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WASHINGTON - If United States Vice President Dick Cheney was hoping that the cold, crisp air of Davos and his private audience with Pope John Paul II late last month would revive his spirits, as well as his standing in the polls, he must be deeply disappointed.
Since returning home, he has faced a seemingly unrelenting succession of disclosures and attacks that appear to get worse with each passing day. What the albatross was to the ancient mariner, Cheney is fast becoming to George W Bush's re-election chances.
Just consider what happened to Cheney Thursday: the early morning edition of the Wall Street Journal ran an article - first reported by Newsweek - on how Justice Department investigators had asked Halliburton Company for documents relating to US$180 million in allegedly illegal payments by a consortium of companies, including Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, in connection with the construction of a big natural-gas plant in Nigeria in the late 1990s, while Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive officer.
When the Los Angeles Times hit the news stands a couple of hours later, Cheney was right there on the front page with the headline: "Scalia was Cheney Hunt Trip Guest; Ethics Concern Grows." Antonin Scalia is a Supreme Court Justice who was Cheney's guest on a recent and rather costly (to the taxpayer) bird-hunting trip to Louisiana, and who also will soon hear a major case on government secrecy in which the vice president is the defendant.
Legal ethics experts quoted in the story, of course, zeroed in on the question of whether Scalia might best recuse himself from hearing the case, but there were also suggestions that perhaps Cheney could have exercised slightly better judgement. "It is not just a trip with a litigant. It's a trip at the expense of the litigant," noted one law professor.
Finished with the morning papers, Cheney may have tuned in to watch Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet deliver a passionate defense at Georgetown University of the official intelligence community's performance in the runup to the Iraq war, only to find himself a target, if only inferentially.
While Tenet didn't say anything explicitly about Cheney, he certainly didn't do much to dispel the increasingly strong impression in Washington - among Democrats, it's become a conviction - that, of all of Bush's senior advisers, Cheney and his staff worked hardest to hype what the intelligence community was saying about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs.
While the intelligence community had concluded that Saddam wanted nuclear weapons, Tenet declared, it also made clear as of late 2002 that Saddam had none, and that he probably would not have been able to make one until some time between 2007 and 2009, at the earliest.
That assertion, of course, raises a major question. If the intelligence community agreed that Saddam had no nuclear weapons, where did Cheney get the information that would substantiate his statement on the very day that the US launched its invasion last March: "And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
The answer, according to Democratic members of the Congressional intelligence committees, who have become increasingly outspoken in recent days, is that Cheney and his staff had an independent source of "intelligence" outside the formal intelligence community. Lodged in the Pentagon's policy shop under Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the now-notorious Office of Special Plans "cherry-picked" raw intelligence, interviewed "defectors", and produced its own talking points and analysis that were "stovepiped" straight to Cheney's office, notably John Hannah, his top Mideast staffer, and I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his powerful chief of staff.
When asked about this theory by a Georgetown student on Thursday, Tenet answered artfully, asserting: "I can tell you with certainty that the president of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community - me ... The rest of it, I don't know."
In the legal profession, Tenet's reply is called a negative pregnant, an apparent denial that suggests that further questioning may be fruitful. Indeed, Republican Jane Harmon, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, noted in a CNN interview on Thursday evening that, in speaking of "one community", Tenet was effectively confirming that the Pentagon-Cheney channel, that provided a much more alarmist view of Saddam's capabilities, may well have been at work
But if Cheney felt displeased by Tenet's performance, things only got worse - much worse - later in the afternoon when United Press International (UPI) reported what has been rumored ever since Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation into the "outing" as a CIA officer by "two senior administration officials" of Valerie Plame, shortly after her husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, had published an article in the New York Times charging that the administration knew that its reports of Saddam's alleged attempts to buy uranium yellowcake in Africa were bogus.
Quoting "federal law-enforcement officials," UPI's intelligence correspondent Richard Sale reported on Thursday that the two main suspects were none other than Libby and Hannah. One official reportedly told Sale that Hannah was being advised "that he faces a real possibility of doing jail time" in order to pressure him to implicate higher-ups - presumably Libby, if not, perhaps, Cheney himself.
A 1982 law makes deliberately revealing the identity of covert intelligence officers a felony punishable by as many as 10 years in prison. If either Hannah or Libby were officially named as suspects or actually indicted, the impact on Cheney's credibility and electability would be devastating.
According to recent polls, Cheney's approval ratings, hovering around 20 percent, are already far below Bush's, which have themselves sunk below 50 percent for the first time in his presidency. Even Halliburton, whose public image has become so tarnished that it has launched a controversial television ad campaign to boost its image, last week listed Cheney's association to the company as a "risk factor" for its shareholders.
Republicans in Congress, particularly on the intelligence and foreign relations committees, find themselves having to devote more time and political capital to defending the vice president, and even some influential Republican donors have privately suggested that Cheney bow out. Speculation about possible replacements - most recently, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (the Republican convention is in New York City, August 30 to September 2.) - is growing steadily. Of course, there's always another day.
-------------------- "In the United States anybody can be president. Thats the problem."
"The gray-haired douche bag, Barbara Bush, has a slogan: "Encourage your child to read every day." What she should be is encouraging children to question what they read every day."
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