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Vice President Dick Cheney unilaterally exempts his office from Executive Order 12958, which established government-wide procedures for safeguarding classified national security information. (White House 4/17/1995; Congress Committee On Oversight And Government Reform 6/21/2007) It was amended by President Bush’s Executive Order 13292 (see March 25, 2003) to require that all agencies or “any other entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information” regularly report on their activities to the Information Security Oversight Office. (White House 3/25/2003)
Vice President Not Part of Executive Branch, Cheney Argues - Cheney’s argument is that the vice president’s office is not part of the executive branch, and therefore has no legal obligation to report on its classification decisions as mandated by the order. Cheney justifies his position by noting that the vice president has a role in both the executive and legislative branches—the vice president is also president of the Senate—and the vice president’s office is not an agency. In May 2006, Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride will say, “This has been thoroughly reviewed and it’s been determined that the reporting requirement does not apply to [the office of the vice president], which has both legislative and executive functions.” (McBride does not say who reviewed the claim.)
Criticism - Others, such as government secrecy expert Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, disagree. “It undermines oversight of the classification system and reveals a disdain for presidential authority,” he says. “It’s part of a larger picture of disrespect that this vice president has shown for the norms of oversight and accountability.” Around 80 agencies and entities must report annually to the National Archives; besides the Office of the Vice President, only the president’s Homeland Security Council and the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board have as yet failed to report on their activities. Aftergood will say: “Somebody made a decision that they don’t want to do what they used to do.… They have to explain why they stopped doing it, and they haven’t done that.” (Rood 6/21/2007) Law professor Garrett Epps observes: “The vice president is saying he doesn’t have to follow the orders of the president. That’s a very interesting proposition.” And Judicial Watch’s Paul Orfanedes says Cheney’s claim “seems most disingenuous.” (Malone 6/21/2007)
Retaliation For Attempt To Force Compliance - The National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) will attempt in 2004 to conduct an inspection of Cheney’s offices pursuant to the executive order; Cheney’s staff will block the inspection, the first time since the ISOO’s inception in 1978 that one of its inspections has been thwarted. The National Archives will protest Cheney’s decision (see June 8, 2006 and January 9, 2007); Cheney will respond by attempting to abolish the ISOO (see May 29, 2007-June 7, 2007). (Henry A. Waxman 6/21/2007 ; Rood 6/21/2007) In June 2007, President Bush will announce that he never intended for either his or Cheney’s office to have to comply with the directive. (Jackson 6/24/2007; Isikoff 12/27/2007)
Issue Nothing More Than 'Kerfuffle' - In December 2007, Cheney will call the entire issue a “kerfuffle… is he or isn’t he; is he part of the executive branch, part of the legislative branch? And the answer really is, you’ve got a foot in both camps. I obviously work for the president. That’s why I’m sitting here in the West Wing of the White House. But I also have a role to play in the Congress as the president of the Senate. I actually get paid—that’s where my paycheck comes from, is the Senate. So I try to keep lines open to both sides of the Congress, both the House and the Senate.” (White House 12/6/2007) However, Cheney sometimes asserts executive privilege, a function of the executive branch (see June 26, 2007 and June 29, 2007).
