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F-bombs over Baghdad

Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials have developed a bad habit of giving ill-tempered responses to legitimate questions.


Published June 30, 2004

Vice President Dick Cheney says he "felt better" after he showered Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with profanity the other day at what was supposed to be a light-hearted photo session. That's good to know. A portly 63-year-old man who already has suffered four heart attacks can't afford to be carrying around too much repressed anger.

But "go f--- yourself" isn't a very edifying response to the legitimate questions Leahy and others have raised about the no-bid contracts and overcharges associated with the Iraq work of Halliburton, the company Cheney headed before becoming vice president. Leahy is no partisan bomb thrower. He is a dignified, collegial senator who has chosen his words carefully in raising such issues as the no-bid contract, worth as much as $7-billion, Halliburton received last year to help rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure. A recently released Army e-mail shows that Cheney "coordinated" action related to the contract, despite his earlier assurances that he would not involve himself in any government business with his former company. If Cheney has a better explanation for that apparent conflict of interest than the one he gave Leahy, he hasn't offered it in public.

Cheney wasn't just having a bad day. He, President Bush and some other top administration officials have a bad habit of giving ill-tempered - and sometimes inaccurate - answers to fair questions.

For example, Cheney brusquely cut off CNBC reporter Gloria Borger during an interview earlier this month when she tried to question him about his earlier claims that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in April of 2001. The 9/11 commission concluded that no such meeting took place.

Borger: "Well, let's go to Mohamed Atta for a minute, because you mentioned him as well. You have said in the past that it was, quote, "pretty well confirmed . . ."'

Cheney: "No, I never said that."

Borger: "Okay."

Cheney: "Never said that."

Borger: "I think that is . . ."

Cheney: "Absolutely not. What I said was that the Czech intelligence service reported after 9/11 that Atta had been in Prague on April 9th of 2001, where he allegedly met with an Iraqi intelligence official. We have never been able to confirm that, nor have we been able to knock it down."

Here's what Cheney said to NBC's Tim Russert on Dec. 9, 2001: ". . . It's been pretty well confirmed that (Atta) did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service. . . ."

Cheney might at least want to follow the example of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who last week accused journalists in Iraq of being cowards who wrote false stories. "Frankly," he told the House Armed Services Committee, "part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad, and they publish rumors." Once Wolfowitz was reminded that more than 30 journalists have been killed in Iraq as they traveled around the country without the heavy protection he received during his brief visits, he issued a graceful apology.

Or maybe Cheney, the president and other administration officials just need to get out more. Cheney typically speaks publicly only to carefully selected audiences at conservative think tanks or campaign fundraisers. The president also dislikes press conferences and other unscripted events and prefers the company of people who tell him what he wants to hear.

That may explain why he was so testy and delusive with an Irish reporter last week when she asked him about Europeans' broad opposition to the war in Iraq. "First of all," he told her, "most of Europe supported the decision" to go to war.

At least the president has, so far, resisted the temptation to go Cheney on any of his questioners. But, as the Supreme Court reminded us all this week, the president and other executive-branch officials aren't above the law. They also shouldn't be above answering reasonable questions from the public they are supposed to serve.

[Last modified June 30, 2004, 01:00:40]


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