WASHINGTON - For eight years he was a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows, a vice-president with a tight grin and few words.

But Dick Cheney has stepped into the light since President Barack Obama's inauguration in January, becoming the most vocal defender of George W. Bush's presidency and one of the biggest critics of the new administration.

On Sunday, he was back in the spotlight again, this time on CBS's "Face The Nation," but even veteran host Bob Schieffer was taken aback to hear Cheney slag Colin Powell, the Bush administration's onetime secretary of state.

"If I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I'd choose Rush Limbaugh," Cheney said when asked about Powell's criticism of the talk radio megastar last week.

"My take on it was Colin had already left the party - I didn't know he was still a Republican."

Powell supported Obama in last year's election. This week, he took aim at Limbaugh, considered one of the Republican party's most powerful and influential figures.

"Can we continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh?" Powell asked. "Is this really the kind of party that we want to be when these kinds of spokespersons seem to appeal to our lesser instincts rather than our better instincts?"

Cheney has become an almost regular presence on the talk show circuit, even as Bush maintains a respectful silence on his successor. The former president has said that it's not his place to criticize the new administration and that Obama "deserves my silence."

Obama cracked wise this weekend about Cheney, telling the White House Correspondents' Dinner that the former VP was working on his memoir, entitled "How To Shoot Friends and Interrogate People."

But for all the laughs, Cheney is arguably tied with Rush Limbaugh as the conservative critic who is most vexing the White House.

Cheney accused Obama earlier this year of putting Americans in danger by outlawing torture, closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison and reversing other Bush-era policies.

He repeated that claim on Sunday and once again defended the Bush administration's waterboarding tactics as a successful means of getting information out of terrorist suspects.

Those methods, he claimed, had likely saved "hundreds of thousands of lives."

Waterboarding is an interrogation technique that simulates drowning by putting a person in the prone position and pouring water on a wet towel over his face.

Powell didn't immediately respond to Cheney's criticism, but one congressional Republican has publicly said what some others are bemoaning privately on Capitol Hill - the former No. 2 is doing more harm than good.

"He became so unpopular while he was in the White House that it would probably be better for us politically if he wouldn't be so public," said John Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican.

Meghan McCain, daughter of John McCain and someone considered a rising young star in the Republican party, says both Cheney and Karl Rove, the Bush administration's political strategist, have overstayed their welcome.

"You had your eight years - go away," she said recently on "The View."

But Cheney's influence over the goings-on in D.C. continues, according to Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter who has alleged the former vice-president had an "executive assassination ring" that reported directly to him during the Bush years.

"Cheney's left a stay-behind," said Hersh, who has good sources at the Pentagon and the CIA.

"He's got people in a lot of agencies that still tell him what's going on. Particularly in defence, obviously. Also in the NSA (National Security Agency), there's still people that talk to him. He still knows what's going on .... he's still there. He's still a presence."

In a recent interview with the conservative The Weekly Standard, Cheney said he had no intention of going away.

"I have strong feelings about what happened and what we did or didn't do and what's happening now, and I don't have any reason not to forthrightly express those views," he said.

"I feel it's important to do so, especially when President Obama is wrong on important issues facing the nation."

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