Wash. Post reported Bush administration rejects comparisons to Iran-Contra; omitted Cheney's actual Iran-Contra comments

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

Although Washington Post staff writers Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei reported in a December 21 article that "[t]he Bush administration rejects comparisons" to the Iran-Contra scandal and other instances in which presidents have "moved to expand their reach during times of war," Baker and VandeHei omitted Vice President Dick Cheney's recent comments regarding the Iran-Contra scandal.

In a December 21 article about Bush administration efforts to expand presidential powers over national security issues, Washington Post staff writers Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei reported that "[t]he Bush administration rejects comparisons" to the former President Ronald Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal and other instances in which presidents have "moved to expand their reach during times of war." But in a December 20 press conference, Vice President Dick Cheney brought up Iran-Contra, telling reporters that "part of the argument in Iran-Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years." Cheney said that the "minority views that were filed with the Congress's Iran-Contra Committee" were authored in part by one of his staff members and "are very good in laying out a robust view of the president's prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters." Cheney subsequently stated: "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority." He further argued that Bush's authorization of warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) was "totally appropriate and consistent with the constitutional authority of the president." While Baker and VandeHei included in their article several of Cheney's comments from the press conference, they omitted his remarks on Iran-Contra.

Cheney served as chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford from 1975 to 1977 and served as a U.S. representative (R-WY) from 1979 to 1989. According to the "Final Report of the Impendent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters":

The Iran/contra affair concerned two secret Reagan Administration policies whose operations were coordinated by National Security Council staff. The Iran operation involved efforts in 1985 and 1986 to obtain the release of Americans held hostage in the Middle East through the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran, despite an embargo on such sales. The contra operations from 1984 through most of 1986 involved the secret governmental support of contra [a Nicaraguan rebel group] military and paramilitary activities in Nicaragua, despite congressional prohibition of this support.

The Iran and contra operations were merged when funds generated from the sale of weapons to Iran were diverted to support the contra effort [against the Sandanista government] in Nicaragua. Although this "diversion'' may be the most dramatic aspect of Iran/contra, it is important to emphasize that both the Iran and contra operations, separately, violated United States policy and law.

During the December 20 press conference, a reporter said to Cheney: "You have a really interesting perspective on this having served in the Ford White House, which arguably was the point at which presidential power had reached its absolute nadir." The reporter then asked "how that experience has shaped your view of presidential powers, and the degree to which you felt over the last four years that you and your office need to play a role in reasserting those powers both vis-à-vis Congress, and in terms of expanding presidential powers to take account of the world that we live in now."

"Yes, I do have the view that, over the years, there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority," Cheney responded. He went on to say that "the president needs to be effective, especially in a national security area." He cited the "minority views" filed with the congressional committee charged with investigating Iran-Contra as a text that offers a "very good" explanation of this perspective, adding that "the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy":

CHENEY: If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee; the Iran-Contra Report in about 1987. Nobody has ever read them, but we -- part of the argument in Iran-Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views, but they were actually authored by a guy working for me, for my staff, that I think are very good in laying out a robust view of the president's prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters. It will give you a much broader perspective. I served in the Congress for 10 years. I've got enormous regard for the other body, Title I of the Constitution, but I do believe that, especially in the day and age we live in, the nature of the threats we face, it was true during the Cold War, as well as I think what is true now, the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy. That's my personal view.

[...]

So when you're asking about my view of the presidency, yes, I believe in a strong, robust executive authority. And I think the world we live in demands it.

When asked, "Do you think the pendulum is in the right place now?" Cheney responded, "I do think it's swung back. ... I do think that to some extent now, we've been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency." Cheney was then asked whether Bush's authorization of warrantless domestic surveillance by NSA will "reignite" the debate over presidential power. He responded: "I'm sure there will be a debate. It's an important subject. But again, I would argue that the actions be taken there are totally appropriate and consistent with the constitutional authority of the president."

Baker and VandeHei's article appeared to echo Cheney's press conference. The article began: "The clash over the secret domestic spying program is one slice of a broader struggle over the power of the presidency that has animated the Bush administration. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney came to office convinced that the authority of the presidency had eroded and have spent the past five years trying to reclaim it."

Quoting from the press conference, Baker and VandeHei reported:

The vice president entered the fray yesterday, rejecting the criticism and expounding on the philosophy that has driven so many of the administration's actions. "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it -- and to some extent that we have an obligation as the administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good of shape as we found them," Cheney said. In wartime, he said, the president "needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired."

But what Baker and VandeHei failed to note was that as part of the same statement noted above, Cheney cited congressional Republicans' defense of the Reagan administration's use of power during Iran-Contra as being "very good in laying out a robust view of the president's prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters." Instead, Baker and VandeHei reported that "[t]he Bush administration rejects comparisons" to Iran-Contra and other controversial wartime uses of presidential power":

The tug over executive power traces back to the early years of the republic, and presidents have traditionally moved to expand their reach during times of war. John Adams, fearing a hostile France, presided over the imprisonment of Republican critics under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson jailed Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who had run against him for president, for protesting the entry into World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. And Ronald Reagan circumvented a Cold War congressional ban on providing aid to contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The Bush administration rejects comparisons to such events and says its assertions of authority in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been carefully tailored to meet the needs of a 21st-century war against a nebulous foe. At his news conference Monday, Bush bristled at the notion that he sought "unchecked power" and said he had consulted with Congress extensively.

Baker and VandeHei did not explain the basis for this assertion, which appears to contradict the very press conference on which they based a portion of their article.

By contrast, a December 21 New York Times article reported Cheney's Iran-Contra comments and noted that he linked those comments to his overall arguments about presidential power:

Geoffrey R. Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said he found the issue straightforward, at least as regards surveillance by the National Security Agency. "Some legal questions are hard," Professor Stone said. "This one is not. The president's authorizing of N.S.A. to spy on Americans is blatantly unlawful."

Mr. Cheney, unsurprisingly, took the opposite view, noting that he had been expressing his views on the subject as far back as 1987, when, as a Republican congressman from Wyoming, he contributed to the minority views in the Congressional report on the Iran-contra affair.

"Part of the argument in Iran-contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years," he said. "And those of us in the minority wrote minority views that were actually authored by a guy working for me, one of my staff people, that I think are very good at laying out a robust view of the president's prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters."

Asked if the proper balance had been restored under Mr. Bush, he said, "I do think it's swung back."

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