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Context of 'Summer 2001: White House Refusal to Comply with GAO Request Centered in Establishing Principle of Secrecy in White House Communications'

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The Bush administration’s legal team meets for the first time. The head of the group, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, is well known as a staunchly loyal aide to President Bush, and has long ensured that Bush receives the legal opinions he wants. While Bush was governor of Texas, Gonzales routinely prepared briefings for him on death row prisoners appealing for clemency, briefings that usually left out mitigating circumstances that might have led Bush to consider waiving the death penalty. Bush was pleased at Gonzales’s approach, and the White House legal team will quickly come to understand that that same approach will be used in its legal work. One young team member is Bradford Berenson, who made his reputation working with the Bush-Cheney campaign in its fight to win the disputed 2000 presidential election. Berenson is one of eight White House associate counsels. Gonzales tells the gathered counsels and legal staff that most of their work will be in handling the everyday legal tasks generated by the White House, reviewing speeches and letters, making judgments on ethical issues, and the like. But, according to Gonzales, Bush has personally instructed him to give his team two missions as their top priority.
Appoint Conservatives to Judiciary Positions - One is to find as many conservatives as they can to fill the numerous vacancies on the federal courts, vacancies left unfilled because of Senate Republicans’ refusal to schedule hearings for Clinton nominees. Now, Gonzales tells the legal team, they are to find as many conservative “judicial restraint”-minded lawyers as there are judgeships to be filled, and to get them confirmed as quickly as possible. This is an unsurprising mission, as most in the room expect the Republicans to lose control of Congress in 2002—as, historically, most parties who control the executive branch do in midterm elections—and therefore have only a limited time in which to get nominees named, vetted, and confirmed by friendly Congressional Republicans.
Find Ways to Expand Presidential Power - Gonzales’s second mission is more puzzling. The lawyers are to constantly look for ways to expand presidential power, he tells them. Bush has told his senior counsel that under previous administrations, the power of the presidency has eroded dramatically. (Ironically, some of the losses of executive power came due to the Republican-led investigation of former President Clinton’s involvement in Whitewater and his affair with a White House intern, when Secret Service bodyguards and White House attorneys were compelled to testify about their communications with the president, and Congressional Republicans issued subpoenas and demanded information from the White House.) It is time to turn back the tide, Gonzales tells his team, and not only regain lost ground, but expand presidential power whenever the opportunity presents itself. Berenson will later recall Gonzales telling them that they are “to make sure that [Bush] left the presidency in better shape than he found it.” Berenson will later remark: “Well before 9/11, it was a central part of the administration’s overall institutional agenda to strengthen the presidency as a whole. In January 2001, the Clinton scandals and the resulting impeachment were very much in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Nobody at that point was thinking about terrorism or the national security side of the house.” Berenson does not learn until much later that much of the direction they have received has come, not from President Bush, but from Vice President Cheney and his legal staff, particularly his chief counsel, David Addington. [Savage, 2007, pp. 70-75]

Entity Tags: David S. Addington, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bradford Berenson, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush informs a small group of reporters that he is forming an “energy task force” to draw up a new national energy policy. It will be the first major policy initiative of his presidency. The administration is driven by its concern for “the people who work for a living… who struggle every day to get ahead.” The task force will find ways to meet the rising demand for energy and to avoid the shortfalls causing major power blackouts in California and other areas (see January 23, 2001). He has chosen Vice President Cheney to chair the task force. “Can’t think of a better man to run it than the vice president,” he says. He refuses to take questions, turning aside queries with jokes about the recent Super Bowl. The short press briefing will be virtually the only time the White House tells reporters anything about Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group. [Savage, 2007, pp. 85-86] Deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will later write that the task force “held a series of meetings with outside interests whose identities were withheld from the public. This created an early impression of an administration prone to secrecy and reinforced the image of the Bush White House as in thrall to corporate interests.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 96]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Scott McClellan, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

