Cheney increasingly seen as a law unto himself

Sheldon Alberts, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, July 04, 2007

WASHINGTON - By the time reporters filed out of the White House briefing room yesterday afternoon, press secretary Tony Snow had fielded 85 questions about U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to spare Lewis (Scooter) Libby from prison.

There was only one he absolutely refused to answer: Did Vice-President Dick Cheney ask Mr. Bush to keep Libby out of jail?

"We never, as you know, talk about internal deliberations," Mr. Snow said.

His curt reply came as little surprise to anyone familiar with Mr. Cheney's obsession with privacy and his insistence advice he gives Mr. Bush remain confidential.

But after spending almost seven years in the White House trying to stay out of the headlines --going so far as to keep even his physical location secret -- Mr. Cheney suddenly finds himself facing unprecedented scrutiny from the media and in the cross-hairs of a Democratic-controlled Congress.

In the past 10 days alone, he has been subpoenaed to testify before Congress about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, stirring controversy by declaring himself exempt from laws regarding classified material, and has been the subject of a four-part Washington Post investigative series detailing his unprecedented influence on the U.S.'s security strategy since 9/11.

Mr. Bush's decision this week to spare Libby, Mr. Cheney's former chief of staff, from serving a 30-month prison sentence for perjury capped that remarkable string of events.

For some critics, the clemency for one of Mr. Cheney's closest friends cemented the perception of a vice-president who considers himself above the law and beyond accountability to Congress or Americans.

"Cheney sees himself as having a constituency of one, and that is George W. Bush," said Cal Jillson, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But Cheney has gone from being an asset to George W. Bush to being a real detriment to both the President and the Republican party. The fact that George W. Bush doesn't realize that doesn't mean it is not doing him significant damage."

Mr. Cheney is widely considered the most powerful vice-president in U.S. history because of his close personal relationship with Mr. Bush and his behind-the-scenes efforts to restore presidential powers that were eroded after Watergate.

While he has long been the most unpopular member of the Bush administration, with approval ratings hovering just over 20%, Mr. Cheney only became a serious political target after the Democrats won control of Congress last November.

A decision last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee to subpoena him for internal documents about the legality of the government's wiretapping pro-gram prompted the claim he was exempt because of "executive privilege."

Mr. Cheney has also become engaged in a running battle with the U.S. National Archives, refusing to comply with a presidential order regulating the classification of sensitive documents.

The Vice-President said he was not required to provide the records, arguing he was not an "entity" in the executive branch of government because he is also president of the Senate.

The claim startled constitutional lawyers since Mr. Cheney has an office in the White House and would become president if Mr. Bush dies.

"Absolutely absurd," wrote John Dean, who was White House counsel during the Nixon presidency. "It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a law that Cheney believes does apply to him, whether that law be major or minor."

Mr. Bush's decision to commute Libby's sentence in the Central Intelligence Agency leak case has prompted new calls for Mr. Cheney to answer questions about his role in the controversy over the disclosure of a covert operative's identity.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush said he would "rule nothing in and nothing out" when asked if he would consider a full pardon for Libby in the future. But the White House denied he commuted the sentence in a bid to please Mr. Cheney.