David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

In a piece headlined "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over Trial," the WaPo has a nice synopsis of Cheney's involvement in the Plame matter.

Actually, you could headline just about every story that way these days: "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over _________."

Fill in the blank: Iraq. Iran. Global warming. Renditions. Domestic surveillance.

I will confess to having been extremely skeptical in the early years of the Bush Presidency that Cheney was really running the show. It seemed too facile an explanation for what I was convinced was a far more complicated situation. Until the 9/11 Commission report came out.

Even the watered-down version of events in the Commission's report made it absolutely clear that Cheney, ensconced in the White House bunker on the morning of the attacks, had issued shootdown orders outside of the chain of command and then conspired with the President to conceal this fact from the Commission.

Since then, I've gone from being open to the idea of an Imperial Vice Presidency to being convinced that historians will debate whether something approaching a Cheney-led coup d'etat has occurred, in which some of the powers of the Executive were extra-constitutionally usurped by the Office of the Vice President.

Last week, in trying to break the lock on who actually works in the OVP--which the Vice President refuses to reveal--the guys at Muckraker stumbled across this entry from a government directory known as the "Plum Book":

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

It appears that Cheney's office submitted this entry in lieu of a list of its employees, as federal agencies must do. It sounds like something Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington, might have written. Cheney and Addington have been the among the most powerful proponents of the theory of a "unitary executive," but there are indications that they have also advanced, though less publicly, a theory of a constitutionally distinct and independent vice presidency.

For a long time, talk of Cheney's unprecedented power carried with it a whiff of left-wing radicalism and Oliver Stone conspiracies. But in the last year, several serious journalistic efforts have explored the Cheney vice presidency. Robert Kuttner surveyed the field in his essay, "See Dick Run (the Country)," for The American Prospect. While it is axiomatic that Cheney is the power behind throne, what remains missing, as Kuttner pointed out, is the sort of relentless, day-to-day media coverage of Cheney that befits his claims to constitutional power:

If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent. The media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.

Yet the press buys the pretense of Bush being "the decider," and relentlessly covers Bush -- meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press conferences, while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take half the members of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost nothing to do anyway, and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They might learn how to be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the government.

The other thing missing has been congressional oversight. Since Kuttner penned his essay, Democrats have gained control of Congress. A hearing on the constitutional role of the vice president might be an excellent place to start. From all indications, Cheney has amassed considerable power due to his experience and savvy vis-a-vis the President's relative lack thereof. But that is a separate issue from the constitutional role of the OVP, and whether, or in what ways, various statutory regimens, particularly in the national security arena, apply to the OVP.

By custom and tradition, the Vice President's role had been circumscribed by how little express power and authority the Constitution granted the position. Hence, all the jokes over the years about the vice presidency. But in a move that is decidedly anti-conservative, in the conventional sense, Cheney moved to fill the void. I fear that what we will eventually find are structural flaws that were deliberately exploited by the OVP, which in turn further undermined constitutional and statutory structures.

Still, I can't help but be fascinated by the more pedestrian issue of how Cheney continues to assert himself so vigorously without running up against the ego of a cocksure President. How is it that Bush, who is so caught up in macho public demonstrations of his own personal strength and courage, can tolerate a shadow presidency within his own White House? What kind of spell has Cheney cast that allows Bush to continue to believe he is the decider? You can imagine all sorts of dysfunctional psychological dramas playing out behind the scenes.

But whether it's the legal or political aspect of Cheney's role, it all comes down to the same thing: we just don't know.

It's about time we find out.

James Fallows says, in essence, forget the surge resolution. The place Congress can best draw the line, he says, is on Iran:

Deciding what to do next about Iraq is hard — on the merits, and in the politics. It’s hard on the merits because whatever comes next, from “surge” to “get out now” and everything in between, will involve suffering, misery, and dishonor. It’s just a question of by whom and for how long. On a balance-of-misery basis, my own view changed last year from “we can’t afford to leave” to “we can’t afford to stay.” And the whole issue is hard in its politics because even Democrats too young to remember Vietnam know that future Karl Roves will dog them for decades with accusations of “cut-and-run” and “betraying” troops unless they can get Republicans to stand with them on limiting funding and forcing the policy to change.

By comparison, Iran is easy: on the merits, in the politics. War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq. While the Congress flounders about what, exactly, it can do about Iraq, it can do something useful, while it still matters, in making clear that it will authorize no money and provide no endorsement for military action against Iran.

