Dick Cheney’s Dangerous Son-in-Law: Philip Perry and the politics of chemical security.
By Art Levine
In March 2003, when the world’s attention was focused on U.S. soldiers heading to Baghdad, twelve senior officials in the Bush administration gathered around a long oak conference table in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex. They were meeting to put the final touches on a proposed legislative package that would address what was perhaps the most dangerous vulnerability the country faced after 9/11: unprotected chemical plants close to densely populated areas.
The package was the product of nearly a year’s worth of work led by Tom Ridge, head of the Department of Homeland Security (previously head of the White House Office of Homeland Security), and Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Both had been governors of northeastern states (Ridge of Pennsylvania and Whitman of New Jersey) with a large number of chemical plants, and this only increased their concern about leaving such facilities unprotected. EPA staff felt such fears even more acutely: agency data showed that at least 700 sites across the country could potentially kill or injure 100,000 or more people if attacked.
The basic elements of the legislation were simple: the EPA would get authority to regulate the security of chemical sites, and, as a first step, plants would submit plans for lowering their risks. One man present at the meeting, Bob Bostock, who was homeland security adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency, was relieved to see that something was finally being done. “We knew that these facilities had large enough quantities of dangerous chemicals to do significant harm to populations in these areas,” he says.
Subscribe Online & Save 33%No one present was prepared for what came next: the late arrival of an unexpected visitor, Philip Perry, general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Perry, a tall, balding man who bears a slight resemblance to Ari Fleischer without the glasses, was brusque and to the point. The Bush administration was not going to support granting regulatory authority over chemical security to the EPA. “If you send up this legislation,” he told the gathering, “it will be dead on arrival on the Hill.”
No one doubted the finality of Perry’s message. The OMB, which sets the course for nearly every proposal coming out of the White House, is a much-feared department that raises or lowers its thumb on policy priorities, a sort of mini-Caesar at the interagency coliseum. But Philip Perry could boast one more source of authority: he was, and is, the husband of Elizabeth Cheney, and son-in-law of Vice President Dick Cheney. After Perry spoke, only Bostock dared to protest, though to little effect. “He was obnoxious,” Bostock recalls.
For the chemical industry, which has always had a chilly relationship with the EPA, Perry has been a consistent, quiet friend. “Phil Perry was never the EPA’s biggest fan,” says Whitman, recounting the relationship. “I think there was a predisposition on his part that we were trying to overreach.” Indeed, like many Republican hardliners, for whom the EPA represents all that is wrong with government regulation, Perry has sought to limit the role of the EPA, not expand it. He’s been successful.
To understand the workings of Philip Perry is to get a sense of the true lines of power in the executive branch. “Perry is an éminence grise,” says one congressional staffer. “He’s been pretty good at getting his fingerprints off of anything, but everyone in this field knows he’s the one directing it. He is very good at the stealth move.” And, as it turns out, Perry’s stealth moves have often benefited opponents of chemical regulation. One of his final pieces of handiwork included coming up with what critics have called an “industry wish list” on chemical security that ultimately became law last fall. “Every time the industry has gotten in trouble,” says the staffer, “they’ve gone running to Phil Perry.”
The result has been that our chemical sites remain, even five years after 9/11, stubbornly vulnerable to attack. Philip Perry has hardly been alone in tolerating this. Others in the White House and Congress have been equally solicitous toward the chemical industry. But as part of a network of Cheney loyalists in the executive branch, Perry has been a key player in the struggle to prevent the federal government from assuming any serious regulatory role in business, no matter what the cost. And a successful attack on a chemical facility could make such a cost high indeed. A flippant critic might say the father-in-law has been prosecuting a war that creates more terrorists abroad, while the son-in-law has been working to ensure they’ll have easy targets at home. But it’s more precise to say that White House officials really, really don’t want to alienate the chemical industry, and Perry has been really, really willing to help them not do it.
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