NYT: Agency Is Target in Cheney Fight on Secrecy Data
June 22, 2007
Agency Is Target in Cheney Fight on Secrecy Data
By SCOTT SHANE
For four years, Vice President Dick Cheney has resisted routine
oversight of his office's handling of classified information, and when
the National Archives unit that monitors classification in the
executive branch objected, the vice president's office suggested
abolishing the oversight unit, according to documents released
yesterday by a Democratic congressman.
The Information Security Oversight Office, a unit of the National
Archives, appealed the issue to the Justice Department, which has not
yet ruled on the matter.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of
the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, disclosed Mr.
Cheney's effort to shut down the oversight office. Mr. Waxman, who has
had a leading role in the stepped-up efforts by Democrats to
investigate the Bush administration, outlined the matter in an
eight-page letter sent Thursday to the vice president and posted,
along with other documentation, on the committee's Web site.
Officials at the National Archives and the Justice Department
confirmed the basic chronology of events cited in Mr. Waxman's letter.
The letter said that after repeatedly refusing to comply with a
routine annual request from the archives for data on his staff's
classification of internal documents, the vice president's office in
2004 blocked an on-site inspection of records that other agencies of
the executive branch regularly go through.
But the National Archives is an executive branch department headed by
a presidential appointee, and it is assigned to collect the data on
classified documents under a presidential executive order. Its
Information Security Oversight Office is the archives division that
oversees classification and declassification.
"I know the vice president wants to operate with unprecedented
secrecy," Mr. Waxman said in an interview. "But this is absurd. This
order is designed to keep classified information safe. His argument is
really that he's not part of the executive branch, so he doesn't have
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney, Megan McGinn, said, "We're confident
that we're conducting the office properly under the law." She declined
Other officials familiar with Mr. Cheney's view said that he and his
legal adviser, David S. Addington, did not believe that the executive
order applied to the vice president's office because it had a
legislative as well as an executive status in the Constitution. Other
White House offices, including the National Security Council,
routinely comply with the oversight requirements, according to Mr.
Waxman's office and outside experts.
Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said last night, "The White
House complies with the executive order, including the National
The dispute is far from the first to pit Mr. Cheney and Mr. Addington
against outsiders seeking information, usually members of Congress or
advocacy groups. Their position is generally based on strong
assertions of presidential power and the importance of
confidentiality, which Mr. Cheney has often argued was eroded by
post-Watergate laws and the prying press.
Mr. Waxman asserted in his letter and the interview that Mr. Cheney's
office should take the efforts of the National Archives especially
seriously because it has had problems protecting secrets.
He noted that I. Lewis Libby Jr., the vice president's former chief of
staff, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying
to a grand jury and the F.B.I. during an investigation of the leak of
classified information the secret status of Valerie Wilson, the wife
of a Bush administration critic, as a Central Intelligence Agency officer.
Mr. Waxman added that in May 2006, a former aide in Mr. Cheney's
office, Leandro Aragoncillo, pleaded guilty to passing classified
information to plotters trying to overthrow the president of the
"Your office may have the worst record in the executive branch for
safeguarding classified information," Mr. Waxman wrote to Mr. Cheney.
In the tradition of Washington's semantic dust-ups, this one might be
described as a fight over what an "entity" is. The executive order,
last updated in 2003 and currently under revision, states that it
applies to any "entity within the executive branch that comes into the
possession of classified information."
J. William Leonard, director of the oversight office, has argued in a
series of letters to Mr. Addington that the vice president's office is
indeed such an entity. He noted that previous vice presidents had
complied with the request for data on documents classified and
declassified, and that Mr. Cheney did so in 2001 and 2002.
But starting in 2003, the vice president's office began refusing to
supply the information. In 2004, it blocked an on-site inspection by
Mr. Leonard's office that was routinely carried out across the
government to check whether documents were being properly labeled and
Mr. Addington did not reply in writing to Mr. Leonard's letters,
according to officials familiar with their exchanges. But Mr.
Addington stated in conversations that the vice president's office was
not an "entity within the executive branch" because, under the
Constitution, the vice president also plays a role in the legislative
branch, as president of the Senate, able to cast a vote in the event
of a tie.
Mr. Waxman rejected that argument. "He doesn't have classified
information because of his legislative function," Mr. Waxman said of
Mr. Cheney. "It's because of his executive function."
Mr. Cheney's general resistance to complying with the oversight
request was first reported last year by The Chicago Tribune.
In January, Mr. Leonard wrote to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales
asking that he resolve the question. Erik Ablin, a Justice Department
spokesman, said last night, "This matter is currently under review in
Whatever the ultimate ruling, according to Mr. Waxman's letter, the
vice president's office has already carried out "possible retaliation"
against the oversight office.
As part of an interagency review of Executive Order 12958, Mr.
Cheney's office proposed eliminating appeals to the attorney general
precisely the avenue Mr. Leonard was taking. According to Mr. Waxman's
investigation, the vice president's staff also proposed abolishing the
Information Security Oversight Office.
The interagency group revising the executive order has rejected those
proposals, according to Mr. Waxman. Ms. McGinn, Mr. Cheney's
spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Mr. Cheney's penchant for secrecy has long been a striking feature of
the Bush administration, beginning with his fight to keep confidential
the identities of the energy industry officials who advised his task
force on national energy policy in 2001. Mr. Cheney took that dispute
to the Supreme Court and won.
Steven Aftergood, who tracks government secrecy at the Federation of
American Scientists and last year filed a complaint with the oversight
office about Mr. Cheney's noncompliance, said, "This illustrates just
how far the vice president will go to evade external oversight."
But David B. Rivkin, a Washington lawyer who served in Justice
Department and White House posts in earlier Republican
administrations, said Mr. Cheney had a valid point about the unusual
status of the office he holds.
"The office of the vice president really is unique," Mr. Rivkin said.
"It's not an agency. It's an extension of the vice president himself."