You may not have noticed but this week's UN report on global climate change based its estimate of a 1- to 2-foot rise in sea levels over the next 100 years on computer modeling which took into account only the volumetric increase in sea water as it warms. The estimate for sea level rise did not include melting glaciers and icecaps. While this was duly noted in most of the coverage I saw, it was often buried. The WSJ has a piece today on how much more dire the effects of climate change may be if you consider melting ice and increased cloud cover, neither of which factors the current computer models handle very well.

I'm not surprised that the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen rendered to Syria by the United States, is all over the news in Canada. But it is surprising how little attention the case is getting here.

You'll recall that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) went off on the Attorney General during his appearance before the Judiciary Committee a couple of weeks ago. The subject was the Arar case, and Alberto Gonzales promised Leahy a secret briefing on the matter.

That briefing finally happened this week, but it apparently left Leahy and Ranking Member Arlen Specter (R-PA) with more questions than answers. According to the Globe and Mail, Leahy's primary question--why Arar, who is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen, was bundled aboard a chartered jet and sent to Damascus rather than returned to Canada--was not answered.

A regular TPM reader, on the Iraqi civil war:

On the Newshour, Paul Pillar nicely stated the NIE's statement on "civil war" as civil war plus a lot of other violence.

The Bushies want to read the NIE report's caution that civil war is inadequate as a term to mean, continuing Pillar's arithmetic metaphor, Iraq is a civil war minus.

The report in fact says the opposite, we have a civil war plus.

I think this simple contrast, civil war minus vs. civil war plus is an effective if simplistic way of pushing back Hadley et al.'s reeking bullshit about this report.


Update: I should also point out this formulation from TPM Reader CH: "Regarding the 4 wars in Iraq described by the NIE: how are we to 'win' if, in some cases, we aren't considered a combatant?"

Laura Rozen has a piece in the current Washington Monthly titled "Cheney's Dead-Enders" that is worth a read. But I wanted to home in on this parenthetical:

(When I inquired about a staffer’s rumored move to the Veep’s office, a Cheney press officer answered sweetly, “If we have a personnel announcement we’d like you to know about, we’ll tell you.”)

This is not the first time I've seen a reporter denied information about who even works in the Office of the Vice President (I can't find where I've seen this refusal reported before, although I think it was about the time Cheney shot that Texas lawyer in the face; if anyone recalls, please forward me the link).

Think about that. The Vice President of the United States refuses to divulge who works in his office. Rozen's article provides an estimate of 88 persons on the VP's staff, which I take to mean that the OVP won't even say how many people are on staff. These are people on the public payroll. Wouldn't you say the public is entitled to know?

Most of the debate over the nexus between national security and official secrecy is about where to draw the line. That is, how to balance the necessity of openness and transparency in a democratic society with the need to protect important operational details of the nation's defense. I lean heavily toward transparency, but I will acknowledge that there is a legitimate question of where to draw that line.

But Cheney's policy of refusing to reveal who works for him--for us, actually--isn't about balance. It's about a perverse sense of entitlement and a deep aversion to scrutiny and accountability. It is anti-democratic.

Perhaps a committee chair should consider requesting a roster of employees in the OVP. Just on principle.

Update: TPM reader PG comes through in a pinch with a link to the story I alluded to above but couldn't put my finger on. It was in The American Prospect last May. Here's the key passage:

His press people seem shocked that a reporter would even ask for an interview with the staff. The blanket answer is no -- nobody is available. Amazingly, the vice president’s office flatly refuses to even disclose who works there, or what their titles are. “We just don’t give out that kind of information,” says Jennifer Mayfield, another of Cheney’s “angels.” She won’t say who is on staff, or what they do? No, she insists. “It’s just not something we talk about.” The notoriously silent OVP staff rebuffs not just pesky reporters but even innocuous database researchers from companies like Carroll Publishing, which puts out the quarterly Federal Directory. “They’re tight-lipped about the kind of information they put out,” says Albert Ruffin, senior editor at Carroll, who fumes that Cheney’s office doesn’t bother returning his calls when he’s updating the limited information he manages to collect.

Time to shine some light on the OVP.


At least 250 militants were killed and an American helicopter was shot down in violent clashes near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday, Iraqi officials said.

For 15 hours, Iraqi forces backed by American helicopters and tanks battled hundreds of gunmen hiding in a date palm orchard near the village of Zarqaa, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, by a river and a large grain silo that is surrounded by orchards, the officials said.

It appeared to be one of Iraq’s deadliest battles since the American-led invasion four years ago and was the first major fight for Iraqi forces in Najaf Province since they took over control of security from the Americans in December.

I'll be interested in learning the extent to which Iraqi forces truly took the lead in this battle.