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Not Exactly Clearing Things Up

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 16, 2006; 1:00 PM

Vice President Cheney's sit-down with Fox News yesterday ended his four days of hiding out after shooting a 78-year-old lawyer in a hunting accident. Speaking with Brit Hume, Cheney publicly accepted responsibility for the shooting and called it "one of the worst days of my life."

But he did little to clear up the many mysteries swirling around the shooting and his decision to keep it secret for almost a day.

For instance: Was Cheney reckless? Obviously, the shooting of Harry Whittington was an accident, but could it have been prevented? Understanding what happened would require a much more detailed recounting than Cheney -- or any of the other witnesses -- have given thus far.

In fact, where are all those other witnesses? Why haven't we heard in more detail from Cheney's other hunting partner that afternoon, Ambassador to Switzerland Pamela Willeford? Even more significantly, why haven't we heard a word from the hunting guide on horseback who it turns out was right there, as well? Or from the Secret Service, which was presumably keeping an eye on things?

What was the real reason Cheney didn't want to make a public announcement right away? Even the generally deferential Hume didn't buy Cheney's repeated insistence that he was waiting to get accurate information about his victim's condition: "But there were some things you knew. I mean, you knew the man had been shot, you knew he was injured, you knew he was in the hospital, and you knew you'd shot him," Hume said.

And is Cheney answerable to anyone in the White House?

So Many Unanswered Questions

Here's the transcript and video of the Fox News interview.

Craig Gordon and Tom Brune write in Newsday: "Vice President Dick Cheney's public mea culpa yesterday did little to clear up significant questions surrounding the accidental shooting, including why the White House sat on the story for almost a full day and whether he received preferential treatment from local deputies.

"Here is a look at some of those questions:

"Why didn't Cheney just put the word out Saturday night to avoid risking charges coming from critics now of a cover-up?. . . .

"The White House has an elaborate media operation. Why did Cheney bypass it and the national media outlets that cover the White House around the clock?"

Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Cheney said yesterday that 'the White House was notified' about the shooting Saturday night. But who exactly informed White House chief of staff Andrew Card about the shooting -- without telling Card who the shooter was? Did Card not ask who it was? Shortly thereafter, according to the White House, Card told President Bush that a shooting had occurred but said nothing to Bush about a shooter. Did Bush not ask who it was? . . .

"Cheney said yesterday that [Katharine] Armstrong was the best person to deal with the press because 'she'd seen the whole thing.' But how dependable is a witness who, according to reports, was sitting in a vehicle 100 yards away at the time? The distance may be important: Armstrong has also said that when she saw Cheney's security people running toward the scene, she first thought that Cheney had suffered 'a heart problem,' not that someone had been shot. If she was close enough to witness the incident, wouldn't she have known that Whittington was the person in distress?"

Ralph Blumenthal tries valiantly in the New York Times to put together a coherent timeline based on public statements by Armstrong, Cheney and Willeford. But it just shows how many gaps and contradictions there are in the story.

Blumenthal writes: "They had taken turns shooting, and now Ms. Armstrong was in the Jeep with her sister. About 100 yards away, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Whittington and Ms. Willeford were walking in a line in a low spot on gently sloping ground.

"After Mr. Whittington bagged his birds he dropped out of sight along with one of Ms. Armstrong's bird dogs, Gertie, Ms. Willeford recalled.

"Then, suddenly, he was in a dip about 30 yards away against the sun just as Mr. Cheney fired a blast from his Italian-made 28-gauge Perazzi shotgun."

Blumenthal also writes: "Between 8 and 9 p.m., Ms. Armstrong recalled, Karl Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff, called her 'to check on Harry,' who she said was 'an old friend of Karl's.' She said there was no discussion of what President Bush had been told of the shooting and whether he knew that Mr. Cheney had fired the shots."

But wait: That conflicts with the official White House narrative, which is that the White House only knew an accident had taken place -- and didn't know Cheney was actually the shooter -- until Rove spoke to Armstrong.

Alan Freeman writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "Despite Mr. Cheney's emphasis on the need for accuracy, Mrs. Armstrong's version of events was at odds with Mr. Cheney's. . . .

"Mrs. Armstrong, who witnessed the incident from a car, left the impression that the mishap was relatively minor, saying Mr. Whittington was 'peppered' with birdshot. She said on Sunday that the birdshot 'knocked him silly, but he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open.'

"By contrast, Mr. Cheney described Mr. Whittington as laying on the ground, bleeding. He did not respond when spoken to, though he was conscious and breathing."

Tim Grieve writes in Salon: "Although Armstrong told a different story later, she initially told CNN that 'she did not believe the Vice President's Office was aware that she was going to go to the local press.' Cheney said that he talked with Armstrong about her plan to break the news to a local reporter and 'thought it made good sense.' "

David E. Sanger and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "Until Mr. Cheney acknowledged having had a beer at lunch, members of the hunting party had been adamant that no alcohol was involved. Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the ranch, had said in interviews that Dr Pepper was served at lunch and that no one was drinking. In interviews with The Times and other papers, Ms. Armstrong heavily implied that no alcohol was served at all.

