Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dick Cheney's impeachable offense

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as President Bush flew over Louisiana in Air Force One, Vice President Dick Cheney authorized the shoot-down of passenger jets approaching the Washington D.C. area.

He did it, according to a new biography by Stephen F. Hayes excerpted in The Weekly Standard, after a telephone conversation with President Bush in which the vice president expressed his view "that he supported such a directive." The president agreed, Hayes writes. Then:

Within minutes, Cheney was told that an unidentified aircraft was 80 miles outside of Washington. "We were all dividing 80 by 500 miles an hour to see what the windows were," Scooter Libby would later say. A military aide asked Cheney for authorization to take out the aircraft.

Cheney gave it without hesitating.

The military aide seemed surprised that the answer came so quickly. He asked again, and Cheney once again gave the authorization.

The military aide seemed to think that because Cheney had answered so quickly, he must have misunderstood the question. So he asked the vice president a third time.

"I said yes," Cheney said, not angrily but with authority.

Hayes reports that at 10:18 a.m., White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten suggested to the vice president that he notify the president that he had given the shoot-down order. Shortly after Cheney hung up, a passenger plane crashed in Pennsylvania, killing everyone onboard.

Then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Hayes that everyone had the same question: "Was it down because it had been shot down or had it crashed?" Hayes writes:
Rice and Cheney were both filled with "intense emotion," she recalls, because they both made the same assumption. "His first thought, my first thought--we had exactly the same reaction--was it must have been shot down by the fighters. And you know, that's a pretty heady moment, a pretty heavy burden."

Vice President Cheney told Hayes that he had no regrets:
"It had to be done. It was a--once you made the decision, once the plane became hijacked, even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren't part of any hijacking attempt, once it was hijacked, and having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn't have any choice. It wasn't a close call. I think a lot of people emotionally look at that and say, my gosh, you just shot down a planeload of Americans. On the other hand, you maybe saved thousands of lives. And so it was a matter that required a decision, that required action. It was the right call."

At 10:30 a.m., two minutes after the collapse of the second World Trade Center Tower, the small group in the White House bunker received a warning that "an unidentified aircraft was in flight less than ten miles out."

Hayes reports that Vice President Cheney again gave the order to shoot it down.

For nine long minutes the group waited for news of a plane crash. None came. Hayes writes:
At 10:39 A.M., Cheney spoke to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the first time. He reviewed the events of the past hour.

"There's been at least three instances here where we've had reports of aircraft approaching Washington," said Cheney. "A couple were confirmed hijack. And, pursuant to the president's instructions I gave authorization for them to be taken out."

There was quiet on the other end of the line.


"Yes, I understand," Rumsfeld came back. "So we've got a couple aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?"

"That is correct," said Cheney. "And it's my understanding they've already taken a couple aircraft out."

"We can't confirm that," Rumsfeld told his former aide. "We're told that one aircraft is down but we do not have a pilot report that did it."

Stephen Hayes does Mr. Cheney a great favor by eliminating from this chilling account one immensely significant fact.

The Vice President of the United States is not in the operational chain of command of the U.S. military.

According to the Department of Defense organizational structure, and pursuant to the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, "The operational chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the Commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff functions within the chain of command by transmitting to the Commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands the orders of the President or the Secretary of Defense."

Mr. Cheney had no authority under the law or the Constitution to order the shoot-down of a plane over Washington D.C. That authority belonged to the president. In the president's absence, the power to issue a shoot-down order belonged to the Secretary of Defense.

Now you know why the military aide asked Vice President Cheney three times.

Now you know why there was silence on the line when Vice President Cheney informed Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that U.S. pilots were in the air with orders to shoot down passenger jets.

Now you know why President Bush and Vice President Cheney insisted on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission and refused to go under oath.

Even if it is true that President Bush agreed with Vice President Cheney that a shoot-down order was the right course of action, the president cannot delegate his position in the military chain of command. If he is unreachable and unable to communicate a military order, the law says the Secretary of Defense is in command.

Certainly it's true that the morning of September 11 was a chaotic and dangerous time, that lives had been lost and more lives were at risk, and that the nation was under attack.

But the military chain of command isn't for tee ball games.

There is no possibility that Vice President Cheney did not know the Defense Secretary's place in the operational chain of command. He is a former Defense Secretary himself. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Cheney illegally and knowingly usurped the power of the president and the Secretary of Defense and issued an order that might have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Americans at the hands of an American pilot.

The United States military is the most powerful and potentially destructive force in the history of civilization. Nothing could be more dangerous to freedom than allowing the control of that force to go up for grabs in an emergency. It is not a small matter when a single government official takes it on himself to set aside the law, passed by the elected representatives of the people of the United States, which designates the military's operational chain of command.

Impeach Dick Cheney.

Copyright 2007