A Victory for Secrecy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 11, 2005; 11:51 AM

The White House won big yesterday, gaining judicial protection from demands that it disclose information about Vice President Cheney's secret energy-policy task force.

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "A federal appeals court in Washington dismissed a lawsuit yesterday that sought to force Vice President Cheney to turn over records of private meetings his office held in 2001 to shape the administration's energy policy.

"The unanimous ruling was a major legal and political victory for the White House, further solidifying the president's power to deliberate and seek advice behind closed doors without disclosing details. The court's eight judges supported the Bush administration's contention that forcing the executive branch to produce information about its internal policy deliberations is unnecessarily intrusive and violates the president's constitutional powers. . . .

" 'Bottom line: This is a significant win for those who believe the presidency needs more power and has lost power over the past 30 years,' said American University's James A. Thurber, who is writing a book on presidential power."

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "The decision could be the last word in a case that reached the Supreme Court last spring, only to be sent back to the lower courts. And it comes as Congress is weighing energy legislation that Mr. Bush says will combine efficiency with environmental protection, and that his critics say is a gift to the energy industry. . . .

"Details on the evolution of energy policy seemed to be potentially damaging for the Bush administration in the 2004 election, given Mr. Cheney's former role as the president of Halliburton, the giant oil-services company, and Mr. Bush's former friendships with executives of Enron, the energy trading corporation that collapsed amid scandal.

"But in a 7-to-2 ruling on June 24, the Supreme Court effectively postponed the resolution of the lawsuit until after the election."

You may also recall: "When the case was before the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia drew criticism for refusing to remove himself after going duck hunting with Mr. Cheney in early 2004. Justice Scalia said in a memorandum that he 'never hunted in the same blind with the vice president.' "

The general issue at hand was whether representatives of the energy industry were de facto members of Cheney's task force.

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Outsiders may have met with Cheney's task force, but they were not members of it, Judge [A. Raymond] Randolph said. All the members of the task force were Bush administration officials, and therefore, the National Energy Policy Task Force was not governed by the open-disclosure rules of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, he said.

" 'The outsider might make an important presentation, he might be persuasive, the information he provides might affect the committee's judgment,' Randolph wrote. 'But having neither a vote nor a veto over the advice the committee renders to the president, he is no more a member of the committee than the aides who accompany congressmen or Cabinet officers to committee meetings.' "

But the case was never fully presented to the courts. Yesterday's ruling was about a preliminary request for discovery of minutes and other documents that would have shown who attended the task force meetings -- a necessary first step in determining if fuller disclosure was warranted.

Here is the text of the ruling . Here are other documents in the case, from Findlaw . Here are responses from the odd-couple plaintiffs, the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch .

And here are some task force records that were turned over to the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2002.

Bushi in Georgia

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush addressed a huge and exuberant crowd here in Georgia's Freedom Square, hailing the country's Rose Revolution as a model for democracy movements around the world. . . .

"People waited for hours in the square for Bush to step onto the speaker's platform, some of them dressed in red, white and blue to form a human U.S. flag. Others wore red and white for a counterpart Georgian flag. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili estimated that 150,000 people showed up; the White House put the number at 250,000."

Margarita Antidze and Caren Bohan write for Reuters: "To chants of 'Bushi, Bushi,' President Bush hailed Georgia's new democracy as a 'beacon of liberty' on Tuesday and in a swipe at Moscow said the sovereignty of the ex-Soviet republic must be respected."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "The White House, which has often scheduled the last stops on Mr. Bush's European trips in the former Communist countries where the president remains highly popular, had planned the Tbilisi speech to serve as a final feel-good picture before Mr. Bush headed west across Europe and the Atlantic for home.

"The Georgians did not disappoint. On a hot spring day, the boisterous, largely youthful crowd -- said to be one of the largest ever to gather in Georgia -- seemed unaware or did not care that the Bush administration steadfastly backed Mr. Shevardnadze in 2003, refusing to meet with the pro-democracy forces until after the former Soviet foreign minister had fled. . . .