" 'No, zero, zippo, and I don't drink at all,' she said in an interview published on Monday in The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the paper she initially called. 'No one was drinking.' "

Sanger and Kornblut also note: "The administration faced more questions about why the White House Situation Room, when told of the accident by a member of Mr. Cheney's entourage on Saturday evening, was not told that Mr. Cheney fired the shot."

On CNN last night, John King introduced a whole new plot line: "At the White House, we know that Karl Rove learned about this Sunday night, Saturday night, excuse me. They tried to come up with a White House statement, they put the brakes on that when they found out the vice president was going to be interviewed by the sheriff the next day. They decided to wait until Sunday morning, they thought all this would break by noon on Sunday, it didn't break until late afternoon. At one point, they thought the vice president would stop and talk to reporters outside the hospital in Corpus Christi on Sunday. They still can't explain why he didn't do that. One senior adviser involved told me earlier today, quote, 'He just didn't do it.' "

Wow. Is this true? We hadn't heard about this before.

And let's not just leave it to the professionals. Here's a Daily Kos blogger 's compilation of the conflicting statements by Katharine Armstrong.

Behind-the-Scenes Questions

Most of the big guys this morning dutifully reported what Cheney said -- not what he didn't say. But that doesn't mean they feel they have all the answers.

Joe Strupp writes in Editor and Publisher that "journalists covering or directing the story are becoming increasingly interested in the actual chain of events in the field, and at the White House, on the night of the shooting, when the vice president wounded his hunting companion, Harry Whittington. . . .

"Specifically, those who spoke with E&P Wednesday cited details ranging from how far Cheney was standing from the victim (less than the 30 yards as claimed?) to why law enforcement investigators were turned away from the ranch Saturday night. . . .

" 'Was there something going on that they needed to get their ducks in a row?' asks Mark Silva, a White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. . . .

" 'There are obvious questions about what was going on at the White House between the president's staff and the vice president's staff,' said Richard Stevenson of The New York Times. 'And in Texas with the Secret Service and local law enforcement.' "

Some Developments

CBS News reports: "President Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, pushed Vice President Dick Cheney to speak publicly about shooting a fellow hunter, sources tell CBS News.

"Rove worried the vice president's silence on the issue was becoming a political problem, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.

"Cheney is in a 'state of meltdown' over shooting his friend and the political fallout it has caused, a source close to the Cheney has told CBS News."

Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Kenedy County sheriff's deputies have redoubled their efforts to investigate the case after criticism of their decision not to interview witnesses until a day after the shooting.

"Ms. Armstrong said she faxed a detailed account to deputies on Wednesday at the sheriff's request. She said she would have done so sooner if she'd been asked and added that everyone at the ranch has been encouraged to tell the truth about the shooting."

Nancy Martinez of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times snags an interview with Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas III, who tells her that "no one in the federal government has told him or his deputies how to do their job. He was the one who decided not to go to the ranch to investigate until Sunday, the day after Cheney shot and wounded Austin lawyer Harry Whittington on a quail hunt. Salinas based the decision on witness accounts and advice from people on the ranch he knows and trusts, including a former sheriff.

" 'Everybody's been saying there's a cover-up from the time they heard about this,' he said. 'That is not true.' . . .

Salinas sent Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel Jr. to investigate in the morning.

" 'I was introduced to Mr. Cheney and I sat down and spoke to him about what had happened. I can tell you Mr. Cheney cooperated with me and explained everything,' San Miguel said, refusing to go into detail about the 30-45 minute interview.

" 'I could tell he was still upset. He was very, very upset. He came, shook my hand and told me he was willing to cooperate with whatever I needed.' "

Jaime Powell of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times writes: "In the minutes following Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of Austin lawyer Harry Whittington, Cheney's medical crew scrambled to treat the injured man while the Secret Service called for medical backup."

About That Venue

Holly Rosenkrantz writes for Bloomberg: "Vice President Dick Cheney succumbed to pressure for a public accounting of his accidental shooting of a hunting companion -- partially, and on his own terms.

"Cheney, facing one of the most serious controversies of his political career, expressed regret about the shooting, though none about the way it was revealed to the public. While critics called for a press conference, he made his first public comments in an interview on the Fox News Channel."

Verne Gay writes in Newsday that "it's not what Cheney said last night, but what he didn't say that will keep this firestorm raging. Sometimes it's actually better to endure a tough interview than a gentle one. The media beast is far from satiated."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Mary Matalin, a former Cheney aide and informal adviser . . . said Cheney considered holding a news conference, but that 'would have meant a lot of grandstanding' by reporters. 'Everyone asks the same questions so they can get on their networks,' she said. Matalin said she didn't think 'any purpose would be served' by the vice president doing further interviews because every news organization will excerpt the Fox session. . . .

