

"Publicly, Sept. 11 diminished rather than enhanced his role. Bush came more to the center of public life. But within the White House, Cheney appears to have become more powerful," said historian Robert Dallek.

For the first year and a half of his vice presidency, Cheney had served as the top adviser and deputy of the president, but largely remained out of public view. It was a role familiar to Cheney. "Cheney is quite comfortable in the role of quiet discreet adviser to the president," said former aide Connelly. As chief of staff to Ford, Cheney's Secret Service codename had even been "Backseat," said former congressional aide Pitney.

After running the transition for Bush, Cheney became involved with some of the key missions of the new presidency, leading the White House energy task force, consulting on national security and defense matters and choosing staff.

Cheney met with the president several times a day, aides said, both formally and informally. With the full trust of the president, the older, more experienced Cheney was called a big brother, a senior counselor and a consigliore to the president.

"Without question, his role as a major force within the administration is without precedent," said Timothy Welch, author of a book on the vice presidency and director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

Cheney's reluctance to draw attention to himself and his discretion in discussions with the president are the key to his powerful role, historians said.

"He's taken on the role of a 'confidence man,' following in a tradition of people who have served presidents discreetly. Cheney's taken discretion to a new art form -- that's been one of his primary strengths," said Brinkley.

But Cheney's penchant for discretion is so deep that it often borders on secrecy. Both of the controversies that have plagued him in the past year have been related to his desire to keep much of what goes on behind White House walls beyond public view.

Cheney was accused of buddying up to Enron and other big-energy interests in the crafting of the national energy policy. Citing executive privilege, he refused to release a full list of the people he met in Energy Task Force meetings, despite being sued in January by the General Accounting Office. Cheney claimed it would undermine the already-weakened power of the executive to have a White House in which advice could not be given.

The second problem was a personal difficulty, when it became clear in March that Halliburton, the oil-services giant led by Cheney between 1995-2000, was being investigated by the SEC for questionable accounting practices. As a sitting vice president, Cheney correctly surmised that a public proclamation of innocence might be viewed as undue influence on the White House-appointed agency. But detractors still insisted that Cheney should come forward with more evidence.

As the president returned to the White House on the evening of Sept. 11, Cheney's preference for the shadows became suddenly literal. He was moved to the first of what would be a string of "secure, undisclosed locations" -- reportedly a Cold-War era command center near Washington. It was more than a month before he appeared in public again.

It became standard policy in the following months to keep him away from the White House when Bush was there, in an effort to ensure that both leaders would not be killed in a terror attack.

Jokes abounded about Cheney's disappearing act, with the vice president himself even joining in.

"We haven't been out much lately, and the Waldorf is a lot nicer than our cave," Cheney said at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in New York on Oct. 18, after visiting Ground Zero in his first public appearance since Sept. 11.

As fall shifted into winter, however, a few things became clear about Cheney's highly publicized seclusion. The first was that Cheney was not actually as hidden away as most people believed. Indeed, he went on a hunting trip to upstate New York as early as October, and spent a weekend in South Dakota shooting pheasant during the height of the Afghanistan campaign. By January, he had resumed an active schedule of political appearances and fundraisers around the country.

Aides said that since January, Cheney has spent most nights at home in his Naval Observatory residence while in Washington; before that, he would sometimes be moved out in the evenings to a more secure place. He has resumed a somewhat normal schedule of meetings and events -- attending, for example, the Tuesday Republican policy lunches in Congress most weeks. Cheney's continued low-profile now seems to be as much about his preferred style of operation as security.

"Cheney is quite comfortable in the role of quiet, discreet adviser to the president," said Connelly.

Indeed, as the hullabaloo over Cheney's secretive energy task force meetings hit the papers in December, and the investigation into accounting practices at Halliburton became headline news in May, critics began to question if he was hiding for security purposes, or merely ducking unwanted attention.

Even while he was picking up the pace of his fundraising efforts for Republicans -- Cheney has made more than 50 GOP appearances since January -- he was not offering any more insight to journalists.

After the Halliburton story broke, Cheney went a marathon 80 days without answering reporters' questions. At one Iowa fundraiser toward the end of July, reporters said escorts followed them to the bathroom to make sure they did not try to corner him. Schedules for seemingly public trips -- like an address on a nuclear submarine in July -- were not provided, reporters said. Cheney's spokeswoman replied at the time that Cheney does not announce travel that involves national security -- a caveat that in this year's climate could include almost anything.

But, no matter what his location, he has participated in key national security, economic policy, and homeland security meetings, often by secure videophone. Every morning, he participates in the daily national security briefing held in the White House situation room with Bush, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rice.

Cheney has met with foreign heads of state and representatives, by videophone or in the White House when Bush is out of town. His aides frequented Middle East briefings -- accompanying National Security and State Department staff -- in what experts on the vice presidency call an unusual triple-teaming and another sign of Cheney's influence.

Heads of state such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have made time to personally meet with Cheney in Washington.

"With the shift in society, the shift in the world, the areas in which the vice president has an interest, background and expertise in have been moved kind of front and center," said Rumsfeld, underlining the new significance of the Middle East, foreign policy and national security.

And the president -- who continues to meet frequently with Cheney in lunches, private meetings and despite the increased security, according to Rumsfeld -- appears to be listening. Many observers feel the administration's position to date on Iraq is highly reflective of the Cheney stance, an idea driven home when the vice president offered in late August the administration's most aggressive justification for a pre-emptive invasion on Iraq to date.

"The White House foreign policy is Cheney's foreign policy. He is providing the intellectual context for the White House," argues Brinkley.

One public indicator of the president's continuing regard for Cheney was his high-profile trip to the Middle East in March. It was a mission of unusual importance for a vice president, historians said. Cheney visited 11 countries, including Saudi Arabia and Yemen, largely to test the waters on a possible strike against Iraq.

Cheney traveled on Bush's largest spare Air Force One jet. In part, the White House said the choice was made because of the superior medical facilities and Cheney's heart condition -- he's had four heart attacks since 1978 and now wears a pacemaker. But the choice of planes also seemed appropriate. When Cheney travels abroad, "he is without question speaking for the president of the United States," Rumsfeld said at the time.

The trip was classic Cheney, displaying his proficiency in dealing on a personal level with leaders in the region, and also his desire to reveal as little as possible about what was actually taking place.

Reporters on the trip said they saw many more five-star gold-plated water faucets than substantive press briefings. When the Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera reported that Cheney's meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah was confrontational, Cheney pointed out that no one outside the room could really know what had taken place.

"The only people in the meeting were the crown prince and myself, plus an interpreter -- and I have his notes," Cheney said. "It would be a mistake to assume ... that it's possible to characterize this trip based upon speculation about what people may or may not have said to me."

(With reporting by UPI Pentagon Correspondent Pamela Hess.)

(This analysis is part of UPI's Special Package on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks).

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