Cheney won't explain records classification

April 30, 2006|By MARK SILVA | MARK SILVA,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration has drastically accelerated the classification of information as "top secret" or "confidential," one office is refusing to report on its annual activity in classifying documents: the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

A standing executive order, strengthened by President Bush in 2003, requires all agencies and "any other entity within the executive branch" to provide an annual accounting of their classification of documents. More than 80 agencies have collectively reported to the National Archives that they made 15.6 million decisions in 2004 to classify information, nearly double the number in 2001, but Cheney continues to insist that he is exempt.

Explaining why the vice president has withheld even a tally of his office's secrecy when such offices as the National Security Council routinely report theirs, a spokeswoman said Cheney is "not under any duty" to provide it.

In the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the administration has based much of its need for confidentiality on the imperative of protecting national security in time of war. Yet experts say Bush and his closest advisers demonstrated their proclivity for privacy well before 9/11.

Starting in the early weeks of his administration with a move to protect the papers of former presidents, Bush has clamped down on the release of government documents. That includes tougher standards for what the public can obtain under the Freedom of Information Act and the creation of a broad new category of "sensitive but unclassified information."

Not only has the administration reported a drastic increase in the number of documents deemed "top secret," "secret" or "confidential," but the president has also authorized the reclassification of information that was public for years. An audit by a National Archives office recently found that the CIA acted in a "clearly inappropriate" way on about a third of the documents it reclassified last year.

Bush has a partner, some say mentor, in Cheney, who resisted all efforts to disclose the inner workings of a task force devising the administration's energy policy. He defeated an unprecedented lawsuit by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to unveil that task force and carried his fight successfully to the Supreme Court. And as the administration has sealed an increasing number of documents as secret or sensitive, and cut the number of documents being declassified each year, the refusal of Cheney's office to report on the number of its decisions stands out.

A directive from the National Archives, acting under the authority of the executive order bolstered by Bush in March 2003, requires all agencies and executive branch units to report annually on their classification and declassification of files.

Cheney's office maintains that its dual executive and legislative duties make it unique - the vice president also serves as Senate president. "This matter has been carefully reviewed," said spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride. "It has been determined that the reporting requirement does not apply to the office of the vice president."

Many see the administration's acts as a campaign to boost the powers of the presidency.

"It's pretty clear that there were certain players in the administration, including the vice president, who felt that the executive branch had not fully exerted all of its constitutional authorities," said David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general. Walker, as head of the GAO, filed that office's only lawsuit against a government agency in April 2002 as it sought to open the records of Cheney's energy task force. A federal judge dismissed the suit as a struggle between the executive and legislative branches that courts were not empowered to adjudicate.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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