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Cheney's Secret Powers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 17, 2006; 12:24 PM

Toward the end of an interview that was primarily about his accidental shooting of a hunting buddy, Vice President Cheney on Wednesday made a blunt but possibly unjustified assertion about his power to declassify government secrets. Then he clammed up.

From the transcript of Cheney's interview with Fox News's Brit Hume:

Hume: "Let me ask you another question. Is it your view that a Vice President has the authority to declassify information?"

Cheney: "There is an executive order to that effect."

Hume: "There is."

Cheney: "Yes."

Hume: "Have you done it?"

Cheney: "Um, well, I've certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions. The executive order --"

Hume: " You ever done it unilaterally?"

Cheney blinked and paused. (Here's the video of that part of the interview.)

Cheney: "Um, I don't want to get into that."

But if Cheney is so confident in his authority, why the hesitation to acknowledge that he has used it?

As Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post yesterday: "Cheney was referring to an executive order on classification of information first signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995. In March 2003, just days after ordering U.S. troops into Iraq, President Bush amended [the] order to, among other things, give the vice president the same classification power as the president."

But classification power is not the same as declassification power.

Washington Post national security reporter Dana Priest was asked about Cheney's assertion in a Live Online discussion yesterday:

"Washington, D.C.: To your knowledge, does the Vice President really have the authority to just declare material unclassified?

"Dana Priest: Lots of questions on this one so I turned to my classification guru, Steve Aftergood, at the Federation of American Scientists. Answer: 1) The VP can declassify anything that his office classified or generated initially. 2) The VP can declassify other executive branch information only if the president has given him implicit or explicit authority to do so, which is not self-evident in Executive Order 13292 of 3/25/03 3) Not even the president can declassify everything. . . . For more, go to www.fas.org/blog/secrecy. A great site. So, the bottom line is, we'll probably have to get the president to answer whether he delegated this to the VP, and/or if the information in question was generated from the VP's office."

In fact, here's what Aftergood wrote in his blog yesterday: "[I]s the Vice President, like the President, 'a supervisory official' with respect to other executive branch agencies such as the CIA? Did the 2003 amendment to the executive order which elevated the Vice President's classification authority also grant him declassification authority comparable to the President's?

" 'The answer is not obvious,' said one executive branch expert on classification policy."

The Liberal Oasis blog, the Washington Note and Daily Kos are all skeptical.

Hume's question, of course, came in the context of a Murray Waas report last week that Cheney's indicted former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, has claimed that his superiors authorized him to disclose classified information to journalists.

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Vice President Cheney may be getting over one political headache to find he has got another, this time for asserting he has the authority to declassify government secrets.

"Critics suspect he may be relying on that power to protect himself from legal trouble."

Bazinet writes: "If Cheney claims he had declassified that information, it might help him, or anyone else allegedly involved, to avoid prosecution, legal experts surmised."

Byron York, writing for the National Review, marvels at the "little-known but enormously consequential expansion of vice-presidential power that has come about as a result of the Bush administration's war on terror. . . .

"At the time, Bush's order received very little coverage in the press. . . . But as Cheney pointed out Wednesday, the Bush order . . . significantly increased the vice president's power. . . .

"In the last several years, there has been much talk about the powerful role Dick Cheney plays in the Bush White House. Some of that talk has been based on anecdotal evidence, and some on entirely fanciful speculation. But Executive Order 13292 is real evidence of real power in the vice president's office."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann spoke with Newsweek's Richard Wolffe last night about the reality of declassification in the Bush White House.

Wolffe: "They declassify when they feel like it. I've been with senior administration officials who have just decided to declassify something in front of me because it's bolstering their argument."

At the time that Libby was leaking information from the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, "Saddam was no longer in power. And I think people felt emboldened to leak information, to declassify stuff, because the regime was no longer there," Wolffe said. "They were also feeling very insecure, because the case [for war] was falling apart, and they felt the pressure. . . ."

Olbermann: "I'm just picturing that experience in my mind. Is there a puff of smoke? Is it akin to alchemy when they declassify something?

Wolffe: "There was a sort of frowning, a reaching into a locked cabinet, a filing cabinet, and the sort of, you know, 'Should we declassify this? Oh, yeah, let's go do it. Not a very formal process.' "

And what senior officials could Wolffe be talking about? Earlier, he told Olbermann: "What I know from my own reporting is that in this period, a couple of months after Saddam is toppled from power, really it's only the vice president's office that is exercised --- excessively exercised -- about the holes that are being picked in the case for war, specifically about weapons of mass destruction."

About That Hunting Accident

As for that hunting accident Cheney was involved in, Bush took reporter's questions for the first time this week and here is what he had to say:

"I thought the Vice President handled the issue just fine. He went through -- and I thought his explanation yesterday was a powerful explanation. This is a man who likes the outdoors and he likes to hunt. And he heard a bird flush and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded. And it was a deeply traumatic moment for him, and obviously for the -- it was a tragic moment for Harry Whittington.

