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Context of 'February 22, 2002: GAO Sues White House for Task Force Energy Information'

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President Bush informs a small group of reporters that he is forming an “energy task force” to draw up a new national energy policy. It will be the first major policy initiative of his presidency. The administration is driven by its concern for “the people who work for a living… who struggle every day to get ahead.” The task force will find ways to meet the rising demand for energy and to avoid the shortfalls causing major power blackouts in California and other areas (see January 23, 2001). He has chosen Vice President Cheney to chair the task force. “Can’t think of a better man to run it than the vice president,” he says. He refuses to take questions, turning aside queries with jokes about the recent Super Bowl. The short press briefing will be virtually the only time the White House tells reporters anything about Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group. [Savage, 2007, pp. 85-86] Deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will later write that the task force “held a series of meetings with outside interests whose identities were withheld from the public. This created an early impression of an administration prone to secrecy and reinforced the image of the Bush White House as in thrall to corporate interests.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 96]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Scott McClellan, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, sends David Addington, the chief counsel to Vice President Cheney, a letter declaring that it intends to review the composition and activities of Cheney’s energy task force (see January 29, 2001). Addington is the one who issued the flat refusal to allow members of Congress to see any of the minutes or documents generated by the task force (see April 19 - May 4, 2001); in response, the members of Congress who requested the information asked GAO chief and comptroller general David Walker for help in investigating the task force. Walker is quite bipartisan, having worked for the Reagan and Bush-Quayle administrations before being appointed to the chairmanship of the GAO by President Clinton. [Savage, 2007, pp. 88] Addington will reply to Walker, denying that the GAO has any authority to investigate the task force (see May 16 - 17, 2001). In 2007, author Charlie Savage will call the Cheney-Addington battle with the GAO an early instance of the Bush administration’s fight to claim ever-widening presidential powers at the expense of Congress (see January 21, 2001).

Entity Tags: David Walker, Bush administration (43), David S. Addington, General Accounting Office, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Charlie Savage, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

ABC reporter Ted Koppel asks Vice President Dick Cheney about meetings with his “pals” from the oil and energy industries (see January 29, 2001 and April 17, 2001 and After). Koppel is referring to the attempts by Congress to be given the names of the participants in Cheney’s energy task force meetings. Cheney says: “I think it’s going to have to be resolved in court, and I think that’s probably appropriate. I think, in fact, that this is the first time the GAO [Government Accountability Office] has ever issued a so-called demand letter to a president/vice president. I’m a duly elected constitutional officer. The idea that any member of Congress can demand from me a list of everybody I meet with and what they say strikes me as—as inappropriate, and not in keeping with the Constitution.” Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will later write, “The vice president was deftly turning a request for records into a constitutional struggle between the legislative and executive branches.” Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), who issued the original requests before turning them over to the GAO, will put his demands for information on hold because of the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan, but the case will indeed end up in court (see February 22, 2002). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 11-12]

Entity Tags: Lou Dubose, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Government Accountability Office, Henry A. Waxman, Ted Koppel, Jake Bernstein, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

Vice President Dick Cheney continues to battle the General Accounting Office (GAO)‘s request for the records of his energy task force (see January 29, 2001 and April 17, 2001 and After) in the broadcast media (see July 26, 2001). On Fox News, he reiterates his insistence that he will not turn over any records from the task force unless compelled to do so by the courts, and says indignantly, “They’ve demanded of me that I give Henry Waxman [the California Democratic representative who originated the demand for task force records] a list of everybody I met with, of everything that was discussed, any advice that was revealed, notes and memos of these meetings.” Cheney is lying. The GAO only asked for the minutes from the meetings and the names of the participants (see July 31, 2001 and February 22, 2002), and soon the GAO will scale back its request to nothing more than the names and schedules of the participants and the meetings, not the contents of the meetings themselves. Four years later, when the court case has long been settled in Cheney’s favor (see February 7, 2003), Cheney will still mischaracterize the issue as an improper demand from Congress for an executive branch official to disclose the contents of private conversations and meetings, and therefore destroy “the ability of the president and the vice president to receive unvarnished advice.” Former Justice Department official Bruce Fein will call the argument “bogus, specious, [and] absurd.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 12-13] GAO officials call Cheney’s statement a “critical and highly material misrepresentation” of the facts. [National Review, 2/20/2002]

Entity Tags: General Accounting Office, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bruce Fein, National Energy Policy Development Group

