Vice President Dick Cheney, official portrait, 2005

I have mostly ignored Dick Cheney and his torrent of wrongheaded criticism over the last year. Something is obviously broken in the man — namely, any sense of humility that would prompt a rational person to shut his mouth.

Reportedly, Cheney criticized the Obama administration again this morning, and again asserted that the president’s policies are making us “less safe.”

Self-appointed safety expert Dick Cheney is the guy, you recall, who shot an acquaintance in the face on a “hunting” trip that involved holding game birds captive at a spot until the “hunters” arrived in a car to shoot them. The incident made for a lot of “Deadeye Dick” jokes on late night TV, but considering it soberly raises serious questions about just how reckless a person would have to be to make such a blunder with a deadly weapon.

Cheney talks about security incessantly, but what is his record?

In November 2001, Osama bin Laden was cornered by Pakistani forces and local Afghan militias, and CIA officer Hank Crumpton was desperately trying to persuade President Bush and Vice President Cheney to commit troops to the area and capture Bin Laden.

In The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, author Ron Suskind describes Crumpton’s urgency in a meeting with Bush and Cheney:

He told Bush that “we’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” and strongly recommended the marines, or other troops in the region, get to Tora Bora immediately. Cheney said nothing.

The warning went unheeded, and Bin Laden escaped. And yet these days, there’s no shutting Cheney up.

Another book, The Terrorist Hunters: The Definitive Inside Story of Britain’s Fight Against Terror, includes the story of Britain’s investigation into the 2006 liquid bomb plot aimed at bringing down at least 10 airliners.

Author Andy Hayman was Britain’s senior counterterrorism officer at the time. You can hear the professional pride in his voice in a November episode of The Interview on the BBC World Service — and then the deep disappointment as he explains how much of the painstaking work his organization had done was spoiled when someone pulled the trigger prematurely.

Hayman also wrote a piece for the Times of London last September: “Why I suspect jittery Americans nearly ruined efforts to foil plot.” In it, he summarizes what “old-fashioned police work” had accomplished:

We logged every item they bought, we sifted every piece of rubbish they threw away (at their homes or in litterbins). We filmed and listened to them; we broke into their homes and cars to plant bugs and searched their luggage when they passed through airports.

[…]

We watched as they experimented with turning soft-drinks containers into bottle bombs, listened as they recorded martyrdom videos and heard them discuss “18 or 19”. Were they talking about numbers of targets, bombs or bombers?

But then someone jumped the gun. Authorities in Pakistan arrested a man named Rashid Rauf — a move which would have tipped off the terror cell in Britain, and could have scared it into accelerating its attack. Hayman’s team scrambled to round up whatever terrorists they could. Three were eventually convicted, but so much more could have been accomplished had this brilliant police work been followed to conclusion.

So who got twitchy and blew the operation?

In another of his books, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, Ron Suskind describes how, in late July of 2006, George W. Bush wanted some good press ahead of midterm elections, but Tony Blair insisted on patience:

It’s not just that this is a UK operation, Blair says, and that nearly two thousand British operatives have been working it for nearly a year. It’s also that if they’re patient, at some point they’ll be “at the ready” when the plotters seek “green light” approval from al Qaeda’s chiefs. … With a plot as big as what was slowly developing in London, the terrorists will surely seek permission to move forward, and when they do, Blair asserts, we can run the thread right into Zawahiri’s beard.

Bush is disappointed, Suskind writes. So, over the next week, while Bush heads off to spend August on vacation in Crawford, Texas, Dick Cheney makes provisions to send the CIA’s number four man to Pakistan, behind Britain’s back, to have Rashid Rauf arrested.

Then, even as the massive British investigation implodes, Cheney holds a surprise press briefing from his vacation home in Wyoming during which he drops numerous hints about overseas terrorists and mocks Democrats for proposing we could “retreat behind our oceans” and “be safe here at home.”

This way, Cheney looks like a prophet when news of the foiled bomb plot in London eventually brakes on cable news, striking fear into voters in America and air travelers everywhere, and necessitating restrictions on their liquids and gels.

What words would describe a public official who would so jeopardize the public and the work of 2,000 counterterrorism agents in order to push some cheap political buttons? How can the media or anyone else take his opinions on “safety” or “security” seriously?

Andrew Sullivan hit the nail on the head in January.

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