"And so I thought his explanation yesterday was a very strong and powerful explanation, and I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave. . . .

"Q But are you satisfied about the timing?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave."

As Brian Williams put it on the NBC Nightly News: "The White House made it very clear today, in their view, this story is over."

But, he said: "The questions that continue tonight have to do mostly with the damage this bizarre accident has caused."

Kelly O'Donnell then raised the alcohol issue: "Whittington called it an accident and told investigators, 'foremost there was no alcohol during the hunt.' The report makes no other reference to any drinking or that any blood alcohol tests were ever done. The vice president did say in his Fox TV interview that he had a beer at lunch, noting that was hours before the shooting."

She also noted: "Observers say the whole ordeal has weakened Mr. Cheney's influence."

But Was Cheney Reckless?

I amassed a slew of unanswered questions about the shooting in yesterday's column.

Sheriff Ramon Salinas III of tiny Kenedy County, Texas, released a sketchy report on the incident yesterday. But it raised more questions than answers.

Tom Brune writes in Newsday: "Vice President Dick Cheney turned around in nearly a complete circle to follow a flushed quail before accidentally shooting his companion, the local sheriff's office indicated in a report closing its investigation Thursday.

"That scenario, which raises the question of whether Cheney was firing outside of a 'safety zone,' is one of many details in the five-page report by the Kenedy County Sheriff's office in Texas, the only agency to probe Cheney's wounding of Harry Whittington Saturday."

Cheney told Hume on Wednesday that when the shooting took place, he was on the "far right" of the hunting party, which at that point included Swiss Ambassador Pamela Willeford and a guide mounted on horseback. But here's what Cheney apparently told Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel: "There was a single bird that flew behind him and he followed the bird by line of sight in a counter clockwise direction."

If he was indeed to the right of Willeford and the guide, and he swung his gun counter clockwise, then he's lucky he didn't shoot them, too.

As James Pinkerton writes in the Houston Chronicle: "The report seemed to contradict Cheney's televised account of the shooting in which he said he turned to his right to shoot the rising bird. . . .

"In the report, the vice president is described as turning counterclockwise, to the west, to fire at the bird. . . .

"Attempts to contact Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel about the seeming contradiction were unsuccessful."

Pinkerton spoke to ranch matriarch Anne Armstrong. "I promise you there is no cover-up," she told Pinkerton. But she also told him that the ranch employees who guided Cheney's hunting party, and presumably saw everything, will not be making any comments.

How Close Were They?

One big question: Was Cheney actually considerably closer to Whittington than he and his witnesses have indicated?

Elisabeth Bumiller and Ralph Blumenthal write in the New York Times: "Some leading medical examiners, veteran hunters and shooting experts said on Thursday that the shooting might have been at much closer range than cited in the accounts, based on reports of Mr. Whittington's medical condition.

"Dr. Michael M. Baden, director of the Medico-Legal Investigations Unit of the New York State Police, estimated that Mr. Whittington was 15 yards from Mr. Cheney when he was shot. 'Witnesses' estimates of distances are notoriously off in such accidents,' Dr. Baden said.

"But Duncan MacPherson, author of the book 'Bullet Penetration,' said it was plausible that Mr. Whittington was 30 yards away. 'The difference between 20 yards and 30 yards would be too small to probably tell any difference,' he said."

John Pomfret writes in The Washington Post: "Other hunters questioned why Cheney was shooting down at a flying bird. 'The idea behind quail hunting is that you have to hit the quail when it's about five to 10 feet in the air,' said Wade Wilson, a South Texas hunting guide. 'Quail don't fly very high. But nobody should be shooting down.' "

Cheney was also shooting right into a setting sun.

No Safety Courses

Jennifer McKee writes in the Helena, Mont., Independent Record: "Vice President Dick Cheney, who shot his companion in a Texas hunting accident over the weekend, has not taken state-offered hunter's safety education courses in either his home state of Wyoming or Texas, records show."

Secret Service Stays Mum

Agence France Presse reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney's official Secret Service bodyguards do not expect to conduct a formal investigation into his weekend shooting incident, a spokesman for the agency said.

" 'It wasn't necessarily a security incident,' US Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahner told AFP by telephone. 'We don't feel that the vice president was ever in any danger.' . . .

"Asked whether that meant that there would be a formal secret service investigation in Saturday's shooting, Zahner replied: 'I would say "no." ' "

Dump Cheney Watch

Surprise. The rumors are back.

Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan kicked things into high gear yesterday in the Wall Street Journal: "I suspect what they're thinking and not saying [at the Bush White House] is, If Dick Cheney weren't vice president, who'd be a good vice president? They're thinking, At some time down the road we may wind up thinking about a new plan. And one night over drinks at a barbecue in McLean one top guy will turn to another top guy and say, 'Under the never permeable and never porous Dome of Silence, tell me . . . wouldn't you like to replace Cheney?'"