House Democrats Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI) write to Andrew Lundquist, the executive director of the Cheney energy task force (see January 29, 2001), asking for access to the task force’s records. Waxman and Dingell ask with whom the task force met and what had been said at those meetings. They base their request on the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), an open-government law that states when nongovernment officials, such as energy company officials or lobbyists, help craft public policy, the government must ensure that a balance of viewpoints is represented and such meetings must be open to the press and the public. Two weeks later, Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington, replies, denying Waxman and Dingell any information. Addington says that FACA does not apply to the task force, and attaches a memo from Lundquist asserting that while nongovernmental officials have been part of the task force’s deliberations, since they were not official members of the task force, their participation does not count. “These meetings… were simply forums to collect individuals views rather than to bring a collective judgment to bear,” Addington writes. Addington then advises the representatives that they need to show “due regard for the constitutional separation of powers,” claims that the White House can assert executive privilege over the task force’s records, and finishes with the assertion that Congress is not even entitled to the information Addington has provided—he has done so, he writes, “as a matter of comity between the executive and legislative branches.” [General Accounting Office, 8/25/2003 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 87-88]

Entity Tags: Federal Advisory Committee Act, Andrew Lundquist, David S. Addington, John Dingell, National Energy Policy Development Group, Henry A. Waxman, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, sends David Addington, the chief counsel to Vice President Cheney, a letter declaring that it intends to review the composition and activities of Cheney’s energy task force (see January 29, 2001). Addington is the one who issued the flat refusal to allow members of Congress to see any of the minutes or documents generated by the task force (see April 19 - May 4, 2001); in response, the members of Congress who requested the information asked GAO chief and comptroller general David Walker for help in investigating the task force. Walker is quite bipartisan, having worked for the Reagan and Bush-Quayle administrations before being appointed to the chairmanship of the GAO by President Clinton. [Savage, 2007, pp. 88] Addington will reply to Walker, denying that the GAO has any authority to investigate the task force (see May 16 - 17, 2001). In 2007, author Charlie Savage will call the Cheney-Addington battle with the GAO an early instance of the Bush administration’s fight to claim ever-widening presidential powers at the expense of Congress (see January 21, 2001).

Entity Tags: David Walker, Bush administration (43), David S. Addington, General Accounting Office, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Charlie Savage, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

The General Accounting Office (GAO) tries five times to arrange a meeting with David Addington, the chief counsel for Vice President Cheney, regarding the GAO’s request for information about Cheney’s secret energy task force (see January 29, 2001). Addington rebuffs all attempts to meet with GAO officials, and instead sends a letter refusing to comply with the GAO’s request (see May 16 - 17, 2001). On May 17, Addington leaves a voicemail on a GAO telephone saying that he is not authorized to meet with officials to discuss the task force, but that his letter is complete and “self-explanatory.” [General Accounting Office, 8/25/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, General Accounting Office, David S. Addington, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

In response to a General Accounting Office (GAO) demand for information about the energy task force chaired by Vice President Cheney (see May 8, 2001), Cheney’s chief legal adviser, David Addington, rebuffs the GAO, claiming that the agency has no authority under the Constitution to investigate the task force. The task force is a creature of the executive branch, Addington argues, and as an arm of the legislative branch, the GAO cannot “inquire into the exercise of authorities committed to the executive by the Constitution.” The president can keep any such government deliberations entirely secret from Congress and the public, Addington asserts, in order to guarantee the “candor” of the advice he receives. GAO chief David Walker replies to Addington, rejecting his interpretation of the Constitution. Addington will, in the words of author Charlie Savage, “follow… injury with insult,” responding to Walker’s request for information by conceding that Congress might have the right to know about the direct costs incurred by the task force, and sending 77 pages of mundane expense reports (see June 21, 2001). The highlight of those reports: task force chair Andrew Lundquist’s ordering of a pizza on his own credit card. Walker will not be cowed by Addington’s flip rejoinder. [Savage, 2007, pp. 88-89]

Entity Tags: David Walker, Andrew Lundquist, David S. Addington, General Accounting Office, Charlie Savage, National Energy Policy Development Group, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

Vice President Cheney’s top aide, David Addington, begins attending meetings of the Cheney energy task force, further emphasizing the White House’s refusal to cooperate with the General Accounting Office (GAO—see April 19 - May 4, 2001, May 8, 2001, and May 16 - 17, 2001). White House lawyer Bradford Berenson, the legal liaison on the case, is puzzled by the White House’s refusal to cooperate. Most of the information about the task force has already come out in the media, particularly the fact that almost all of the task force’s meetings have been with fossil fuel and nuclear energy corporate executives. But the White House seems willing to weather the controversy in order to keep withholding information from the GAO. In 2007, author Charlie Savage will write, “The long-term payoff was an opportunity to establish a high principle of presidential power: Communications involving the office of the presidency should be secret, whatever a law passed by Congress and signed by some previous president might say.” Addington further enforces the doctrine during the regular morning meetings at the White House counsel’s office, even though he does not work for senior White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. [Savage, 2007, pp. 90-91]

