Vice President Makes Secrecy Policy a Joke (Literally)

06.26.07 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The arcane details of national security classification policy became the stuff of late night comedy as White House officials struggled to justify the peculiar refusal of Vice President Dick Cheney to comply with the oversight requirements established by President Bush’s executive order on classification.

For two successive days, the White House press briefing was dominated by incredulous reporters who wondered how the Vice President could claim that he both was and was not part of the executive branch; why he complied with oversight reporting requirements in 2001 and 2002, and why he then ceased to comply; and how the Vice President’s behavior can be consistent with the executive order when the Administration’s own Information Security Oversight Office says that it is not.

“I’m not a legal scholar,” said an exasperated Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman. “I’m not opining on his argument that his office is making.”

The story became certifiably big news last night when it was the subject of a five minute satirical segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (where I had a microsecond cameo). See “Non-Executive Decision,” June 25, 2007, under “most recent videos.”

The Justice Department had said that the classification policy dispute was “under review” since Information Security Oversight Office director J. William Leonard asked the Attorney General in January 2007 to resolve the matter. But in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Justice Department revealed that no documents whatsoever had been generated by the purported review. See “A New Cheney-Gonzales Mystery” by Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, July 2.

Congressional leaders are stirring the pot, warning that the Office of Vice President could suffer budget penalties if it does not comply with routine oversight procedures. See “Secrecy May Cost Cheney, Dems Warn” by Elana Schor and Mike Soraghan, The Hill, June 26.

To recap: The internal executive branch conflict over the Vice President’s non-compliance with the executive order was triggered by a formal complaint filed with the Information Security Oversight Office in May 2006 by the Federation of American Scientists (following a report in the Chicago Tribune by Mark Silva).

The FAS complaint was accepted by ISOO Director William Leonard, and was forwarded to the Attorney General in January with his request (pdf) for an official interpretation of the executive order. There the matter lay for five months until Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, raised the issue to stratospheric heights last week with a letter to the Vice President (pdf) questioning his Office’s conduct.

The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio devoted an hour to the topic yesterday with Congressman Waxman, Peter Baker of the Washington Post, former Justice Department lawyer David Rivkin, and myself. See “The Executive Branch and Classified Information,” June 25.

The controversy is playing out against the backdrop of a massive four-part series in the Washington Post on Vice President Cheney’s role and conduct written by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker. The story had been under development for many months and Ms. Becker has since left the Post to go work for the New York Times. In a weird and probably unprecedented coincidence, she had a byline in front page stories in both the Washington Post and the New York Times on June 25.

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