John J. Miller wonders in the National Review: "If Cheney were to leave the vice presidency, for health reasons or something else, who should President Bush choose as his replacement?"

Jackie Calmes and Greg Hitt write in the Wall Street Journal: "Republicans face a perplexing question: Is Dick Cheney a political asset or liability?"

Who Paid?

From MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews last night:

Matthews: "Do we know who paid for this trip?"

New York Times reporter Anne E. Kornblut: "Oh that's a -- not Jack Abramoff. That's not what you're suggesting."

Matthews: "We don't know who paid for the trip."

Kornblut: "I don't. I don't."

Matthews: "I don't know. Do you, Jim, who paid for this hunting trip?"

Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei: "Some taxpayers picked up a big part of it. I mean, he travels with a big contingency of Secret Service, obviously uses government plans, and also has a medical staff that the government."

Matthews: "Yes, the reason I ask that is on behalf of every member of the House and the Senate who are told they can't take 50 bucks from any lobbyist, and here the guy is, the guest of some big shot down there. Isn't there any limit on how hospitality he can accept?"

Kornblut: "Good question."

The White House and the Media

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "To many on the outside, it looked like a mistake when Vice President Dick Cheney failed to notify the White House press corps first of his shooting accident. But in the White House, it reflected a strategy of marginalizing the press.

"More than ever, the Bush White House ignores traditional news media and presents its message through friendly alternatives, such as talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.

"And when a reporter appears belligerent in a televised confrontation with the White House spokesman, as NBC's David Gregory did this week, the imagery helps the administration turn the story into one about the press, which energizes a Republican base that hates the media anyway."

Frank James writes in the Chicago Tribune's blog, the Swamp: "Vice President Cheney and some commenters to the Swamp have opined that perhaps the reason the Washington press corps reacted the way we did to not being informed sooner of the vice president's hunting accident was due to jealousy that a small newspaper in Corpus Christi, Tex. broke the story.

"I can't speak for the entire Washington press corps but I think I can speak for many of us in saying that the vice president and commenters are wrong. Jealousy had nothing to do with our reaction."

As Mike Allen pointed out for Time, the "normal method" of alerting the press to a major story takes about five minutes. "A Bush communications official picks up the phone anywhere in the world and says to the White House operator, 'I need to make a wire call.' A few minutes later, the operator calls back with Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg reporters on the line, ready to flash the news around the world."

No Oversight Watch

Charles Babington and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration helped derail a Senate bid to investigate a warrantless eavesdropping program yesterday after signaling it would reject Congress's request to have former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and other officials testify about the program's legality. The actions underscored a dramatic and possibly permanent drop in momentum for a congressional inquiry, which had seemed likely two months ago."

Meanwhile, Eric Lichtblau and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said Thursday that they had agreed to open a Congressional inquiry prompted by the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program. But a dispute immediately broke out among committee Republicans over the scope of the inquiry."

Uranium Watch

Bob Drogin and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times that even though unconfirmed reports that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Niger kept getting knocked down by experienced intelligence officers, they were embraced by the White House.

"A review by the Los Angeles Times of those seemingly independent intelligence reports leads to the conclusion that they were based on information contained in forged documents that an Italian ex-spy was trying to sell to Western intelligence agencies in 2001 and 2002.

"The story refused to die for several reasons, including a strong appetite in the Pentagon and the White House for information that supported a case for war, and a widely recognized phenomenon in the intelligence field in which bad information, when repeated by multiple sources, appears to be corroborated."

Personnel Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy is calling it quits. Duffy, a highly regarded communications veteran -- House Ways and Means Committee, Republican National Committee, and the Office of Management and Budget-- is said to be going private, likely to his own consulting operation. Anything to be read into the timing of this departure? 'The reasons I am leaving are simple: My wife is pregnant and my checkbook isn't,' he said."

According to my handy White House salary list, Duffy was making $133,000 a year.

Why Did He Resign?

Claude Allen, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, is doing his very last "Ask the White House" this afternoon. And yes, I've already submitted the obvious question: Why did you resign? Was it in protest of Pentagon policies you consider too restrictive of religious expression at the service academies?

Heckuva Job Watch

What does Bush think of the man responsible for the botched rollout of the Medicare prescription plan?

Here he is at an event yesterday at the Department of Health and Human Services, making reference to its secretary:

"THE PRESIDENT: Thanks, Mike Leavitt -- where are you, Michael? Surely, he's here? (Laughter.) . . . Oh, he's in Florida. Okay. Surfing. (Laughter.) Actually, I saw him this morning -- don't make excuses for him. He's doing a heck of a job, he really is. . . . "

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