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

David Walker, comptroller of the General Accounting Office (GAO) and a Ronald Reagan appointee, files a lawsuit to compel Vice President Dick Cheney and his office to reveal the names of the private businessmen and organizational officials that his energy task force (see January 29, 2001) met with to craft the Bush administration’s energy policies (see May 8, 2001). This is the first time since its creation in 1920 that the GAO has been forced to file suit to compel another government agency to follow the law and cooperate with its requests. [Dean, 2004, pp. 78-79] In a statement, Walker writes: “This is the first time that GAO has filed suit against a federal official in connection with a records access issue. We take this step reluctantly. Nevertheless, given GAO’s responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice. Our repeated attempts to reach a reasonable accommodation on this matter have not been successful. Now that the matter has been submitted to the judicial branch, we are hopeful that the litigation will be resolved expeditiously. [General Accounting Office, 2/22/2002 pdf file]
'Fundamental Questions' about Governmental 'Checks and Balances' - Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2004: “This was, to say the least, a high-stakes lawsuit. It raised fundamental questions about the very nature of our system of checks and balances. If the GAO could not get the information it requested, then there was a black hole in the federal firmament—a no-man’s land where a president and vice president could go free from Congressional oversight.” By random selection, the case lands in the court of Judge John Bates, a career Justice Department lawyer who once worked for the Whitewater investigative team led by Kenneth Starr, and had just recently been appointed to the bench by President Bush. The choice of Bates will prove critical to the verdict of the case. [Dean, 2004, pp. 78-79]
Schlafly: Secrecy a 'Mistake' - Conservative commentator and activist Phyllis Schlafly will write in 2002: “[T]he public wants to know how our energy policy was developed. When information is kept secret, the natural inference is that there must be something the administration is very eager to hide. While private businesses and households can be selective about what they tell the world, the American people are not willing to accord the same privacy to public officials paid by the taxpayers. Regardless of the legal veil woven over the energy policy meetings, Cheney’s secrecy is a political mistake.” [Eagle Forum, 3/6/2002]

Entity Tags: Kenneth Starr, Phyllis Schlafly, US Department of Justice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Dean, Government Accountability Office, Bush administration (43), David Walker, George W. Bush, Energy Task Force, John Bates

