Cheney Stonewalls While Burton Leaks

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

Rich.

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

motive.

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.