Cheney's stonewall not sound

January 30, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In the emerging Enron scandal, the White House has made itself a target by asserting executive privilege to shield the inner workings of Vice President Dick Cheney's task force that last year shaped President Bush's energy policy. But there is plenty of precedent for doing so.

Through the years, White House privacy claims for secret meetings and conversations have been invoked by Republicans and Democrats alike in fending off prying eyes and ears. Administrations of both parties have justified business done in private as imperative to ensure that presidents and their chief subordinates receive candid counsel from those called to advise them.

What sets apart the current attempt to protect the privacy of Mr. Cheney's task force is that the folks seeking access are not of the same cloth as the probing Democrats of the Watergate scandal or the Republicans hot on the trail of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater affair.

The snoop demanding access to the whisperings in the Cheney energy speakeasy is the General Accounting Office, the bipartisan and generally esteemed creature of Congress. After more Cheney stonewalling on Sunday's television talk shows, GAO director David Walker has said he intends to take the Bush administration to court - the first time such a drastic step has ever been taken by the agency.

Coming in the midst of the multiple Enron investigations in Congress, which inevitably will have partisan colorations, the nonpartisan GAO quest just as inevitably raises suspicions that the Bush administration has something to hide about what Enron representatives said to Mr. Cheney and aides then formulating the nation's energy policy.

The invoking of the privilege is in itself nothing unusual. Long before Richard Nixon resorted to it in his eventually futile effort to cover up the Watergate scandal, other presidents and aides were using it, and afterward as well. Less than a decade ago, the Clinton administration effectively resisted efforts to open secret task force meetings by First Lady Hillary Clinton at which her husband's health care proposal was crafted.

In that case, health care professional and consumer groups sought to let the light of day in by arguing in court that since Mrs. Clinton was not a government official, only the wife of one, executive privilege could not be used to keep her task force doings in the dark. The pertinent law stipulated that any meeting involving non-government people had to be open.

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and health care consumer groups complained that health maintenance organizations and insurance companies were involved in making health care policy in the task force, just as energy consumers now allege that giant energy corporations such as Enron had their heads in Mr. Cheney's task force tent.

In the Clinton task force case, lawyers for the administration argued that the health care plan was devised by "an amorphous horde" of more than 500 people operating in "creative confusion" and therefore was not a formal advisory committee under obligation to release its working papers or records.

The comment inspired a lawyer for the petitioners to respond: "This was not some amorphous horde. Ant colonies and bee colonies sometimes look like a horde, too. But they follow a system. They follow their queen. Here it is absolutely no different."

Over the next two years, the courts ruled for and against the petitioners a couple of times, and in 1998, a judge ordered the Clinton administration, Mrs. Clinton and Ira Magaziner, an aide who oversaw the task force, to pay nearly $286,000 in medical and legal fees. But that finding, too, was thrown out.

If President Bush had had the benefit of hindsight, he might have been wise to follow Bill Clinton's example and put his wife, Laura, who apparently has no aspirations to be a government official, in charge of the energy task force. But he didn't, and so Mr. Cheney as the man in the hot seat has no easy dodge.

Defenders of the president in the Enron matter have been able to cite his subordinates' refusal to help the Houston firm when approached, and to dismiss the case as a corporate, not a political, problem. But if his administration through Mr. Cheney continues to stonewall the nonpolitical GAO, he is likely to find it otherwise.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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