Bush to America: Mind Yer Own Business

Every so often, our elected leaders -- or somewhat elected leaders -- get something exactly wrong.

Consider the Bush White House's over-our-dead-bodies refusal to release records on Vice-President Dick Cheney's energy task force to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Democrats and Republicans across town have been saying for weeks this is a boner of a move -- from a political vantage. It makes the White House looks guilty, and it continues to draw attention to the Bush-Enron connection. There's no one in the capital -- outside of the White House -- who believes this information won't pop out sooner or later.

It's the principle, the principle, the White House keeps bleating. The Bushies are playing it like a good cop/bad cop routine: "I'd like to release this material, really I would, but my hard-ass partner here, Mr. Principle..."

So what's the "basic fundamental principle," as Cheney calls it? Here it is: the White House should not have to tell the American public with whom it consults, for that would hinder the executive branch's ability to solicit the advice of outside experts.

"I receive advice," George W. Bush said a few days ago, "and, in order for people to give me sound advice, that information ought not to be public. Somebody is not going to walk into the Oval Office thinking that the conversation is going to be public and give me good, sound advice."

The President was being disingenuous. The GAO lawsuit seeking information on the Cheney task force only asks the White House to reveal the identities of the several hundred people who huddled with Cheney's crew as it drew up its energy plan last year. The GAO is not seeking minutes or transcripts of those sessions.

But back to Bush's explanation of the "principle." Why assume that somebody who obtains an audience with the President to discuss a policy matter would be unwilling to supply "good, sound advice" if the public is notified of the session? Put another way, why would Bush or Cheney have to meet secretly with someone -- say, a corporate lobbyist -- in order to receive that person's frank and honest opinions? This sounds more like the ways of the mob than the conduct of government.

Bush and Cheney are suggesting that an executive from Enron (I just picked that name randomly) would not feel free to tell them -- or the staff assistants of an administration task force -- his thoughts about electricity deregulation, if a newspaper were to note this exec had attended a policy chat at the White House.

Does this make any sense? Most lobbyists would kill -- or donate millions -- for a minute of face-time with an aide to the Veep, during which they could plead their case. Would a lobbyist turn down such an opportunity because the White House had to report to Congress that she had been on the premises of 1600 Pennsylvania? Would a trade association official not share his unvarnished views unless he could sneak in and out of the West Wing? Remember, Bush and Co. are not erecting barricades to keep the contents of these conversations confidential; they are battling for the right to say to Congress and the public, who we meet with is our business, not yours.

Cheney's much-cherished "principle" is bogus. Can Bush tell us why people won't openly trot into the Oval Office and talk honestly to the president? What are these would-be president's helpers scared of? One could argue Bush ought to be suspicious of receiving advice from anyone not willing to be seen entering the White House through the front door.

There is a principle at stake. It just happens to be the opposite of what the Bush gang is pitching. Bush and Cheney are forgetting they are public servants. Their deliberations and decisions are public business. They work in a public facility (except, perhaps, when Cheney is in an undisclosed location). The presumption should be that they will reveal as much as possible to the public -- their bosses -- about what they do to earn their paychecks.

This does not mean the President has to disclose to the public the sensitive details of diplomatic communications or classified national security activity. (He might, though, have to tell Congress.) But transparency should be considered an operating premise, not an inconvenience to be avoided if possible.

The desire for good advice is a canard. Which leaves two other possible reasons for why the White House is reluctant to let loose this information. Either the White House doesn't want people to know specifically who it relied upon as it drafted its energy plan. (The New York Times reported that 18 of the energy industry's top 25 financial donors to the GOP were permitted to peddle advice to Cheney's task force.) Or the Bush White House generally wants to be able to do whatever it damn well pleases with the minimum of pesky interference from anyone beyond its gates. That's a natural impulse for most administrations. But the Bush people are setting records in this area.

A partial list:

- The President has deployed troops for the war on terrorism to the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia without consulting Congress.

- He issued an order limiting the release of records from previous administrations (including his pop's).

- Homeland security czar Tom Ridge refused to appear before Congress to discuss the anti-terrorism budget.

- Attorney General John Ashcroft sent out a memo encouraging federal agencies to be stingy in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.
And, to top it all off, the Bush administration, without fully informing Congress, set up a so-called "shadow government" of high-level bureaucrats stationed in undisclosed bunkers outside of Washington, who are prepared to take over the federal government should disaster -- that is, a nuclear explosion -- strike D.C. There's nothing wrong with such an exercise, but the congressional leaders who are in the line of presidential succession and who could end up in charge of this emergency government -- House Speaker Denny Hastert and Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate president pro tempore -- were not aware of the set-up.

(Flashback: On the awful morning of September 11, I was outside my office, which is half a block from the Capitol, and in all the confusion I spotted Byrd seeking assistance from Capital Hill police officers. He had no clue where to go or what to do. So he decided to leave town quickly. The cops had to give him traffic directions for the best driving route out of Washington.)

By the way, the history of COG -- continuity of government -- planning suggests Congress should take a keen interest in this subject. In 1987, during the Iran-Contra scandal, The Miami Herald reported that National Security Council aide Oliver North had helped draw up a COG plan that called, in the event of nuclear war, for the suspension of the Constitution and the imposition of martial law. When a congressman tried to ask North about this during the Iran-Contra hearings, the committee chairman cut off the question and noted it was too dicey a topic to be handled in public.

The White House's secrets-'r-us stance has taken a few shots in recent weeks. One federal judge, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, ordered the Energy Department to release documents related to Cheney's energy task force. Another federal judge, addressing a lawsuit brought by the rightwing Judicial Watch, instructed several federal agencies to make public thousands of documents related to Cheney's energy task force. At this rate, there soon may not be many secrets for Cheney to protect. But there's always that principle.

In explaining why the Bush White House was entitled to hold closed-door meetings with energy industry representatives, Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer quipped, "The Constitution was, of course, drafted in total secrecy." But those doing the drafting were not a secret. And, more importantly, a chief concern of the 55 delegates was that the new central government would be too powerful and, in the words of my old college textbook (coauthored by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., C. Vann Woodward and other notable historians), "fall into the hands of a select group of wealthy and clever men who would use it to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of ordinary men."

Hmmmm. Consequently, the founders concocted those famous checks and balances. But in the Bush White House, all that delicate constitutional craftsmanship yields to a higher principle, one that Bush and Cheney are so selflessly willing to fight for tooth and nail: mind your own business, and we'll mind ours.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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