Dick Cheney

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(HOST) Dick Cheney’s recent hunting accident has commentator Barrie Dunsmore thinking about history’s most powerful Vice President.

(DUNSMORE) Given Dick Cheney’s image as the Darth Vader of the Bush White House, late night television comedians will be dining richly on Cheney’s Texas hunting misadventure. But I’m not laughing very hard – especially when I look at his role in the governance of this country over the past five years.

The true extent of Cheney’s influence over President George W. Bush will be something for historians to conclude; but, even on the basis of what we now know, that influence would appear to be far greater than any of his predecessors’.

Still, Cheney carries a lot of baggage: his five draft deferments to keep himself out of the Vietnam War; his privatization of the Pentagon to huge commercial companies like Halliburton – of which he later became head; his secret dealings with energy conglomerates when drafting a new energy policy that gave huge subsidies to energy producers while belittling conservation.

But it’s Cheney’s role in taking the country to war in Iraq that deserves the greatest attention. In his public speeches, Cheney repeatedly charged that Saddam Hussein was close to having a nuclear weapon – an assertion that even at the time was disputed by most intelligence analysts. Behind the scenes Cheney pushed the CIA to find the smoking gun linking Saddam to al-Qaeda and 9/11 – a connection that did not exist. We learned only last week Cheney apparently authorized media leaks of portions of the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate to counter critics of his weapons of mass destruction claims.

It was also recently reported in Newsweek that Cheney and his counsel David Addington were behind much of the secret campaign to give the President virtually unlimited power in the war on terror. As skilled bureaucratic in-fighters, they by-passed opponents and browbeat lawyers in the Justice Department to accept their notion that, as Commander-in-Chief, the President had the inherent authority to waive any statute in the interests of national security. Among other things, this would lead to the holding of so-called enemy combatants indefinitely without charge or trial; to the use of coercive methods of interrogation of prisoners; and to the National Security Agency’s secret eavesdropping on Americans without judicial warrant.

Like many Presidents, Mr. Bush has had no qualms about using wartime as an excuse to grab power and to circumvent civil liberties. However, there is no historical record of any concerted effort to expand Presidential authority being led, or perhaps even inspired, by a Vice-President. It is said that Cheney believes that the power of the Presidency was sapped by Vietnam and Watergate, and he is trying to set it right. It’s interesting that in recent days there are important Republicans, including some very conservative ones, who feel Bush and, by implication, Cheney have gone much too far in their assertions of Presidential power. In the meantime, the comedians will make their jokes about Cheney shooting his hunting partner – but to my mind this Vice-President’s dark record is anything but funny.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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