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

District Court Judge John Bates rules against the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, in its attempt to force Vice President Cheney to disclose some of his Energy Task Force documents (see January 29, 2001 and May 16, 2001). The judge writes, “This case, in which neither a House of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information or authorized this suit, is not the setting for such unprecedented judicial action.” [Associated Press, 12/9/2002] Bates is a Republican who worked as the deputy independent counsel to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation, and was appointed to the bench by President Bush in 2001. [Savage, 2007, pp. 112] The GAO later declines to appeal the ruling (see February 7, 2003). In a similar suit being filed by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, the Bush administration has successfully delayed deadlines forcing these documents to be turned over. [Associated Press, 12/6/2002] That case will eventually be decided in the administration’s favor (see May 10, 2005).
Cheney Pushes Back - Unfortunately, the ruling’s claim of no Congressional involvement is somewhat misleading. The original request for information came from two ranking House members, Henry Waxman (D-CA) of the Committee on Government Reform and John Conyers (D-MI) of the Energy and Commerce Committee (see April 19 - May 4, 2001). Waxman and Conyers followed standard procedure by writing to David Walker, head of the GAO, to request information about who was meeting with the task force and what the task force was doing (May 8, 2001. Instead of complying with the request, Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, replied that the task force was not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and therefore not bound by law to provide such information (see May 16 - 17, 2001). Addington later challenged the GAO’s authority, saying that it was trying “to intrude into the heart of Executive deliberations, including deliberations among the President, the Vice President, members of the President’s Cabinet, and the President’s immediate assistants, which the law protects to ensure the candor in Executive deliberation necessary to effective government.” The GAO was not asking for such information; former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2004, “It was clear [Addington] was looking to pick a fight.”
Tug of War - The GAO advised Addington that it did indeed have the legal power to examine the deliberations of such entities as the task force, and provided Addington both the statutory law and the legislative history, which flatly contradicted Addington’s refusal. The GAO also noted that it was “not inquiring into the deliberative process but [was] focused on gathering factual information regarding the process of developing President Bush’s National Energy Policy.” The GAO even narrowed the scope of its original request, asking only for the names of those who had worked with the task force, and the dates (see July 31, 2001). But this provoked further resistance from Cheney and his office, with Cheney publicly stating on numerous occasions that the GAO was unlawfully trying to intrude into the deliberative process. Walker’s patience ran out in January 2002, and he notified the White House and Congress that the GAO was taking the administration to court (see February 22, 2002).
Hardball in Federal Court - Usually the case will be handled by lawyers from the Justice Department’s Civil Division. But this case is much more important to the White House to be left to the usual group of attorneys. Instead, this lawsuit is one of the very few to be handled by a special unit operating under the direct supervision of Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement and Clement’s boss, Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Olson, the lawyer who spearheaded the team that successfully argued the December 2000 Bush v. Gore case that awarded George W. Bush the presidency. Dean later learns that this special team was created specifically to find and handle cases that they can take to the Supreme Court in order to rewrite existing law, mostly laws that restrict the power of the presidency (see January 21, 2001). Many career attorneys at the Justice Department will become so offended by the existence and the agenda of this special legal team that they will resign their positions. The administraton sent a strong signal to Judge Bates when it sent Olson, who has argued many times before the Supreme Court, to argue the government’s case in his court. Dean will write that Bates, a recent Bush appointee and a veteran of the Whitewater investigation, “got the message.” He knows this case is slated to go to the Supreme Court if it doesn’t go the way the White House wants.
Standing the Law On Its Head - According to Dean, Bates turns the entire body of statutory law overseeing the GAO and its powers to compel information from the executive branch on its head. He rules that the GAO lacks the “standing to sue,” saying that it doesn’t have enough of a legal stake in the controversy to have a role in trying to compel information. Bates, flying in the face of over eight decades of law and precedent, rules that, in essence, the GAO is merely an agent of Congress, and because neither the GAO nor Walker had suffered injury because of the task force’s refusal to comply with its request, the GAO has no legal recourse against the executive branch. Bates hangs much of his ruling on the fact that Congress has not yet subpoenaed the White House for the task force information. Thusly, Bates guts the entire structure of enforcement authority the GAO has as part of its statutory mandate. Bates does not go as far as the Justice Department wants, by not specifically ruling that the entire GAO statute is unconstitutional, but otherwise Bates’s ruling is a complete victory for the White House. [Dean, 2004, pp. 76-80] Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that “Bates’s ruling creates a legislative Catch-22 for Democrats.” Because the GOP is the majority party, and because GOP Congressional leaders refuse to subpoena the White House on virtually any issue or conflict, no such subpoenas as Bates is mandating are likely to ever be granted by Republican committee chairmen. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 14] In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write that Bates’s ruling severely eroded the GAO’s “ability to threaten to file a lawsuit [and] damaged the congressional watchdog’s capability to persuade executive branch agencies to comply with its requests for information.… Bates had established a principle that, if left undisturbed, could change the attitudes of executive branch officials when the GAO asked for documents they did not want to disclose.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 112-113]

Entity Tags: John Dean, Lou Dubose, Paul Clement, Sierra Club, John Conyers, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Bates, Judicial Watch, Henry A. Waxman, Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, David Walker, David S. Addington, Government Accountability Office, Energy Task Force, Jake Bernstein, Federal Advisory Committee Act