"Hume has questioned the recent behavior of the White House press corps, telling viewers Tuesday: 'It doesn't seem to me, from what I can tell, from what I'm reading from the public, that the public much cares about whether they found out about this on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.' "

Yesterday, after the interview, Hume said: "I think a lot of the public will tend to be sympathetic to the vice president, not least because of the behavior of the White House press corps. But that's neither here nor there for the moment."

Paul Brownfield writes in the Los Angeles Times: "If you accidentally shoot a hunting buddy in the face, make it about the media.

"That was the message Vice President Dick Cheney got out Wednesday, courtesy of Fox News Channel and its most sober and decorated journalist, Brit Hume, who was summoned by Cheney for an exclusive interview and then left to play Cheney's press secretary, getting the veep's talking points out the rest of the day on Fox."

On CNN yesterday, Jack Cafferty cracked: "I would guess it didn't exactly represent a Profile in Courage for the vice president to wander over there to the f-word network for a sit down with Brit Hume. That's a little like Bonnie interviewing Clyde, ain't it? Where was the news conference? Where was the access to all of the members of the media?

The Goal

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "White House aides and allies expressed hope that Cheney's public comments would defuse the uproar."

Peter Wallsten and Nicholas Riccardi write in the Los Angeles Times: "Cheney's decision to appear on television, and to display an unusual level of contrition, came as White House officials hoped that Whittington's improving condition might quell an uproar over the administration's failure to disclose the news immediately after the Saturday afternoon accident."

What Hunters and Lawyers Say

Allen G. Breed writes for the Associated Press: "Maybe Harry Whittington shouldn't have stepped out of the hunting line to pick up a downed quail. Maybe the dog handler should've sent a retriever to fetch the bird instead. Maybe the guide should have stopped the hunt until everyone was back together.

"But most hunters seem to agree the responsibility lies with the guy holding the smoking gun."

John Riley writes in Newsday that hunters believe: "Cheney and the other hunter should have stopped hunting when Whittington broke out of the line, and Cheney should have had the discipline to only fire into the zone in front of him, instead of shooting quickly as he turned.

"Lawyers said that if Whittington wanted to sue his friend Cheney for negligence, he would probably win. . . .

"In fact, according to some Texas legal experts, Cheney could theoretically face a criminally negligent homicide charge if Whittington died and a grand jury concluded the vice president should have known he was creating a 'substantial and unjustifiable risk' of shooting another hunter."

Not Really Taking Blame

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush in 2000 ushered in the Era of Personal Responsibility. Yesterday ushered in the Era of Qualified Personal Responsibility."

Bigger Problem?

Ronald Brownstein and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Cheney shooting and the Katrina response have raised tough questions about what the president knows, when he knows it and how the White House shares information with elected officials and the public."

Scooter Libby Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney yesterday praised his former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, and said the indicted ex-aide deserves to be considered not guilty until proved otherwise. But the vice president declined to say whether he authorized Libby to disclose classified information. . . .

"In the interview, Cheney said he had the power under a presidential executive order to declassify information. 'I've certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions,' he said, but he would not say whether he had done so unilaterally.

"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."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Republicans say they are pleasantly surprised that the intense media coverage of the hunting accident has shifted attention from the case of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby is accused of misleading investigators about who leaked the identify of a CIA official."

Opinion Watch

Arianna Huffington writes that, "taking a page from Orwell, Cheney assured us -- again and again -- that by keeping the story hidden he was only trying to make sure the truth got out."

Kevin Drum writes: "Hume suggested that since this was obviously a national story, Cheney should have informed the national press and gotten the word out sooner. Cheney's reply: 'It isn't easy to do that. Are they going to take my word for what happened?'

"Seriously? Cheney's story is that his own credibility is so poor that a statement from him would have been worthless? Is he really going to stick to that as his explanation?"

Bob Herbert writes in the New York Times (subscription required): "It's time for Dick Cheney to step down -- for the sake of the country and for the sake of the Bush administration."

Jay Rosen writes: "Cheney took the opportunity to show the White House press corps that it is not the natural conduit to the nation-at-large; and it has no special place in the information chain. Cheney does not grant legitimacy to the large news organizations with brand names who think of themselves as proxies for the public and its right to know. Nor does he think the press should know where he is, what he's doing, or who he's doing it with."

Late-Night Humor Watch

From "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" via the New York Daily News :

"So it turns out Dick Cheney's gang weren't even walking through the woods hunting. They were in a car. He was in a car. They drive along, they get out of the car, he shoots a friend in the face and then they get back in the car and they go hide for 18 hours. That's not hunting, that's an episode of 'The Sopranos.' "

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