J. William Leonard, the head of the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), writes to David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, asking for reports on classification activity by Cheney’s office. (J. William Leonard 6/8/2006 ) The request was prompted by a May 28, 2006 letter from Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists that states in part, “I believe that the Office of the Vice President is willfully violating a provision of [Executive Order 12958, as amended by President Bush (see 2003)] and of the implementing ISOO directive. Specifically, the Office of the Vice President (OVP) is refusing to comply with the ISOO requirement to ‘report annually to the Director of ISOO statistics related to its security classification program.‘… As you know, the President’s executive order states that this and other ISOO Directive requirements are ‘binding’ upon any ‘entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information.‘… Yet despite this requirement, the OVP has failed to report on its classification and declassification activity for three years in a row. Moreover, this appears to be a deliberate act on the part of the OVP, not simply a negligent one.” (Federation of American Scientists 5/30/2006 ) Since 2003, Cheney and his staffers have argued that the Vice President’s office is not strictly part of the executive branch and therefore is not bound by the mandate of the executive orders: Cheney’s officials have also stated they do not believe the OVP is included in the definition of “agency” as set forth in the executive order, and therefore does not consider itself an “entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information.” (J. William Leonard 6/8/2006 ) Aftergood wrote in his letter, “Nothing in the executive order excuses the OVP from reporting on classification activity in the performance of its executive duties merely because it also has separate legislative functions. It is hard to see how such an argument could be proposed by a reasonable person in good faith. Since the OVP has publicly staked out a position that openly defies the plain language of the executive order, I believe ISOO now has a responsibility to clarify the matter.… [B]y casting its non-compliance as a matter of principle, the OVP has mounted a challenge to the integrity of classification oversight and to the authority of the executive order. In my opinion, it is a challenge that should not go unanswered.” (Federation of American Scientists 5/30/2006 ) In his letter to Addington, Leonard notes that until 2002, Cheney’s office did submit such reports to the ISOO. He also notes that under the Constitution, the Vice President’s office is indeed part of the executive branch, and that if it is not, then it is in repeated material breach of national security laws, as it has had routine access to top secret intelligence reports and other materials that are only available to the executive branch. Leonard asks Addington to ensure that Cheney’s office begins complying with the law. (J. William Leonard 6/8/2006 ) Leonard’s letter is ignored. (Henry A. Waxman 6/21/2007 )
J. William Leonard, the director of the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), writes a second letter to David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, after Addington ignored Leonard’s first letter (see June 8, 2006). The issue is Cheney’s continued refusal to follow Executive Orders 12958 and 13292 (see March 25, 2003) that require his office to report periodically to the ISOO on what it is classifying and how it is protecting that information. Cheney’s argument is that the Vice President’s office is not part of the executive branch and therefore is not bound by those orders. Leonard writes that, in the light of Cheney’s continued refusal to comply with the law and of Addington’s failure to respond to the first letter, he believes the issue should be referred to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (see January 9, 2007). (J. William Leonard 8/23/2006 ) Addington will refuse to respond to this letter as well. (Henry A. Waxman 6/21/2007 )
J. William Leonard, the director of the National Archives’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), writes to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting an opinion on Vice President Dick Cheney’s decision to exempt his office from the mandate of Executive Order 12958. The order requires that everyone in the executive branch take steps to protect and secure classified information regarding national security, and report periodically to the ISOO (see 2003). Cheney’s position is that the vice president’s office is not strictly part of the executive branch. Leonard notes that until 2002 Cheney’s office did submit such reports to the ISOO. He also notes that under the Constitution, the vice president’s office is indeed part of the executive branch, and that if it is not, then it is in repeated material breach of national security laws, as it has had routine access to top secret intelligence reports and other materials that are only available to the executive branch. Leonard asks Gonzales to determine that Cheney’s office does indeed fall under the mandate of the executive order. (J.William Leonard 1/9/2007 ) Gonzales will ignore the letter; Cheney’s office will attempt to abolish the ISOO (see May 29, 2007-June 7, 2007). (Henry A. Waxman 6/21/2007 )
J. William Leonard, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) of the National Archives, testifies before the House Oversight Committee that David Addington, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, attempted to eliminate ISOO in retaliation for its request that Cheney’s office report its classification activities (see 2003 and January 9, 2007). Since 2003, Cheney’s office has said that it is not required to follow a brace of executive orders mandating annual disclosure of information about its classification activities to the ISOO. According to Leonard, Addington tried to have the executive orders rewritten to abolish the ISOO and to exempt the Office of the Vice President (OVP) from oversight. Leonard says that those proposed changes were rejected. (Henry A. Waxman 6/21/2007 ; Shane 6/22/2007; Isikoff 12/27/2007)
