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by Michael Winship

Why Cheney's Lies Matter

Maybe you remember this bit of childhood doggerel, written by the American educator Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today
Oh how I wish he'd go away

The Bush White House man who wasn't there isn't the President. It's Vice President Cheney, who, if you believe in karma, may be returning in the next life as an especially pernicious mildew. Or, if the gods are feeling larky, decorative kale.

Cheney is the archetypal man who wasn't there (but is), not only because of his legendary secrecy but his insistence that he can keep the lid closed on anything he wants because the office of the vice presidency is unique -- not part of the executive or the legislative branches of government. It is both and/or one. Or the other. Neither fish but mostly foul, as it were.

In other words, l'etat, c'est Dick. Or, employing the infuriating reasoning style of so many parents, "Why? Because I said so!"

Last week, the House Oversight Committee demanded an explanation of this breathtaking show of arrogance and Alice in Wonderland logic; specifically, the office of the vice president's insistence that it's exempt from President Bush's Executive Order 12958, which requires government agencies, including offices within the executive branch, to report annually on how they handle classified information.

It was explained that because one of his duties is to serve as president of the United States Senate, Mr. Cheney is part of the legislative branch and not the executive. Except when he is. As when he claims "executive privilege" to be the reason he doesn't have to tell us who visits his office and why, or even the names of the people who work on his staff.

There now will be a short pause as you collectively say, "Huh?"

Cheney's office followed the classified info rules in 2001. They followed the rules in 2002. But suddenly, in 2003, the vice president decided he didn't have to anymore and hasn't since.

It gets worse. The House committee reported, "The National Archives protested the vice president's position in letters written in June 2006 and August 2006. When these letters were ignored, the National Archives wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in January 2007 to seek a resolution of the impasse. The Vice President's staff responded by seeking to abolish the agency within the Archives that is responsible for implementing the President's executive order."

And worse. In Friday's Los Angeles Times (as noted by Dan Froomkin's Washington Post White House Briefing blog), Josh Meyer reported, "Cheney's staff has blocked efforts by the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office to enforce a key component of the presidential order: a mandatory on-site inspection of the vice president's office. At least one of those inspections would have come at a particularly delicate time -- when Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, and other aides were under criminal investigation for their suspected roles in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame."

Meyer quoted UC Berkeley constitutional scholar Gordon Silverstein: "Here's a guy who raises 'executive privilege' to historic levels to exempt himself from all rules and oversight, and now he says he's not part of the executive branch? Here we have a subordinate part of the executive branch asserting independent constitutional authority even against its own superior. It is flabbergasting."

All in all, this just hasn't been a good week for Cheney and his precious privacy. In addition to all the news around his convoluted claim of official nonpareil status, there's an article in the current Rolling Stone chronicling in new detail with fresh documents Cheney's dominant role in what the magazine calls the Bush administration's "Secret Campaign to Deny Global Warming."

The petroleum-based vice president turned the White House Council on Environmental Quality into a "shadow EPA, with industry calling the shots." According to former Bush EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman, "The consequences of climate change are very real and very negative, but Cheney is not convinced of that. He believes... that the Earth has been changing since it was formed and to say that climate change is cause by humans is incorrect."

Biggest of all, the Washington Post is publishing an extensive four-part series called "Angler." That's the vice president's Secret Service code name. Apparently, "Quick Draw" and "Sure Shot" already were taken.

While the Post series doesn't portray the vice president as the Darth Vader-like power behind the emperor's throne so many suspect, it does depict a man of unprecedented influence willing to run roughshod over policy and personnel -- including two attorneys general -- to achieve his objectives. "On critical decisions for more than six years," reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker write, "Cheney has often controlled the pivot points -- tipping the outcome when he could, engineering stalemate when he could not and reopening debates that rivals thought were resolved."

All the unwanted publicity at this time may be a sign that the media perceives Cheney as a man weakened at long last by his disastrous advice to the president on Iraq, the Scooter Libby case and court decisions overturning his Draconian policies on surveillance and the treatment of terror suspects -- and thus an easier target for investigation. Maybe that same perceived weakness is making insiders more willing to speak out. And maybe it's just the nature of a lame duck administration that in the end all the secrets start rolling out into the light.

Ultimately, though, it's about accountability and the law. Speaking of the brouhaha over Cheney's claim of unique status and powers, last week, Newsweek's Richard Wolfe said in a TV interview, "This is a very rocky path, and if it's Constitutional, then I'm a banana." Yes, he really said that.

So I will say this: no man is above the law, Mr. Vice President, even if you're the next-to-top banana. Even if you're the man on the stair who wasn't there, the one who just won't go away.

© 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   June 29, 2007   (

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