Lawrence B. Wilkerson was chief of staff of the Department of State from 2001-2005 and served for 16 years as an aide to General Colin Powell.
Many people today are focused on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s complicity in torture. That’s all well and good since, in effect, he has admitted to it on Fox TV and now we’ll see how the system works or doesn’t work to hold him accountable. It’s not torture that I want to discuss here, however. Here, I want to discuss Cheney’s complicity in the rape, pillage, and plunder (all implied verbs) of our country’s regulatory system.
Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College, has documented in a first-blush sort of way Cheney’s culpability in this regard in her new book The Co-Presidency of Bush and Cheney.
Whether oil, gas, forestry, mining, fisheries, national parks, clean air, pharmaceuticals, food, endangered species – you name it – Cheney was the kingpin in the dismantling of relevant oversight and regulation.
Cheney managed this principally by putting into the regulatory or oversight positions within the executive branch of our government, people who either hailed from long service in the industry or field they were overseeing or regulating, or who had lobbied for that industry or field for long years, or a combination of the two.
Professor Warshaw describes in some detail what these people did as she discusses the immense power that Cheney wielded. In brief, the people whom Cheney placed in the key regulatory and oversight positions, like wanton little boys, as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, plucked the wings off the flies. They either intentionally failed to follow the regulations they were supposed to enforce, developed arcane legal opinions or inexpert science that obviated their enforcement (sound like torture, anyone?) or, when necessary and possible, amended or rescinded them in cooperation with their allies in the Congress.
Cheney is the person after all who, as Secretary of Defense in 1992, had asked Halliburton to study whether the Defense Department should outsource more of its activities and, when Halliburton completed its study and said – surprise, surprise – yes, the DOD should indeed outsource more functions, Cheney accelerated the process. He then stepped out the door in 1993 and became Halliburton’s CEO and reaped the profits that his decision as Secretary of Defense had made possible. No dummy here, in other words.
So, as Vice President he set out essentially to do much the same, to “outsource to the market” all that previously had been seen as environmentally sensitive, too big not to be watched, too powerful not to be roped in with careful and precise regulation, or too monopolistic not to be kept under constant surveillance. And he largely succeeded.
The well-publicized scandals such as those surrounding the illegal activities of Jack Abramoff were manifestations of this governing environment that made it to the public eye and, subsequently, to some prosecutor for action. Most never did. Let’s look at some of Professor Warshaw’s examples.
On May 17, 2001 to set the stage for what was to come, Cheney’s Energy Task Force gave its report to the President, with a cover letter signed by Cheney. The plan barely mentioned energy conservation or alternative energy – two hugely important areas of needed government emphasis. Instead, it focused on $33 billion in subsidies, tax credits, and incentives for the coal, oil, and nuclear industries and, of course, the recommendation to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This was corporate welfare on an unprecedented scale. It was made all the more egregious when, for example, ExxonMobil subsequently turned in such record profits that many Americans saw them as obscene, topping $40B in a single fiscal year..
Cheney then moved to ensure his work in the energy field would be appreciated within the bureaucracy. For example, to ensure the Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) did not get in his way – in fact, to ensure it helped him – he first packed the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) with his own people. As Professor Warshaw points out, “he chose lawyers, lobbyists, and energy executives who shared his passion for cutting regulation, especially for energy corporations.” The CEQ chairman was James Connaughton, a man who, in Warshaw’s description, “had spent much of [his] professional career fighting environmental regulations. As a corporate lobbyist with the large Washington, D.C. law firm of Sidley, Austin, Brown and Wood, Connaughton had fought the environmental regulations that he now oversaw. Connaughton had repeatedly sued the Clinton administration over its stringent environmental rules.”
Next, Cheney approved Connaughton’s choice for deputy, Philip Cooney. Cooney had been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute which had led the oil industry’s fight against legislative caps on greenhouse gases. (Cooney left the administration in 2005 for a senior position at ExxonMobil).
Just to demonstrate where the President of the United States was during this set-up by the Vice President, Professor Warshaw describes a conversation between then-President Bush and his EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman. She asked Bush for assurances that the CEQ would not dictate policy to her or to her agency. Bush responded: “What’s CEQ?” As Warshaw points out, Whitman’s fears were more than validated and she resigned two years later.
Warshaw states, “Nearly all who managed policy areas that involved energy and environmental regulations came from the industries subject to regulation.” Moreover, “[f]rom that moment on, the Bush administration had free rein to rewrite regulations, because no one was watching.”
Cheney had selected Gale Norton to be Secretary of the Interior. According to Warshaw, when Norton encountered former President Clinton’s designation of five million acres of federal land as national monuments, she knew she could not reverse that decision. So, she simply created policies to allow commercial activities within those monuments. She then proceeded to give private interests the right to decide what commercial activities they wanted to manage within the monuments.