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, declines to appeal a case attempting to force Vice President Cheney to disclose his Energy Task Force documents (see May 16, 2001, February 22, 2002, and December 9, 2002). This ends a potentially historic showdown between the Congressional watchdog agency and the executive branch. [Los Angeles Times, 2/8/2003] It is widely believed that the suit is dropped because of pressure from the Republican Party—the suit was filed when the Democrats controlled the Senate, and this decision comes shortly after the Republicans gained control of it. [Washington Post, 2/8/2003] The head of the GAO denies the lawsuit is dropped because of Republican threats to cut his office’s budget, but US Comptroller General David Walker, who led the case, says there was one such “thinly veiled threat” last year by a lawmaker he wouldn’t identify. [Reuters, 2/25/2003] Another account has Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and a number of other congresspeople making the threat to Walker. [Hill, 2/19/2003] The GAO has previously indicated that accepting defeat in this case would cripple its ability to oversee the executive branch. [Washington Post, 2/8/2003] A similar suit filed by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club continues to move forward, but will ultimately be defeated by the Supreme Court (see May 10, 2005). [Washington Post, 2/8/2003]
Picking Its Battles - Walker explains that to continue the case “would require investment of significant time and resources over several years.” Later, he will say that he decided not to appeal the case for what reporter Charlie Savage will call “damage-control reasons.” Walker does not want to involve the GAO in what he fears will be perceived as a partisan conflict, and he does not want to risk further crippling the GAO’s ability to function by risking another negative ruling from a federal appeals court. “If the GAO was going to fight that legal battle,” Savage will write in explanation of Walker’s reasoning, “it was strategically unwise to use a case that involved records inside the White House itself instead of a less prominent part of the executive branch.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 113]
Refusal to Appeal 'Stunning' - In 2004, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write that he finds the GAO’s decision not to appeal the ruling “stunning.” Walker says the GAO isn’t going to challenge the ruling because it does not materially affect the GAO’s ability to function because the “decision did not address the merits” of the GAO’s arguments. The ruling, Walker says, “has no effect on GAO’s statutory audit rights or the obligation of agencies to provide GAO with information.” Dean calls this line of reasoning “wishful thinking at its best.” Dean will ask a high-level GAO official about the reported threats from Congressional Republicans. The official will reply that the threats did not worry Walker and the GAO lawyers nearly as much as the possibility that, if the GAO were to pursue the lawsuit, then, Dean will write, “the Supreme Court could do again what it did in Bush v. Gore and make Walker v. Cheney the landmark ruling ending virtually all Congressional oversight.” But lawyers for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) say that the ruling as it stands places severe restrictions on Congressional oversight. As Dean puts it: “The GAO has lost not only standing to file a lawsuit but the leverage of the threat of filing such a lawsuit, should an executive department or agency stonewall the way Cheney did. The GAO must now simply take what the White House (and its many appendages…) volunteers. This has never before been the case. [The GAO] will see only what Bush and Cheney want it to see.” The CRS notes that the ruling “calls into question the ability of Congress to delegate investigative authority to its agents;” Dean will write that this “may be the true reason for the lawsuit and for Cheney’s actions.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 80-81]
'Big Win' for Bush/Cheney - Constitutional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution will call the ruling a “big win” for the Bush-Cheney administration, saying: “President Bush and Vice President Cheney have an extreme and relentless executive-centered conception of American government, and it plays out every day, and there are dozens of fronts in this effort to strengthen the presidency. Power naturally gravitates to the presidency in times of uncertainty. But people are going to question putting all of our trust in an unfetttered presidency.” Former Justice Department official Bruce Fein is more blunt. “Now they have a precedent that they can hold over Congress’s head,” he will say. “Like a loaded gun. Forever.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 14-15]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Ted Stevens, Energy Task Force, John Dean, David Walker, Bruce Fein, Charlie Savage, Congressional Research Service, Brookings Institution, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Thomas Mann

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Civil Liberties

Map of Iraqi oil fields included in released documents.Map of Iraqi oil fields included in released documents. [Source: Judicial Watch]The conservative government watchdog group Judicial Watch releases documents recently turned over by the US Commerce Department through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The documents show some of the activities of the secretive energy task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney (the National Energy Policy Development Group—see May 16, 2001). Cheney and the White House successfully blocked Congress from learning even the most basic information about the task force’s activities (see February 22, 2002). The Commerce Department documents include maps of Iraqi oil fields and oil infrastructure, and other charts showing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and a document entitled “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.” Other maps and documents show detailed information about oil fields and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All of the documents are dated March 2001. Judicial Watch has sought these documents under FOIA since April 2001, and only secured them after a federal judge ordered their release in March 2002. (The Judicial Watch lawsuit was consolidated with a similar suit from the Natural Resources Defense Council.) Why the government waited over a year to release the documents, even after a court order compelling them to do so, is unclear. “These documents show the importance of the Energy Task Force and why its operations should be open to the public,” says Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton. “This was not about national security. This was about an undersecretary talking to a lobbyist.” [Judicial Watch, 7/17/2003; Judicial Watch, 7/17/2003; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 14-15] Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein call the Iraqi oil field documents “stunning,” and ask: “Why were the vice president and a group of oilmen poring over maps of Iraq long before there was any pretext to invade the country? Iraq’s oil was technically embargoed and under UN control—why make plans for divvying up oil reserves?” Dubose and Bernstein believe that Cheney may have been planning for US control of Iraq long before the Bush administration’s public push for war with that nation. Fitton is not so sure, but says worriedly: “We don’t know because we weren’t given the context. We have no way of knowing what they were deliberating.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 14-15] Judicial Watch, with other public interest groups such as the Sierra Club, will continue to seek information about the Cheney task force (see December 15, 2003 and April 27, 2004).

Entity Tags: US Department of Commerce, Lou Dubose, Judicial Watch, Jake Bernstein, National Energy Policy Development Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Tom Fitton, Sierra Club

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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