Rupert Cornwell: The high priest of secrecy still rules the US

The Vice-President is the most powerful holder of the office in the entire history of America

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First off, as Americans like to say, mistakenly shooting a friend and then keeping quiet about it for four days is the least of the sins that may be imputed to the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney.

Consider a few of his more relevant interventions in the past few years. He was the obsessive architect of the Iraq war, which may go down as the single biggest US foreign policy blunder of the past half century. He did more than anyone to nourish the WMD fantasy. To the last, he objected to a binding renunciation by Bush administration of brutal interrogation techniques, earning himself the title of "Vice-President of Torture".

Similarly he has been the most outspoken defender of the probably illegal domestic wiretapping by the National Security Agency. Last but not least, it was his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who has been indicted in the CIA leak affair - and it seems to have been Cheney who "encouraged" his aide to divulge classified Iraq intelligence to selected journalists after the invasion, to buttress those already discredited WMD fantasies. And we haven't even mentioned Halliburton, the contractor whom Cheney once headed and which has earned so much from the Iraq occupation.

As political charge-sheets go, this is quite something - certainly far more consequential than slaughtering a few quail, and accidentally unloading the contents of a 28-bore cartridge into a fellow hunter. No, the reason this ill-fated excursion on a Texas ranch exerts such fascination is quite another. The man who pulled the trigger is not just any vice-president. Dick Cheney is the most powerful holder of that office in the modern (make that, entire) history of America.

He has created a staff that operates as a parallel White House. Even more than his nominal boss, he is the champion of executive branch authority. Cheney was Gerald Ford's chief of staff and experienced first hand how Watergate had weakened the presidency and tilted power to Congress. Never again, he silently vowed. And given the chance to rectify matters in 2001, when he became Vice-President to a callow and inexperienced George W Bush, he seized it with both hands.

One ingredient of unfettered executive power is secrecy, and Dick Cheney has been the high priest of secrecy in the most secretive branch of government in memory. Indeed, as an old Moscow hand, I have been struck once more this week by the disconcerting similarities between the present US administration and the Soviet Polituro of yore.

"You know nothing but understand everything," we used to say of the Kremlin. Much the same goes in Washington now. America of course is not a totalitarian state. But aspects of the current White House - its disdain verging on contempt for Congress and the news media, its relentless spin, its suppression of views contrary to its own (on global warming, for instance) - are eerily familiar. The difference is that the Kremlin had dissenters locked up or sent to psychiatric hospitals. The Bush/Cheney crowd merely ignores them.

Nor would Cheney's belated public explanation of the shooting of Harry Whittington have been out of place in Moscow three or four decades ago. Cheney chose not to hold a full-scale press conference (too much journalistic grandstanding, he muttered). Instead, he gave an exclusive interview to arch-conservative Fox News. It was like Leonid Brezhnev, another avid hunter by the way, spilling the beans to Pravda. But something has happened to Dick Cheney. When I arrived in Washington for the first time, just before the 1991 Gulf War, he was Defence Secretary, a member of the smoothworking national security team assembled by George Bush Snr. He was hawkish, but not excessively so. He seemed affable, competent and the epitome of common sense, what the British call a safe pair of hands.

That though was then. This is now, a grim post-9/11 world in which Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the elder Bush can remark that "the real anomaly" in this administration is his old friend the Vice-President. "Dick Cheney I don't know any more," Scowcroft recently told the New Yorker magazine, more in sorrow than in anger.

Cheney, it must be said, is still liked by conservative Republicans. But the political centre, where elections are decided, has long since given up on him - just six months before mid-term elections where the Republicans, on present form, could lose one or both Houses of Congress.

For Democrats of course, he is the unaccountable co-author of every disaster the Bush White House has inflicted on the country. As for foreigners Cheney has become the embodiment of everything they don't like about America. His stony face and curled lip, his contempt for tiresome international bodies such as the United Nations, have made him a caricature of the modern Ugly American.

In fact, for foreigners there's something deeply un-American about him. What the outside world always loved about America, warts and all, was its optimism and idealism. With Cheney, in this age of the "war on terror", there's none of that. He projects a bleak pessimism, a grim Hobbesian view of a world in which it's everyone for himself.

So what is to be done with this troublesome veep, more unpopular even than his boss? Even the ultra-loyal George W Bush has let be known his unhappiness at how long it took for Cheney to come clean about what happened. Thus emboldened, a few wishful thinkers are demanding that Mr Cheney resign. But the world must swallow its disappointment. In reality his position is unassailable.

The smallest reason is that, for all his failings, Cheney embodies the one strong card the Republicans will take into these tricky elections - their perceived superior ability to hunt down the terrorists and keep the country safe. Far more important, however, is the influence he wields. To jettison Cheney, even using the fig leaf of his suspect heart, would be an admission by President Bush of error, something alien to his very nature. That is why he has kept Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, despite Abu Ghraib. And that is why he will stick with Dick Cheney.

Nor has either man much to lose - apart from history's judgement, which by definition is beyond their control. Bush fought his last campaign in 2004. Cheney meanwhile, alone of recent vice-presidents, has no ambitions for the top job. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George Bush Snr and Al Gore all sought the presidency. Not Cheney. This is why he feels free to give a politely two-fingered response to all the criticism.

Like it or not, and his health permitting, this week's hapless hunter is with us until Bush steps down in January 2009. Just for the record, this remaining period is longer than the entire presidency of John F Kennedy.

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