"To Mr. Bush's right, carefully positioned for the television cameras, was an enormous White House-created backdrop emblazoned with the words 'Celebrating Freedom and Democracy.' "

The Grenade

Reuters is reporting: "A hand grenade was found at a square in Georgia where President Bush made a public speech on Tuesday, but it was incapable of exploding, a top Georgian security official said on Wednesday. . . .

" 'A (Soviet-made) RPG-5 hand grenade was found at the square,' Gela Bezhuashvili told a news briefing. 'It was not in working condition. In fact there was no chance it could explode.' "

Bill Plante reported for CBS this morning: "There are some conflicting stories about what actually happened, but I can tell you this: This came as quite a jolt to the Secret Service, which didn't even find out about this from Georgian authorities until the president had taken off on his way back home."

Trip Redux

Andrew Hurst writes for Reuters: "President Vladimir Putin angrily accused Baltic states on Tuesday of 'political demagoguery' in churning up historic resentments toward Moscow, souring a summit designed to cement relations between the EU and Russia."

Janine Zacharia writes for Bloomberg: "U.S. funding for programs to promote freedom in the nations of the former Soviet Union has steadily declined in recent years, State Department budget figures show, even as President George W. Bush made advocating democracy in the region the focus of his trip there this week."

Today's Calendar

Bush holds a meeting about his foreign trip with members of Congress.

Ownership, Risk and the Safety Net

Lee Walczak and Richard S. Dunham write in Business Week about what they call the "Safety Net Nation".

"While many members of Safety Net Nation have nothing against investing and choice, they're worried that the country's web of public and private social protections is fraying. They believe in more, not fewer, safeguards against downward mobility in a world that's already pulsing with economic uncertainty. . . .

"Bush über-strategist Karl Rove, who commands the White House's Social Security war room, sees personal accounts as vital to shifting the allegiance of younger voters to the GOP. But there's a glitch in Rove's machine: Polls show that, rather than flocking to Bush over Social Security, the under-40s are growing skeptical of his approach. . . .

"To George W. Bush, a Texan who revels in the myth of the wildcatter, running risks in pursuit of the big gusher is a quintessential part of the American character. But as the scion of an aristocratic Eastern dynasty, the budding young tycoon always had a network of family friends and relations to call on. Those golden connections bailed George W. out of his early forays into the oil business."

Peter G. Gosselin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Bush crisscrosses the country promoting his plan to overhaul Social Security, he argues that Americans are ready to trade in a portion of their traditional benefits for ownership and control over their own investment accounts. People have grown so comfortable with stocks and bonds, he asserts, that they can invest their way to more prosperous retirements by watching their quarterly statements, adjusting their portfolios and looking out for themselves.

"But a growing body of research shows that millions of Americans fail to get even the most elementary investment decisions right. . . .

"Even some winners of the Nobel Prize in economics admit to making similar mistakes, either by failing to pay attention to their own retirement arrangements or by making faulty decisions when they do."

Social Security Watch

Business columnist Loren Steffy writes in the Houston Chronicle: "The Bush administration's proposal to revamp Social Security raises a lot of questions. So far, we aren't getting many answers.

"That became clear last week when Al Hubbard, chair of the White House National Economics Council, stood before a roomful of business reporters here and extolled the virtues of private retirement accounts.

"We asked him a lot of questions. He repeatedly told us they were good questions. Then he avoided answering them."

Jason Furman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes: "It is standard practice for policymakers and outside analysts who present Social Security plans to provide the actuaries' analysis when, or shortly after, they release their plans. In the absence of an analysis by the Social Security actuaries, this analysis provides some of the standard actuarial and fiscal estimates of the President's proposal."

His conclusion: "By any of these measures, borrowing trillions of dollars and draining money from the Social Security trust fund would be worrisome.

"The President has laid out part of a plan rather than a full plan. This analysis highlights how much further he needs to go to have a complete plan that fully restores solvency."

