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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 October 2006, 11:56 GMT
The most powerful vice-president ever?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Vice President Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney: Most powerful VP ever?

The latest controversy involving the US Vice-President Dick Cheney is no surprise given his blunt views and sometimes blunter language.

In this latest case, he appeared to approve the practice of "water-boarding", in which a prisoner is subject to immersion and a sensation of drowning.

Mr Cheney was being interviewed in his White House office for a mid-west radio station WDAY. The reporter Scott Hennen asked him, in a friendly kind of way, about interrogation techniques. This from the White House transcript:

"HENNEN: I've had people call and say, please, let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives. Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do agree. And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation...

"Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president "for torture". We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

Denial

The vice president immediately denied he was referring to water-boarding.

"I didn't say anything about water-boarding... He didn't even use that phrase," he told reporters. However, maybe the reporter did not need to. The rapport between interviewer and interviewee suggests that they knew very well what they were talking about.

The mystery of whether water-boarding is allowed also remains. A new US army manual bans its use by military personnel, but the rule does not apply to the CIA. That Mr Cheney came close at least to approving it should again be no surprise.

He fought a long battle to maintain the CIA's ability to run secret detention sites around the world and to use interrogation methods which do not, in his view, amount to torture but which do in the eyes of human rights organisations.

Avoids personal publicity

Mr Cheney does not like being in the public eye, except when he chooses and normally he chooses only when he wants to make some intervention in public policy.

At a dinner for him given by Chris Meyer, then the British ambassador in Washington, soon after he had moved into the vice president's house next door, he sat quietly all evening, toying with some health food (it was just after one of his heart attacks).

But his very secrecy means that the media is always ready to pounce when he slips up.

In 2004, he ended an encounter with a senior Democratic senator, who had raised the issue of Mr Cheney's links to the Halliburton company, with a "Go fuck yourself".

He attracted not a little hilarity when in February 2006 he accidentally peppered a 78-year-old friend with shotgun pellets while out shooting quail. He thus became only the second serving vice president to shoot a man, the first being Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

The man behind the president

Despite these brushes with publicity, Dick Cheney has always seen his role as that of the strong man behind the scenes.

In this he has been helped by having a president who is content to see his deputy help make policy instead of attending funerals, as has been the fate of some vice presidents, including George Bush senior under Ronald Reagan.

Dick Cheney is regarded as one of the main articulators and architects of the Bush administration.

Descriptions of him include "eminence grise", the "most powerful vice president ever" and even "Darth Vader", a reference he has picked up himself. There was joke in Washington after Mr Cheney's heart condition became known that "George Bush is just a heartbeat away from the presidency."

New book attacks

A new book about him called "Vice" has just been published by two Texas journalists, Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein. Mr Dubose is an old foe of the Bush team, having written, with Molly Ivins, a criticism of George Bush himself in 2000. It was called "Shrub".

Despite these brushes with publicity, Dick Cheney has always seen his role as that of the strong man behind the scenes.

"Vice" is in effect the case for the prosecution against Mr Cheney. The charges are that he has over-extended the powers of the executive and has in the process turned the office of vice president into an office of excessive power, "exercising authority that often subsumes the president's".

The authors argue that the vice president's predilection for presidential power was strengthened by the events of 9/11 that turned him into a "strategic hysteric".

On every front, they say, he took the hardest line - for an invasion of Iraq, for tough interrogation, for domestic wiretapping.

Charges and evidence

However one has to say that the book fails to make its charges stick in several key areas.

It states that Mr Cheney favoured lifting the embargo on US oil companies doing business in Iran. He failed.

It admits that he questioned an immediate invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 and opposed an early invasion of Iraq.

It goes into great detail about a supposed plot by Cheney and his associates to leak the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent.

Yet the source of that information has, since the book was printed, been revealed as Richard Armitage who was at the state department, not in Cheney's office.

Indeed, in recent months, Mr Cheney's influence seems to have waned as that of the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has risen.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


SEE ALSO
Bush enters Cheney 'torture row'
28 Oct 06 |  Americas
Bush signs US terror trial bill
17 Oct 06 |  Americas
Bush admits to CIA secret prisons
07 Sep 06 |  Americas
Q&A: Bush and CIA secret prisons
06 Sep 06 |  Americas

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