A political role exploited to restore unaccountable power to the White House


BOOK OF THE DAY: Angler: The Shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney, Barton GellmanAllen Lane 394pp, £25

NO RECENT US presidential election has generated as much excitement as the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama.

The media coverage of the primaries and the conventions has attracted a large audience in the United States and abroad. For those interested in how power politics works in Washington DC, this book is a must.

Barton Gellman is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with the Washington Post. This book reads like a political thriller. There is a fast-moving dialogue backed up by 400 references.

It is a compelling inside view of the Bush presidency, revealed by a detailed description of how Dick Cheney operated after George Bush had beaten John McCain for the Republican nomination in 2000.

In April he agreed to run Bush's vice- presidential search. Complete secrecy was demanded by Cheney, who had worked with Bush's father in the White House 1988-1992.

The author interviewed several of the possible vice-presidential candidates who received a phone call from Cheney telling them that Bush was considering them as a possible running-mate. They were bound to confidentiality and requested to complete a very comprehensive questionnaire.

At the end Cheney had positioned himself as the obvious choice.

When the disputed election result in Florida was subjected to a recount, Cheney made his next move by offering to take the job of transition team leader. Bush, aware of Cheney's Washington knowledge and conscious of his limited experience as governor of Texas, agreed. This is where the stealth and political intrigue really begins.

The role of the vice president, by traditional agreement, was to break a tied vote in the Senate, inquire daily about the president's health and travel the world attending funerals.

Cheney had other ideas.

Appalled by the curtailment of executive power by Congress and the Supreme Court following Watergate, he set out to restore the strength of the White House and the autonomy of the president as commander in chief.

While George Bush was waiting for the Supreme Court to elect him president of the United States, Cheney and his small team effectively selected the key White House cabinet personnel. His experience of Capitol Hill enabled him to tighten the links between the Republicans and the White House through a new disciplined line of communication. His positions as VP and president of the senate were critical to this endeavour.

Cheney allowed the Bush presidency to make the formal appointment decisions. However, the lists were presented in such a way that the outcome was on the VP's terms.

President Bush was in a school classroom in Florida when the hijacked aircraft struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. In Washington, Cheney, his staff and senior military personnel were moved to a secure bunker.

Here he took complete control, going so far as to authorise the USAF to shoot down any other hijacked aircraft intending to strike the Capitol or the White House. He had no legal authority to do this as Bush was still alive.

From this moment on, the so-called war on terror becomes Cheney's opportunity to restore unaccountable power to the White House. The whole nightmare of rendition, detainment, torture and abuse, in Baghdad, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, is carefully plotted and meticulously implemented.

Secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice were cut out of the loop. Cheney used his weekly private one-on-one meetings with president Bush to push through his agenda.

Of course, George W had the final say but he was not aware that the normal checks and balances on information flow within the administration had been by-passed by his vice president.

Barton Gellman describes the rise and ultimate fall of Dick Cheney. The book is a great addition to this year's presidential election campaign.

• Ruairí Quinn is the former leader of the Labour Party and is currently party spokesman on education and science