WASHINGTON -- Just past the Oval Office, in the private dining room overlooking the South Lawn, Vice President Dick Cheney joined President Bush at a round parquet table they shared once a week. Cheney brought a four-page text, written in strict secrecy by his lawyer. He carried it back out with him after lunch.
In less than an hour, the document traversed a West Wing circuit that gave its words the power of command.
It changed hands four times, according to witnesses, with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review.
When it returned to the Oval Office, in a blue portfolio embossed with the presidential seal, Bush pulled a felt-tip pen from his pocket and signed without sitting down. Almost no one else had seen the text.
Cheney's proposal had become a military order from the commander in chief. Foreign terrorism suspects held by the United States were stripped of access to any court-- civilian or military, domestic or foreign.
They could be confined indefinitely without charges and would be tried, if at all, in closed "military commissions."
A witness said an angry Secretary of State Colin Powell demanded, "What the hell just happened?" when CNN announced the order that evening, Nov. 13, 2001.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, incensed, sent an aide to find out. Even witnesses to the Oval Office signing said they did not know the vice president had played any part.
The vice president and his allies had lost patience with the Bush administration's review of a critical question facing US forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere: What should be done with captured fighters from Al Qaeda and the Taliban? Federal trials? Courts-martial? Military commissions like the ones used for Nazis under President Franklin D. Roosevelt?
The episode was a defining moment in Cheney's tenure as the 46th vice president, a post the Constitution left all but devoid of formal authority. He has approached the levers of power obliquely, skirting orderly lines of debate he once enforced as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford. And he has found a ready patron in President Bush for views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert.
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