Election 2004

Cheney's Insecure Past

The vice president desperately wants to hide his embarrassing national security record.
As George W. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney has carefully and successfully portrayed himself as a hawkish foreign policy expert. Based exclusively on his recent public statements, one might believe Cheney has an unrivaled record supporting massive spending on defense, intelligence and counterterrorism. That image has been augmented by the vice president's attacks on Senator John Kerry for supposedly working to cut defense and block intelligence reform, for misunderstanding terrorism and for taking inconsistent positions on Iraq.

But a look more deeply at Cheney's career shows our current vice president either suffers from amnesia, self-hatred, or a little bit of both. It was Congressman Cheney, after all – not Senator Kerry – who contradicted his own party during the height of the Cold War and called for President Ronald Reagan to "take a whack" at defense spending. It was Defense Secretary Cheney – not Senator Kerry – who in 1992 blocked critical intelligence reforms and bragged to Congress about gutting defense spending.

In fact, the vice president's previous actions are remarkably consistent with behavior he now excoriates. His blustery rhetoric is designed not only to distort Kerry's record but to hide his own.

In March of this year, Cheney attacked Kerry for having "repeatedly voted against weapons systems for the military," hammering the senator for voting "against the Apache helicopter, against the Tomahawk cruise missile, against even the Bradley Fighting Vehicle." He said this record has "given us ample doubts about [Kerry's] judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."

What Cheney leaves out of his stump speeches is the ironic fact that almost all of the cuts Kerry voted for were endorsed or originally proposed by Cheney himself. At issue is not the cuts themselves, but the hypocrisy of Cheney attacking an opponent who merely followed his lead.

Cheney accuses Kerry of calling for "major reductions or outright cancellations of many of our most important weapons systems"; Bush ads attack the senator for voting "against 13 weapons systems for our troops" over 20 years. But it was Defense Secretary Cheney who gloated that he had "put an end to more than 100 systems" in less than three years. In December 1991, he bragged to the Washington Post that he was setting "an all-time record as Defense Secretary for canceling or stopping production" of weapons and equipment.

And Cheney has gotten specific. He regularly attacks Kerry's vote against the B-2 stealth bomber in October 1990. But seven months earlier, Cheney had put forth the proposal to cut the B-2 bomber program. Cheney cites Kerry's vote against the AH-64 Apache helicopter. But it was Cheney who told Congress in 1989, "I forced the Army to make choices.... I recommended that we cancel the AH-64 program two years out."

Cheney slams Kerry's vote against the F-14 aircraft in October 1990; according to the Post, Cheney "asked Congress to kill" the F-14 in 1991 and had been "skeptical" of a proposal to continue production of the planes as early as 1990. Cheney hammers Kerry for voting against the F-16 aircraft and the Trident submarine, yet Kerry was merely endorsing cancellations proposed by Cheney – who, according to The Boston Globe, had "decided the military already [had] enough" of those weapons. Cheney accuses Kerry of voting against "even the Bradley Fighting Vehicle." But in 1991 it was Cheney's Pentagon that said it wanted "to terminate such Gulf War veterans as the... Bradley Fighting Vehicle."

At one point, Cheney told the Post he had terminated "the F-14, F-15 and F-16 fighters, the A-6, A-12, AV-8B and P-3 Navy and Marine planes, and the Army's Apache helicopter and M-1A1 tank." Five of these weapons systems are listed by the Bush campaign in its attempts to chastise Kerry for his anti-defense votes. Cheney was so successful at cutting weapons that The Boston Globe worried "The Army's cupboard is left particularly bare... [it] will soon have virtually no major weapons in production."

Cheney has even gotten specific about dates, condemning Kerry for supposedly calling for defense cuts "in 1984, in the middle of the Cold War." But it was near the end of 1984, at the height of Cold War tensions, that Cheney told the Washington Post that President Reagan needed to "take a whack" at defense if he wanted to be a credible commander-in-chief. If Reagan "doesn't really cut defense," Cheney told the Post, "he becomes the No. 1 special pleader in town."

Cheney excoriates Kerry for being "deeply irresponsible" on intelligence issues. As evidence, he cites a proposal in the 1990s by Kerry and Republican Senator Arlen Specter that would have slightly reduced intelligence funding.

First and foremost, Kerry's proposal was small potatoes compared to GOP efforts to cut intelligence. Bush's own nominee to head the CIA, Representative Porter Goss, authored legislation that would have slashed 20 percent of the budget for human intelligence two years after the first World Trade Center attack.

But more importantly, Kerry's proposal was nothing compared to Cheney's shortsighted effort to stifle intelligence reforms in the name of retaining his own personal power. As the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reports, "Some of the most important intelligence reforms proposed by the 9-11 Commission, including the creation of a Director of National Intelligence (DNI), might have been adopted over a decade ago if not for the opposition of the Secretary of Defense at the time, Dick Cheney."

Specifically, in a March 1992 letter to Congress, Cheney defended the status quo and objected to legislation that would have taken some of his powers away in order to create a new Director of National Intelligence. In the letter, Cheney wrote that intelligence reforms proposed by Congress "would seriously impair the effectiveness" of government and specifically opposed a "single, national intelligence 'czar.'"

Cheney went beyond merely giving advice – he issued threats. He said he would recommend "that the [p]resident veto [the measure] if [it] were presented to him in its current form." The proposal died. As a result of Cheney's stance, FAS says, "we now face many of the same problems, and the same proposed solutions, more than a decade later."

When asked why he believes Dick Cheney is such a valuable member of the Republican Party's ticket in 2004, President Bush said simply "Dick Cheney can be president. Next." It was a comment designed to instill total confidence in the vice president's judgment. But if we are to take the Bush campaign's rhetoric seriously, only one conclusion can be drawn: Dick Cheney, judged by his record, is the real threat to America's national security.
Jonathan Baskin and David Sirota are writers at the American Progress Action Fund, a progressive advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Jonathan Baskin, "Tricky Dick", The American Prospect Online, Sep 9, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to [email protected].