ABOARD AIR FORCE TWO — Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday said President Bush is aggressively consolidating the powers of the presidency, reversing a weakening of the office dating back more than 30 years.
“We’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency,” he told reporters after inspecting earthquake-relief efforts in Pakistan.
Mr. Cheney, who was President Ford’s chief of staff, said “an erosion of presidential power and authority” emerged during that era but that the pendulum has now “swung back.”
“At the end of the Nixon administration, you had the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy,” he said. “There have been a number of limitations that have been imposed in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate.”
He said the Bush administration has reversed that trend in a variety of ways, ranging from its successful fight to keep secret the deliberations of its energy task force to its muscular assertion of authority at home and abroad in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks.
“We’ve been very active and very aggressively defending the nation and using the tools at our disposal to do that,” he said.
In 2002, for example, Mr. Bush signed a secret order authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap Americans suspected of communicating with al Qaeda operatives overseas. Yesterday, Mr. Cheney unapologetically defended that classified program, the existence of which was disclosed recently by the New York Times.
“I don’t think that there is anything improper or inappropriate in that, and my guess is that the vast majority of the American people support that, support what we’re doing, believe we ought to be doing it,” he said. “And so if there’s a backlash pending, I think the backlash is going to be against those who are suggesting somehow we shouldn’t take these steps in order to defend the country.”
The vice president, who cut short his tour of the Middle East yesterday in case he is needed to break tie votes in the Senate, suggested Democrats have forgotten the lessons of September 11, 2001.
“We’ve gotten to the point where four years beyond the attack people are saying, ‘Well, gee, maybe there’s not a threat here after all.’” he marveled. “And so we’ve got people suggesting we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing with respect to the NSA program. We’ve got the Senate Democrats filibustering the Patriot Act.”
Mr. Cheney sought to characterize such Democrats as misguided.
“All of a sudden there is, you know, a lot of stirring around, shall we say, about our authority to operate in those areas,” he said. “Either we’re serious about fighting the war on terror or we’re not.
“Either we believe that there are individuals out there doing everything they can to try to launch more attacks, try to get ever deadlier weapons to use against us, or we don’t,” he added. “The president and I believe very deeply that there is a hell of a threat.”
As for the energy task force case, Mr. Cheney said it solidified White House authority to hold private deliberations with outsiders.
“That issue was litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court and we won,” he said. “The president is entitled and needs to have unfiltered advice in formulating policy. He ought to be able to seek the opinion of anybody he wants to and that he should not have to reveal, for example, who he talked to that morning.”
Speaking to reporters while flying from Pakistan to Oman, the vice president also suggested that the strengthening of the presidency is not finished. He noted that no president has eliminated the War Powers Act, which he said “many people believe is unconstitutional.”
“That was an infringement on the authority of the president,” he said. “It’s never been tested. It will be tested at some point.”