Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cheney's still dangerous


ONE BUMPER STICKER proposes: Impeach Cheney First.

Vice President Dick Cheney has now suffered back-to-back humiliations, with the conviction of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and the wresting of key foreign policy decisions by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But if anything, he is even more dangerous wounded.

The Bush administration keeps handing the opposition party loaded guns, the latest being the clumsy, politically motivated firings of eight US attorneys, a rare oasis of professionalism. These prosecutors are appointed by the president, but, unlike ordinary presidential appointees, they are not normally removed except for cause. In every case, the purpose seems to have been either to punish a prosecutor who did not capitulate to political pressure or to open up a slot for up-and-coming politicians. All this will now be laid bare in congressional investigations.

In another new case of lawlessness, the Justice Department's own inspector general issued a withering report on how the FBI has issued thousands of "administrative" subpoenas, fishing for information without the knowledge of the target. These are permitted under the Patriot Act, subject to narrow guidelines and special "exigencies," but the FBI has not been following its own internal rules.

With Democrats now in the congressional majority, the administration has lately been running on two tracks. On one track, grown-ups seem to have regained a measure of control. Rice was able to negotiate a long-delayed deal with the North Koreans to limit that nation's nuclear ambitions in exchange for the beginning of normalized relations. The deal has been available for six years. Rice was able to win its approval only by keeping Cheney out of the loop and requesting National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to take the agreement directly to President Bush.

This weekend's regional diplomatic conference on Iraq, with representatives of the Iranian government sitting with US envoys, also represents a victory of pragmatists over extremists. The US line, dictated by Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had been that we can't talk directly to Iranians as long as they are pursuing nuclear weapons. That strategy had produced a stalemate, and US threats to bomb Iran -- which mainly frightened the Europeans and our few remaining Middle East allies. Bush has pulled back from that course, and is now willing to try direct diplomacy -- another setback for Cheney.

Yet, at the same time, the contempt for law continues, such as the firing of US attorneys. And Cheney may be down but he is far from out.