One way to measure the priorities of any government is by
observing what it strives to keep secret. This axiom is currently being
illustrated in the most stark fashion by the
administration of George W. Bush.
If you are an oilman or utility lobbyist who whispered about
regulations and taxes to the Vice President, then the White House and the
Justice Department will go to court to protect you from the curiosity of the
public, the press or the Congress. But if you are the Prime Minister of Israel
who talked on a supposedly secure telephone with the President of the United
States, then the White House and its friends
in Congress will permit your conversations to leak without the slightest
concern for future diplomatic consequences. Such, at least, are the
implications of the administration’s bizarre behavior.
Since last May, Vice President Dick Cheney has stonewalled
requests by the General Accounting Office-the federal agency which conducts
audits and investigations for members of Congress-for basic information about
the National Energy Policy Development Group that he chairs. As Comptroller
General David Walker, who heads the G.A.O., reported on Aug. 17, Mr. Cheney has
violated long-standing precedents by resisting the agency’s effort to discover
exactly who participated in crafting the Bush energy scheme.
Mr. Cheney refuses even to provide the names of those who
attended his group’s meetings, when and where the
meetings occurred and what subjects were on its agenda. In words that suggest a
claim of executive privilege to which he is not entitled-unless he really is
the President-Mr. Cheney declared that complying with the G.A.O. would
“unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch.”
It’s hard not to wonder what the Vice President hopes to
conceal, with his threat to resist the G.A.O. all the way to the Supreme Court.
Does he imagine anyone will be shocked to learn that he sought the advice of
his former colleagues in the oil business and his campaign contributors in the
coal, gas and nuclear industries? Do those secret minutes record him muttering
“yes, sir” whenever a lobbyist demands a tax break or a pollution exemption?
It’s also difficult to understand why, in the minds of
Republican politicians and pundits, the Vice
President’s obsessive secrecy is more acceptable than that which surrounded the
previous administration’s health-care task force in 1993. When Hillary Clinton
tried tactics similar to those the Vice President now employs, the very air
echoed with demands for “open government” and denunciations of “back-room
bargains.” In fact, Mrs. Clinton released the names of her task force’s
participants only eight weeks into her husband’s tenure; Mr. Cheney refuses
even that small concession after almost eight months, provoking an
unprecedented lawsuit by the G.A.O.
Meanwhile, during the same week that the G.A.O. reported to
Congress on Mr. Cheney’s obstruction, the transcripts of three telephone
conversations between Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton were “obtained” by Newsweek. That passive construction of
sourcing is traditionally used to elide the question of who gave up the goods.
In this case, the original source was the Bush National Security Council, which
prepared transcripts from the contemporaneous stenographic notes taken by White
House aides whenever the President speaks with a foreign leader. Those
transcripts were then provided to the House Government Operations Committee,
which is “investigating” Mr. Clinton’s controversial pardon of financier Marc
The transcripts prove that Mr. Barak began pressing Mr.
Clinton to grant the Rich pardon on Dec.
11, 2000, in the midst of the Democratic President’s strenuous and
unsuccessful effort to broker a new peace agreement between Israelis and
Palestinians. In that and two subsequent chats on Jan. 8 and Jan. 19, the
references to Mr. Rich’s fate were brief interruptions of their continuing
discussion about that broader topic (all of which was redacted by the N.S.C.).
While the former President’s remarks indicate that he knew the pardon raised
troubling questions, they don’t even hint that he acted from any corrupt
The actual leaker of the Clinton-Barak transcripts was
Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, an excitable weirdo who chairs the House
committee. Why Mr. Burton would choose to leak this material is unclear, since
it scarcely singes Mr. Clinton, whom he seems doomed to pursue forever, as if
in some endlessly looped cartoon. But Mr. Burton often interprets reality in
his own special way, and he does love to see his name in the newspaper.
Whatever his aims, however, the damage to
diplomacy has been done. The truly guilty parties are those in the Bush
White House who blithely handed such sensitive materials over to an
irresponsible, grandstanding politician.
So from now on, no foreign leader can depend upon the
privacy of a conversation with the American President. Unless,
perhaps, that foreign leader also happens to be in the oil business.