Dick Cheney is sometimes referred to as George W. Bush's brain or, to be even more mocking, his ventriloquist. It would be fitting then for this most powerful of all vice presidents to be the first in American history to be censured. He has it coming.
It won't happen, of course. But Cheney ought to be made to account for his repeated exaggerations of the Iraqi threat. I am referring specifically to his dire warning that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was working on a menacing nuclear-weapons program and the United States had to do something about it. We know now that such a program did not exist.
We know it because it cannot be found. We know it because it is impossible to hide such a program since, among other things, traces of it can be detected in the air and in the water. We know it because the experts -- Americans and others -- have now said so. They have told my Washington Post colleague Barton Gellman that Iraq, in his words, had "no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology ... needed for either." That, inconveniently, is what U.N. weapons inspectors maintained all along.
But those inspectors were not only dismissed by Cheney as Saddam's useful idiots, they were actually bullied by him. Former Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin wrote in Foreign Affairs that when Cheney met with Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei, the two most prominent U.N. inspectors, he bluntly told them that if the Bush administration found fault with their judgment, "We will not hesitate to discredit you." It now appears that it's Cheney who's been discredited.
Cheney did not limit his bullying to U.N. inspectors. His growling impatience with dissent pervaded the Bush administration, especially the intelligence community. In The New Yorker, Seymour M. Hersh reported that Cheney dismissed intelligence that did not fit his preconceived notions and seized on reports that validated his views. He basically short-circuited the laborious process for vetting intelligence -- one that worked well -- and instead reached down into the CIA and elsewhere to mine the particles of information that suited his purposes. It was fool's gold.
Not only did he trample over traditional intelligence procedures, he repeatedly issued Chicken Little warnings about Iraq's nuclear potential. He characteristically put things in absolute terms. "We do know, with absolute certainty, that he [Saddam] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon," he said a year ago.
We knew no such thing -- not with certainty, absolute or otherwise. In fact, the intelligence community had grave doubts about Cheney's assertion. Ultimately, a version of this fiction wound up in the president's State of the Union address. It has since been rendered inoperative. Oops.
Cheney was a University of Wisconsin graduate student during the Vietnam era and, by his own admission, took little notice of the antiwar movement on campus. If he had, he might have discerned that it was animated not just by opposition to the war but by the incessant fudging, lying, and misrepresentations of the Johnson administration.
Now Cheney has become a key player in yet another dismal effort to mislead the American people. As with Vietnam itself, issues of candor and judgment are beginning to obscure worthy war aims, like the elimination of Saddam's murderous regime.
It is hard to know whether Cheney's repeated assertions about Iraq's nuclear program were purposeful misrepresentations or the product of a true believer's faith in his own misconceptions. Either way, the always-smug and contemptuous Cheney has much to answer for. He has failed as George Bush's brain. Let's hope he is not his conscience, too.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.