Entity Tags: Charlie Savage, Bradford Berenson, Bush administration (43), General Accounting Office, National Energy Policy Development Group, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

David Addington, the chief counsel to Vice President Cheney, writes another letter rebuffing the General Accounting Office (GAO)‘s attempt to secure information about Cheney’s secret energy task force (see January 29, 2001 and May 16, 2001). This time, Addington writes that the GAO lacks the authority to obtain the requested information. He reasons that in statute 31 USC 717, which requires the GAO’s chief, the comptroller general, to “evaluate the results of a program or activity the government carries out under existing law,” the words “existing law” do not include the US Constitution. Under statute 31 USC 712, which requires the comptroller general to investigate “all matters related to the receipt, disbursement, and use of public money,” the task force is only required to inform the GAO of financial cost information—hence Addington’s previous letter informing the GAO about the task force’s mundane expenses (see May 16 - 17, 2001 and June 21, 2001). [General Accounting Office, 8/25/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, General Accounting Office, David S. Addington, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

Pursuant to his letter to the General Accounting Office (GAO—see June 7, 2001), David Addington, the chief counsel for Vice President Cheney, sends the GAO 77 pages of financial information relating to Cheney’s secret energy task force. The documents cover little more than mundane expenses by the task force, including a pizza bought by task force chief Andrew Lundquist. The GAO will characterize the documents as “virtually impossible to analyze, as they consisted, for example, of pages with dollar amounts but no indication of the nature or the purpose of the expenditure. Nor did the materials reflect any apparent expenses in connection with the work of the six assigned [task force] staff.” [General Accounting Office, 8/25/2003 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 88-89]

Entity Tags: David S. Addington, Andrew Lundquist, General Accounting Office, National Energy Policy Development Group, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

Judicial Watch logo.Judicial Watch logo. [Source: Judicial Watch]The conservative government watchdog organization Judicial Watch sends a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney demanding to see the records of his secret energy task force (see January 29, 2001 and May 16, 2001). Chris Farrell, the organization’s director of investigations and research, saw a May 2001 Newsweek article about the task force. Farrell later says he was struck by the similarities between Cheney’s energy task force and the 1994 health care task force chaired by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. “The government can’t operate in secret,” Farrell will later say. “They are answerable to the people. There are appropriate times for secrecy on military and intelligence matters, but the notion that national policy on a matter like energy or health care can be developed in secret is offensive and counter to the Constitution.” Farrell, along with Judicial Watch chairman Larry Klayman and president Thomas Fitton, agreed that the task force violates core conservative principles, and made the decision to challenge Cheney’s office. Their letter notes that the rules governing the task force are clear: if the executive branch chooses to solicit outside advice while writing policy, then the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) is triggered, requiring the government to make the details of those meetings public (the same argument made by the General Accounting Office—see May 8, 2001). “Judicial Watch respectfully requests that, in light of the questionable legal and ethical practices, negative publicity, and public outrage surrounding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1994 national health-care policy development group, you direct the [energy task force] to abide by the FACA. [Such openness] will instill public trust and confidence in the operations of the [task force] and insure that the national policy is formulated, discussed, and acted upon in a manner consistent with the best traditions of our Constitutional Republic.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 91-92] Cheney’s office will refuse the request (see July 5, 2001). In return, Judicial Watch will sue for the documents’ release (see July 14, 2001).