Blogger Josh Marshall catches a possible new addition to the White House's Social Security lexicon: Cheney referring to "personal property accounts" in Denver .

Whose Terror Alerts

Mimi Hall writes in USA Today: "The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.

"Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or 'high' risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled."

Ridge said: "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert) . . . There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "Ridge described vigorous debates among a few presidential security advisers over whether to put the nation on high alert. Raising the terror threat level generally costs state and local emergency responders millions of dollars in overtime salaries, causes widespread travel delays and takes a hit on the public's psyche."

Hall explains that the terror level "is raised if a majority on the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council favors it and President Bush concurs. Among those on the council with Ridge were Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, CIA Director George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell."

The timing of the alerts remains mysterious. News reports described how some did not seem to be based on new information. Critics have charge that they were politicized, and have noted that many of the alerts came when Bush's poll numbers were particularly low or when the headlines were not running in his favor.

Now that Ridge has brought it up again, perhaps someone at the White House should address the issue.

Background Briefings Watch

Sydney H. Schanberg writes in the Village Voice about Bill Kovach.

"When he was named Times Washington chief, Kovach quickly mounted an effort to crack open all government briefings, telling his reporters to walk out if the briefings were kept off the record. They did so, but were thwarted when their colleagues from other news organizations stayed in their seats and refused to fill in the Times reporters afterward. Kovach appealed to the other organizations' editors for support, in particular the hometown Washington Post, but they declined and the initiative failed within a month.

" 'That's the world of Washington,' Kovach said. 'The Beltway puts a noose around information that doesn't have to have a noose on it.' Very often, he said, the administration classifies a report or document because its contents reflect badly on a foreign official or a government or a member of Congress, and so they keep it hidden to be used later, as leverage in some situation where the White House or the CIA or the Pentagon wants a particular outcome. It's that old truism: 'Information is power.' It hasn't stopped being true."


Elisabeth Becker writes in the New York Times: "Social Security is not the administration's only economic initiative that is in trouble in Congress.

"The current centerpiece of President Bush's trade agenda, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, is facing unusually united Democratic opposition as well as serious problems in overcoming well-entrenched special interest groups like sugar producers and much of the textile industry."

Mark Drajem writes for Bloomberg: "The Bush administration, taking a strategy from previous presidents, is increasingly making national security the focus of its argument for the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement to sway lawmakers who remain unconvinced of the accord's economic promises."

Steven Pearlstein writes in his column for The Washington Post that the battle over CAFTA is making the United States look like a banana republic.

More on the Volga

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the International Herald Tribune that Bush "found himself struggling to get President Vladimir Putin's gleaming 1956 ivory-colored Volga into gear at the Russian president's dacha outside Moscow in a snafu that wasn't caught in the pictures of the two waving merrily from the windows of the vintage Russian sedan. . . .

"When the presidents walked out after the meeting, Putin suddenly motioned for Bush to take the wheel, and Bush, surprised, did. But he soon got hung up by the lever of the car's manual gear shift, mounted on the steering column, and, with a flummoxed but determined look on his face, fought to get the car into first gear.

"Soon enough Putin leaned over toward Bush, grabbed the shift lever and slammed it into gear. The car immediately took off, with no awful grinding gear sounds; Bush had evidently kept a good foot on the clutch pedal."


Annabelle Gurwitch interviews fired White House chef Walter Scheib on NPR.

Scheib wouldn't identify the president's favorite foods. "If you say specific things that the president and the first lady like, everywhere they go for the next X number of years, that's all that they get served," he said.

Determined to get some food-based insights into Bush's personality, Gurwitch persisted.

Gurwitch: "President Bush: broiled or baked?"

Scheib: "I would say broiled."

Gurwitch: "Sauteed or deep-fried?"

Scheib: "I would probably say deep-fried."

Gurwitch: "Vanilla or chocolate?"

Scheib: "Mm, that's a close one. Chocolate, I would say."

Gurwitch: "Chicken or fish?"

Scheib: "Definitely chicken."

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