WASHINGTON — For all the years of the Bush presidency, he has toiled in anonymity and darkness in the White House, never stepping into the sunlight of public disclosure.
There he sat, hunched and scowling, at the witness table in front of the House Judiciary Committee: the bearded, burly form of the chief of staff and alter ego to the vice president — Dick Cheney’s Cheney, if you will — and the man most responsible for building President Bush’s notion of an imperial presidency.
David Addington was there under subpoena. And he wasn’t happy about it.
Could the president ever be justified in breaking the law? “I’m not going to answer a legal opinion on every imaginable set of facts any human being could think of,” Addington growled. Did he consult Congress when interpreting torture laws? “That’s irrelevant,” he barked. Would it be legal to torture a detainee’s child? “I’m not here to render legal advice to your committee,” he snarled. “You do have attorneys of your own.”
He had the grace of Gollum as he quarreled with his questioners. In response to one of the chairman’s questions, he neither looked up nor spoke before finishing a note he was writing to himself. When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz questioned his failure to remember conversations about interrogation techniques, he only looked at her and asked: “Is there a question pending, ma’am?” Finally, at the end of the hearing, Addington was asked whether he would meet privately to discuss classified matters. “You have my number,” he said. “If you issue a subpoena, we’ll go through this again.”
Think of Addington as the id of the Bush White House. Though his hidden hand is often merely suspected — in signing statements, torture policy and other brazen assertions of executive power — Addington’s unbridled hostility was live and unfiltered today.
He sat slouched in his chair, scratching his mustache, as Jerry Nadler of New York, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee, warned about “the unaccountable monarchy” before offering Addington five minutes to make an opening statement. Addington spoke for a minute and 12 seconds — most of which was devoted to correcting two errors in Nadler’s introduction.
“Is that the entirety of your statement?” the chairman asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Addington replied. “I’m ready to answer your questions.”
He sure was. When John Conyers, D-Mich., inquired about Addington’s pet legal concept, a “unitary executive theory” that confers extreme powers on the president, Addington dished out disdain.
“I frankly don’t know what you mean by unitary theory,” Addington replied.
“Have you ever heard of that theory before?”
“I see it in the newspapers all the time,” Addington replied.
“Do you support it?”
“I don’t know what it is.”
The usually mild Conyers was angry. “You’re telling me you don’t know what the unitary theory means?”
“I don’t know what you mean by it,” Addington answered.
“Do you know what you mean by it?”
“I know exactly what I mean by it.”
Addington went on to explain how the enemy’s actions — “smoke was still rising. … 3,000 Americans were just killed” — justified his legal reasoning. And he showed abundant disdain for dissenters, such as Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., who asked whether Addington consulted lawmakers about anti-torture statutes. “There is no reason their opinion on that would be relevant,” he answered.
Addington’s insolence appeared to embolden another witness on the panel, his former administration colleague, John Yoo. Yoo took Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., on a semantic spin when asked about whether a torture memo was implemented.
“What do you mean by ‘implemented’?” Yoo asked.
“Mr. Yoo,” Ellison pressed, “are you denying knowledge of what the word ‘implement’ means?”
“You’re asking me to define what you mean by the word?”
“No, I’m asking you to define what (begin ital) you (end ital) mean by the word ‘implement,’ ” the exasperated lawmaker clarified.
“It can mean a wide number of things,” Yoo demurred.
After several such dances around the questions (whether, for example, the president could order somebody buried alive), Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., offered his grudging respect: “You guys are great on ‘Beat the Clock,’ ” he said.
“I don’t play basketball,” replied the 41-year-old Yoo.
“That was a game show,” Cohen explained.
But Yoo was not about to win a nastiness contest with Addington. As Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., questioned him, he put his chin in his hand, stroked his beard and cut off the congresswoman with an offer of advice “that may be helpful to you in asking your questions.”
Schultz, declining the offer, asked him to describe an interrogation he witnessed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “You could look and see mouths moving,” Addington answered. “I infer that there was communication going on.”
Cohen asked Addington to explain his curious theory that the vice president is not part of the executive branch. Addington explained that the vice president “belongs to neither” branch but is “attached by the Constitution” to the Congress.
“So he’s kind of a barnacle?” Cohen inquired.
“I don’t consider the Constitution a barnacle,” Addington said reproachfully.
Cheney’s Cheney continued to dole out the scorn (“You asked that question earlier, today, and I’ll give you the same answer.”) until Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., the last questioner, inquired about waterboarding. “I can’t talk to you — al-Qaida may watch these meetings,” Addington said.
“I’m glad they finally have a chance to see you, Mr. Addington,” Delahunt joked.
“I’m sure you’re pleased,” Addington growled.