The U.S. Forest Service, manager of over 193 million acres of national forests, in Warshaw’s words, “reframed its regulations to benefit certain industries, especially timber and energy industries.” Its director, Mark Rey, “had been the chief lobbyist for the timber industry, working for the corporations he was now regulating. This was another case of putting a fox in charge of the hen house.”
Perhaps one of the most damaging of Cheney’s plunges into environmental regulations was his direct intervention in the proper use of the Endangered Species Act. I’m a bird hunter and a fly fisherman (as, supposedly, is Cheney), so such interventions by Cheney stand out for me as cruel, injudicious, and violating the spirit of conservation that another Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, brought to Washington in such a meaningful and sustained way. I find it hard to believe that Cheney is a genuine hunter or fisherman. I’ve known many such false “sportsmen” throughout my 55 years of hunting and fishing (and, incidentally, I’ve never shot anyone in that more than half century of hunting – and I have an iron-clad rule about alcohol and guns: never mix them and shun those who do).
Warshaw writes, “As so often happened during the Bush administration when environmental regulations threatened the economic interest of the business community, Cheney stepped in.” (Such intervention on behalf of economic interests is high irony since today we know how some of those economic interests were ripping off the taxpayers in a wholesale way during the Bush-Cheney administration, from investment banks to mortgage issuers.)
As Warshaw describes, a huge salmon kill resulted from one such intervention. The Washington Post investigated and recorded on its pages: “…because of Cheney’s intervention…the largest fish kill the West had ever seen [occurred], with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.”
In brief, Cheney’s science reversed the experts’ science and thus the fish-kill.
Not content to have CEQ, EPA, the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Interior at his beck and call, Cheney went after the real seat of executive power – the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The OMB was the ultimate reviewer of all proposed regulatory changes. Its director, Mitch Daniels, as Warshaw points out, was referred to as “Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney.” Daniels, coming from the huge pharmaceutical company Eli Lily, knew big business. Sean O’Keefe, another Cheney man, was OMB’s deputy. And with John Graham and, later, Susan Dudley in the key regulatory positions at OMB, Cheney had a winning hand. Graham at Harvard and Dudley at George Mason University had both made names in risk management analysis concerning industrial pollution and corporate malfeasance that were shamefully full of holes but extremely pro-business.
In the case of Dudley, the analyses were underwritten by such sponsors as ExxonMobil and BP Amoco. From their positions in OMB’s office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Graham and Dudley gave Cheney the ultimate power to oversee and check if necessary almost everyone in the bureaucracy concerned with regulation-writing.
Cheney, as documented by Warshaw, also captured White House policy on global climate change. That is to say, he made sure that for at least six long years no one in the U.S. government paid any attention to the central challenge confronting our planet. And of course for eight long years no one – not even a White House mouse – caused even a single action to occur with regard to energy conservation. In the end, the “end” that history writes on the Bush-Cheney administration, that may be the singular incompetence that is recorded as the most damaging to the nation.
There is more, much, much more; frankly, I don’t believe Professor Warshaw has come close to exhausting the possibilities. For instance, as far as Dick Cheney is concerned, the U.S. Armed Forces are not in Iraq for non-existent WMD, to fight terrorists, or to spread freedom and democracy. And Cheney did not fight to keep his Energy Task Force papers out of the public’s hands to protect executive privilege. I believe those papers, under careful scrutiny, would reveal his true motivation for the invasion of Iraq – a motivation carelessly intimated by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at an Asian security summit in Singapore in 2003: “Let’s look at it simply”, Wolfowitz told his audience. “The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.” Dick Cheney wanted to get U.S military forces into that “sea of oil” – at the risk of mixing metaphors, into the lands where the second largest oil reserves in the world were known to exist. What is not so well-documented, however, is Cheney’s motivation for hanging around in Afghanistan even if his administration did seem to relegate that theater to secondary status once its focus shifted to Iraq in late November 2002.
That motivation has more to do with TAPI than with Osama bin Laden. TAPI is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Without a stable “A” and “P” in that acronym, there will be no pipeline to our newest strategic ally, India. Moreover, the Russians, already threatening to corner the gas market in Europe, will step into the wake of TAPI’s failure and provide their own substitute. That is why we lingered in Afghanistan under Dick Cheney’s vice presidency. The significant question in my mind at this moment is, does our new president realize this was Cheney’s strategic purpose and agree or disagree with it?
In her “Epilogue”, Professor Warshaw reminds her readers that Vice President Joe Biden, before he became vice president, called Dick Cheney “the most dangerous vice president in history.” That judgment fails to consider, in my view, Aaron Burr. But that’s about all that’s deficient about it.
— Lawrence Wilkerson