Entity Tags: Larry Klayman, Chris Farrell, Federal Advisory Committee Act, Judicial Watch, National Energy Policy Development Group, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Tom Fitton, General Accounting Office

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

The General Accounting Office, repeatedly rebuffed by Vice President Cheney’s office in its attempt to secure information about Cheney’s secret energy task force (see May 8, 2001, May 10-17, 2001, May 16 - 17, 2001, June 7, 2001, June 21, 2001, and July 3, 2001), sends a letter written by its head, Comptroller General David Walker, to Cheney. Walker notes the repeated rebuffs from Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington, and others in his office, and once again lays out his request for information regarding the task force’s participants, minutes of meetings, and other relevant information. When Walker follows up his letter with a phone call to Cheney on July 30, Cheney will fail to take the call. [General Accounting Office, 8/25/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, David S. Addington, David Walker, National Energy Policy Development Group, General Accounting Office

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

The General Accounting Office (GAO)‘s chief, David Walker, backs down from his initial request for all pertinent documents and records of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force (see May 8, 2001). Instead, Walker modifies his request to ask for just the names of the lobbyists at the task force meetings, the dates of the meetings, the general topic(s) of discussion, and the cost of the meetings. Cheney will also refuse this request, and will escalate his rhetorical war against Walker and the GAO in defense of “executive privilege” (see July 26, 2001 and August 2, 2001). [General Accounting Office, 8/25/2003 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 92-93]

Entity Tags: General Accounting Office, David Walker, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

David Walker, comptroller of the General Accounting Office (GAO) and a Ronald Reagan appointee, files a lawsuit to compel Vice President Dick Cheney and his office to reveal the names of the private businessmen and organizational officials that his energy task force (see January 29, 2001) met with to craft the Bush administration’s energy policies (see May 8, 2001). This is the first time since its creation in 1920 that the GAO has been forced to file suit to compel another government agency to follow the law and cooperate with its requests. [Dean, 2004, pp. 78-79] In a statement, Walker writes: “This is the first time that GAO has filed suit against a federal official in connection with a records access issue. We take this step reluctantly. Nevertheless, given GAO’s responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice. Our repeated attempts to reach a reasonable accommodation on this matter have not been successful. Now that the matter has been submitted to the judicial branch, we are hopeful that the litigation will be resolved expeditiously. [General Accounting Office, 2/22/2002 pdf file]
'Fundamental Questions' about Governmental 'Checks and Balances' - Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2004: “This was, to say the least, a high-stakes lawsuit. It raised fundamental questions about the very nature of our system of checks and balances. If the GAO could not get the information it requested, then there was a black hole in the federal firmament—a no-man’s land where a president and vice president could go free from Congressional oversight.” By random selection, the case lands in the court of Judge John Bates, a career Justice Department lawyer who once worked for the Whitewater investigative team led by Kenneth Starr, and had just recently been appointed to the bench by President Bush. The choice of Bates will prove critical to the verdict of the case. [Dean, 2004, pp. 78-79]
Schlafly: Secrecy a 'Mistake' - Conservative commentator and activist Phyllis Schlafly will write in 2002: “[T]he public wants to know how our energy policy was developed. When information is kept secret, the natural inference is that there must be something the administration is very eager to hide. While private businesses and households can be selective about what they tell the world, the American people are not willing to accord the same privacy to public officials paid by the taxpayers. Regardless of the legal veil woven over the energy policy meetings, Cheney’s secrecy is a political mistake.” [Eagle Forum, 3/6/2002]

Entity Tags: Kenneth Starr, Phyllis Schlafly, US Department of Justice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Dean, Government Accountability Office, Bush administration (43), David Walker, George W. Bush, Energy Task Force, John Bates

