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Former president Bill Clinton reacts angrily to edited transcripts of private conversations with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, in which Barak requested that Clinton pardon fugitive American financier Marc Rich (see August 21, 2001 and Early September, 2001). The transcripts were edited and released to the public by House Government Reform Committee chairman Dan Burton (R-IN) as part of his investigation into whether Clinton acted improperly in pardoning Rich. After reading the transcripts, Clinton thinks that Burton has selectively edited them, and giving a false impression of the nature and content of the conversations between himself and Barak. Clinton asks the White House, which had provided Burton with copies of the tapes of the conversations, to release all of the relevant portions of the transcripts, which he says will portray the conversations in a different light. But the White House refuses, saying the remaining portions of the transcripts are now classified. (Dean 2004, pp. 85-86)
'Hating Bill Clinton' - The classification of the documents is quite sudden. Earlier in the month, a White House spokesperson said that the release of the Clinton-Barak transcripts was nothing more than part of their efforts to make more information available to Congress. “The excerpts were not classified,” the spokesperson said. “The decision to make the documents available was entirely consistent with past practice. You don’t just slap Top Secret on a whole document.” However, some observers dispute this. “Given the secrecy that the Bush-Cheney administration has pursued, it’s inconceivable that they would turn this information over if it affected President Bush,” says Phil Schiliro, the Democratic staff director for the House Government Reform Committee, which is trying in vain to secure information from the White House about the Cheney Energy Task Force. Lynne Weil, the press secretary for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls the sudden decision to classify the previously unclassified transcripts “highly unusual.” She adds, “People who have worked for the Foreign Relations Committee for years can’t recall the last time such a thing happened.” The National Security Archives’s Tom Blanton welcomed the original disclosure of the conversations, but says it came not from a sudden desire for transparency from the Bush administration, but from a desire to smear Clinton. The Bush administration passionately believes in secrecy, a belief rooted in its collective ideology, says Blanton. When asked why that same ideological concern didn’t extend to the Clinton-Barak transcripts, Blanton replies that the question ignores “a rather more focused version of that ideology that’s about hating Bill Clinton.”
Violation of Procedure - Typically, the Bush administration turns down requests such as Burton’s for private presidential conversations. However, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales decided to turn them over. At that point, Clinton could have attempted to block the release of the transcripts by invoking executive privilege, a move that may have cast him in a poor light politically. But the events as carried out by Burton and the White House—breaking with precedent to release potentially embarrassing transcripts, edit those transcripts to make their contents appear more damning than they actually are, then retroactively classify the remainder of the transcripts—is highly unusual. (Marshall 2/7/2002; Dean 2004, pp. 85-86)
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 )
'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.” (Schlafly 3/6/2002)
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. (Yost 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)
The General Accounting Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, declines to appeal a case attempting to force Vice President Cheney to disclose his Energy Task Force documents (see May 16, 2001, February 22, 2002, and December 9, 2002). This ends a potentially historic showdown between the Congressional watchdog agency and the executive branch. (Simon 2/8/2003) It is widely believed that the suit is dropped because of pressure from the Republican Party—the suit was filed when the Democrats controlled the Senate, and this decision comes shortly after the Republicans gained control of it. (Milbank 2/8/2003) The head of the GAO denies the lawsuit is dropped because of Republican threats to cut his office’s budget, but US Comptroller General David Walker, who led the case, says there was one such “thinly veiled threat” last year by a lawmaker he wouldn’t identify. (Cornwell 2/25/2003) Another account has Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and a number of other congresspeople making the threat to Walker. (Brand and Bolton 2/19/2003) The GAO has previously indicated that accepting defeat in this case would cripple its ability to oversee the executive branch. (Milbank 2/8/2003) A similar suit filed by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club continues to move forward, but will ultimately be defeated by the Supreme Court (see May 10, 2005). (Milbank 2/8/2003)
Picking Its Battles - Walker explains that to continue the case “would require investment of significant time and resources over several years.” Later, he will say that he decided not to appeal the case for what reporter Charlie Savage will call “damage-control reasons.” Walker does not want to involve the GAO in what he fears will be perceived as a partisan conflict, and he does not want to risk further crippling the GAO’s ability to function by risking another negative ruling from a federal appeals court. “If the GAO was going to fight that legal battle,” Savage will write in explanation of Walker’s reasoning, “it was strategically unwise to use a case that involved records inside the White House itself instead of a less prominent part of the executive branch.” (Savage 2007, pp. 113)
Refusal to Appeal 'Stunning' - In 2004, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write that he finds the GAO’s decision not to appeal the ruling “stunning.” Walker says the GAO isn’t going to challenge the ruling because it does not materially affect the GAO’s ability to function because the “decision did not address the merits” of the GAO’s arguments. The ruling, Walker says, “has no effect on GAO’s statutory audit rights or the obligation of agencies to provide GAO with information.” Dean calls this line of reasoning “wishful thinking at its best.” Dean will ask a high-level GAO official about the reported threats from Congressional Republicans. The official will reply that the threats did not worry Walker and the GAO lawyers nearly as much as the possibility that, if the GAO were to pursue the lawsuit, then, Dean will write, “the Supreme Court could do again what it did in Bush v. Gore and make Walker v. Cheney the landmark ruling ending virtually all Congressional oversight.” But lawyers for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) say that the ruling as it stands places severe restrictions on Congressional oversight. As Dean puts it: “The GAO has lost not only standing to file a lawsuit but the leverage of the threat of filing such a lawsuit, should an executive department or agency stonewall the way Cheney did. The GAO must now simply take what the White House (and its many appendages…) volunteers. This has never before been the case. [The GAO] will see only what Bush and Cheney want it to see.” The CRS notes that the ruling “calls into question the ability of Congress to delegate investigative authority to its agents;” Dean will write that this “may be the true reason for the lawsuit and for Cheney’s actions.” (Dean 2004, pp. 80-81)