Henry Waxman (D-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, writes to Vice President Cheney demanding an explanation for his decision not to comply with executive orders (see 2003). Cheney’s office, like other executive branch entities, is required to annually report on the amount of documents it is classifying, and how those documents are being kept secure. The annual requests are made in pursuance of an executive order, last updated by President Bush in 2003. The order states that it applies to any “entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information.” Cheney has justified the decision by saying that because the Vice President is also the president of the Senate, the vice president’s office is not strictly a part of the executive branch, and therefore is not subject to the president’s executive orders; he cites as evidence his Constitutional role as a tie breaker in the Senate. Waxman writes, “Your decision to exempt your office from the President’s order is problematic because it could place national security secrets at risk. It is also hard to understand given the history of security breaches involving officials in your office.” Waxman’s point is that, if Cheney’s office is not part of the executive branch, then it is not authorized to view many of the classified documents it routinely receives; therefore the viewing of these documents by Cheney and his officials constitutes a breach of security. Waxman writes, “I question both the legality and the wisdom of your actions. In May 2006, an official in your office [Leandro Aragoncillo] pled guilty to passing classified information to individuals in the Philippines [as part of a plot to overthrow President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo… Aragoncillo reportedly disclosed numerous secret and top secret documents to Philippine officials over several years while working in your office.… In March 2007, your former chief of staff, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and false statements for denying his role in disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent (see November 20, 2007). In July 2003, you reportedly instructed Mr. Libby to disclose information from a National lntelligence Estimate to Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter. This record does not inspire confidence in how your office handles the nation’s most sensitive security information. Indeed, it would appear particularly irresponsible to give an office with your history of security breaches an exemption from the safeguards that apply to all other executive branch officials.… Your office may have the worst record in the executive branch for safeguarding classified information.” Waxman notes that Cheney’s office is notorious for declassifying information for purely political reasons, as in the Libby case. Waxman concludes, “Given this record, serious questions can be raised about both the legality and the advisability of exempting your office from the rules that apply to all other executive branch officials.” (Congress Committee On Oversight And Government Reform 6/21/2007; Shane 6/22/2007) The next day, when asked what he believes about Cheney’s position, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will quip, “I always thought that he was president of this administration.” (Malone 6/22/2007) Five days later, Waxman will say, “I know the vice president wants to operate with unprecedented secrecy, 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 to comply.… He doesn’t have classified information because of his legislative function. It’s because of his executive function.” (Shane 6/22/2007)
J. William Leonard, resigning his post as the director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives after 34 years of government service, says his battles with the Office of the Vice President (OVP) are a contributing factor in his decision to resign. Leonard’s office challenged Dick Cheney’s attempt to declare his office exempt from federal rules governing classified information, and in return Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, attempted to have ISOO abolished (see 2003 and May 29, 2007-June 7, 2007). Leonard is described by Archivist Allen Weinstein as “the gold standard of information specialists in the federal government.” Leonard says that he was “disappointed that rather than engage on the substance of an issue, some people would resort to that.” Leonard says he was frustrated when President Bush announced that he never intended for Cheney’s office to have to comply with classification reporting rules: “I’ve had 34 years of frustration. That’s life in the big city. I also accept that I’m not always right…. But this was a big thing as far as I was concerned.”
Possible Connection to Plame Affair - Leonard refuses to say whether he believes the timing of Cheney’s decision—the fall of 2003, the same time as the media began paying attention to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson—is significant, but “some of the things based on what I’ve read [have] given me cause for concern.” Leonard says that some of the exhibits in the trial of former Cheney chief of staff Lewis Libby were annotated “handle as SCI,” or “sensitive compartmentalized information,” including an unclassified transcript of a conversation between Cheney and his staff members about concocting a plan to respond to the media over the allegations of Wilson’s husband, Joseph Wilson.
National Security vs. National Security - Leonard believes that the government needs to “introduce a new balancing test” for deciding whether to classify information. “In the past, we’ve looked at it as, ‘we have to balance national security against the public’s right to know or whatever.’ My balancing test would be national security versus national security: yes, disclosing information may cause damage, but you know what, withholding that information may even cause greater damage…. And I don’t think we sufficiently take[…] that into greater account. The global struggle that we’re engaged in today is more than anything else an ideological struggle. And in my mind… that calls for greater transparency, not less transparency. We’re in a situation where we’re attempting to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s population. And yet, we seem to have a habit—when we restrict information, we’re often times find ourselves in a position where we’re ceding the playing field to the other side. We allow ourselves to be almost reduced to a caricature by taking positions on certain issues, oh, we simply can’t talk about that.” (Isikoff 12/27/2007)
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