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

District Court Judge John Bates rules against the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, in its attempt to force Vice President Cheney to disclose some of his Energy Task Force documents (see January 29, 2001 and May 16, 2001). The judge writes, “This case, in which neither a House of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information or authorized this suit, is not the setting for such unprecedented judicial action.” [Associated Press, 12/9/2002] Bates is a Republican who worked as the deputy independent counsel to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation, and was appointed to the bench by President Bush in 2001. [Savage, 2007, pp. 112] The GAO later declines to appeal the ruling (see February 7, 2003). In a similar suit being filed by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, the Bush administration has successfully delayed deadlines forcing these documents to be turned over. [Associated Press, 12/6/2002] That case will eventually be decided in the administration’s favor (see May 10, 2005).
Cheney Pushes Back - Unfortunately, the ruling’s claim of no Congressional involvement is somewhat misleading. The original request for information came from two ranking House members, Henry Waxman (D-CA) of the Committee on Government Reform and John Conyers (D-MI) of the Energy and Commerce Committee (see April 19 - May 4, 2001). Waxman and Conyers followed standard procedure by writing to David Walker, head of the GAO, to request information about who was meeting with the task force and what the task force was doing (May 8, 2001. Instead of complying with the request, Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, replied that the task force was not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and therefore not bound by law to provide such information (see May 16 - 17, 2001). Addington later challenged the GAO’s authority, saying that it was trying “to intrude into the heart of Executive deliberations, including deliberations among the President, the Vice President, members of the President’s Cabinet, and the President’s immediate assistants, which the law protects to ensure the candor in Executive deliberation necessary to effective government.” The GAO was not asking for such information; former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2004, “It was clear [Addington] was looking to pick a fight.”
Tug of War - The GAO advised Addington that it did indeed have the legal power to examine the deliberations of such entities as the task force, and provided Addington both the statutory law and the legislative history, which flatly contradicted Addington’s refusal. The GAO also noted that it was “not inquiring into the deliberative process but [was] focused on gathering factual information regarding the process of developing President Bush’s National Energy Policy.” The GAO even narrowed the scope of its original request, asking only for the names of those who had worked with the task force, and the dates (see July 31, 2001). But this provoked further resistance from Cheney and his office, with Cheney publicly stating on numerous occasions that the GAO was unlawfully trying to intrude into the deliberative process. Walker’s patience ran out in January 2002, and he notified the White House and Congress that the GAO was taking the administration to court (see February 22, 2002).
Hardball in Federal Court - Usually the case will be handled by lawyers from the Justice Department’s Civil Division. But this case is much more important to the White House to be left to the usual group of attorneys. Instead, this lawsuit is one of the very few to be handled by a special unit operating under the direct supervision of Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement and Clement’s boss, Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, the lawyer who spearheaded the team that successfully argued the December 2000 Bush v. Gore case that awarded George W. Bush the presidency. Dean later learns that this special team was created specifically to find and handle cases that they can take to the Supreme Court in order to rewrite existing law, mostly laws that restrict the power of the presidency (see January 21, 2001). Many career attorneys at the Justice Department will become so offended by the existence and the agenda of this special legal team that they will resign their positions. The administraton sent a strong signal to Judge Bates when it sent Olson, who has argued many times before the Supreme Court, to argue the government’s case in his court. Dean will write that Bates, a recent Bush appointee and a veteran of the Whitewater investigation, “got the message.” He knows this case is slated to go to the Supreme Court if it doesn’t go the way the White House wants.
Standing the Law On Its Head - According to Dean, Bates turns the entire body of statutory law overseeing the GAO and its powers to compel information from the executive branch on its head. He rules that the GAO lacks the “standing to sue,” saying that it doesn’t have enough of a legal stake in the controversy to have a role in trying to compel information. Bates, flying in the face of over eight decades of law and precedent, rules that, in essence, the GAO is merely an agent of Congress, and because neither the GAO nor Walker had suffered injury because of the task force’s refusal to comply with its request, the GAO has no legal recourse against the executive branch. Bates hangs much of his ruling on the fact that Congress has not yet subpoenaed the White House for the task force information. Thusly, Bates guts the entire structure of enforcement authority the GAO has as part of its statutory mandate. Bates does not go as far as the Justice Department wants, by not specifically ruling that the entire GAO statute is unconstitutional, but otherwise Bates’s ruling is a complete victory for the White House. [Dean, 2004, pp. 76-80] Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that “Bates’s ruling creates a legislative Catch-22 for Democrats.” Because the GOP is the majority party, and because GOP Congressional leaders refuse to subpoena the White House on virtually any issue or conflict, no such subpoenas as Bates is mandating are likely to ever be granted by Republican committee chairmen. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 14] In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write that Bates’s ruling severely eroded the GAO’s “ability to threaten to file a lawsuit [and] damaged the congressional watchdog’s capability to persuade executive branch agencies to comply with its requests for information.… Bates had established a principle that, if left undisturbed, could change the attitudes of executive branch officials when the GAO asked for documents they did not want to disclose.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 112-113]

Entity Tags: John Dean, Lou Dubose, Paul Clement, Sierra Club, John Conyers, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Bates, Judicial Watch, Henry A. Waxman, Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, David Walker, David S. Addington, Government Accountability Office, Energy Task Force, Jake Bernstein, Federal Advisory Committee Act

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

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