The World According to Dick Cheney
Why didn’t I know about this?
—George W. Bush
Almost exactly a decade ago, Vice President Dick Cheney greeted President George W. Bush one morning in the Oval Office with the news that his administration was about to implode. Or not quite: Cheney let the president know that something was deeply wrong, though it would take Bush two more days of increasingly surprising revelations, and the near mass resignation of his senior Justice Department and law enforcement officials, to figure out exactly what it was. “On the morning of March 10, 2004,” as the former president recounts the story in his memoirs,
Dick Cheney and Andy Card greeted me with a startling announcement: The Terrorist Surveillance Program would expire at the end of the day.
“How can it possibly end?” I asked. “It’s vital to protecting the country.”
The Terrorist Surveillance Program, then known to the handful who were aware of it only as “the Program” or by its code name, “Stellar Wind,” was a highly secret National Security Agency effort—eventually revealed by The New York Times in December 2005 and then in much greater detail by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last June. Among other things, Stellar Wind empowered the agency to assemble a vast collection of “metadata,” including on the telephone calls and e-mails of millions of Americans, that its analysts could search and “mine” for information.
Though the program would appear on its face to violate the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, President Bush had approved it three weeks after the September 11 attacks, securing the signature of Attorney General John Ashcroft after the fact. To remain in force the program had to be recertified by the president and the attorney general every forty-five days.
And now, two and a half years later, Cheney and White House chief of staff Andrew Card told Bush, Justice Department lawyers “had raised a legal objection to one component of the program.” Unless that “component”—apparently, the sweeping up of Internet metadata—was eliminated or modified, they told the president, the lawyers would refuse to certify that the program was legal.
“Why didn’t I know about this?” I asked. Andy shared my disbelief. He told me he had just learned about the objection the previous night.
What did the third member of the triumvirate, Vice President Cheney—who had known about the conflict for weeks—say at this moment? Did he profess to share the disbelief of the president and his chief of staff? Or did he, as so often, say nothing at all? President Bush does not say but as we read his account—a remarkable two-and-a-half-page aria on what the president knew, what he didn’t, and, even as the crisis that threatened his administration was…
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