'Big Win' for Bush/Cheney - Constitutional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution will call the ruling a “big win” for the Bush-Cheney administration, saying: “President Bush and Vice President Cheney have an extreme and relentless executive-centered conception of American government, and it plays out every day, and there are dozens of fronts in this effort to strengthen the presidency. Power naturally gravitates to the presidency in times of uncertainty. But people are going to question putting all of our trust in an unfetttered presidency.” Former Justice Department official Bruce Fein is more blunt. “Now they have a precedent that they can hold over Congress’s head,” he will say. “Like a loaded gun. Forever.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 14-15)
Praising a judicial ruling against efforts to obtain information about his Energy Task Force, Vice President Dick Cheney says, “I think it restored some of the legitimate authority of the executive branch, the president and the vice president, to be able to conduct their business.” (Koffler 6/29/2007)
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reacts with confusion to Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent assertions that the vice president is neither wholly part of the executive nor legislative branches (see 2003 and June 21, 2007). Perino says in response to reporters’ questions: “I’m not a legal scholar… I’m not opining on his argument that his office is making… I don’t know why he made the arguments that he did.” Reporter Keith Koffler remarks, “It’s a little surreal,” to which Perino replies, “You’re telling me.” Koffler presses, “You can’t give an opinion about whether the vice president is part of the executive branch or not? It’s a little bit like somebody saying, ‘I don’t know if this is my wife or not.’” Asked if President Bush believes Cheney is part of the executive branch, Perino sidesteps, calling it “an interesting constitutional question.” After further dodging, reporter Helen Thomas says, “You’re stonewalling.” Reporter Jim Axelrod suggests Perino is denying “sky-is-blue stuff” and points out that Cheney’s assertion revises “more than 200 years of constitutional scholarship.” Koffler continues, “He can’t possibly argue that he’s part of neither [branch], and it seems like he’s saying he’s part of neither.” Perino finally surrenders, “Okay, you have me thoroughly confused as well.” Cheney’s current position—he will not comply with an order governing the care of classified documents because the vice presidency is not “an entity within the executive branch”—contradicts his 2001 argument that he would not cooperate with a Congressional probe into the activities of his Energy Task Force because such a probe “would unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch.”
'Neither Fish Nor Fowl' - The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank writes, “Cheney has, in effect, declared himself to be neither fish nor fowl but an exotic, extraconstitutional beast who answers to no one.” Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) agrees, saying: “The vice president’s theory seems to be one almost laughable on its face, that he’s not part of the executive branch. I think if you ask James Madison or Benjamin Franklin or any of the writers of the Constitution, they’d almost laugh if they heard that.” (Milbank 6/26/2007; Dreazen 7/31/2007) Interestingly, Perino does assert that Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has no standing to investigate the compliance of the vice president’s office with the executive order. “The executive order is enforced solely by the president of the United States,” she says. “I think this is a little bit of a non-issue.” The government watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) retorts that, if Cheney and Perino are to be believed, then the Office of Senate Security, the counterpart to Waxman’s committee, should investigate Cheney’s office. “By claiming the Office of the Vice President is within the legislative branch does Mr. Cheney agree that he is subject to Senate security procedures?” CREW executive director Melanie Sloan asks. “The Security Office’s standards, procedures and requirements are set out in the Senate Security Manual, which is binding on all employees of the Senate.” (Roston 6/24/2007)
After saying that if Vice President Dick Cheney does not consider himself entirely part of the executive branch, then taxpayers should not fund his executive branch office (see June 24, 2007), House Democrats led by Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) move to strip federal funding for the Office of the Vice President (OVP). Cheney has said that because the vice president is not strictly part of the executive branch, therefore he and his office are not subject to an executive order mandating disclosure of how many documents his office has classified. President Bush has said that neither his office nor Cheney’s is subject to that order. Emanuel notes that, five years ago, Cheney claimed executive privilege in refusing to release information about oil industry executives during meetings of his Energy Task Force. “Now when we want to know what he’s doing as it relates to America’s national security in the lead-up to the war in Iraq and after the fact, the vice president has declared he is a member of the legislative branch,” Emanuel says. Therefore, “we will no longer fund the executive branch of his office and he can live off the funding for the Senate presidency.” As vice president, Cheney presides over the Senate. (CBS News 6/27/2007) The federal government, through the executive branch, pays about $4.8 million a year to fund the OVP. (Allen 6/27/2007) After Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington tacitly admits that Cheney is, after a fashion, part of the executive branch (see June 26, 2007), the Democrats drop their proposal to strip Cheney’s office of executive branch funding.
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