By Jim VandeHei and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
The 78-year-old Texas lawyer who was shot by Vice President Cheney in a hunting accident this weekend was moved from intensive care in stable condition yesterday as new details emerged showing that the White House allowed Cheney to decide when and how to disclose details of the shooting to the local sheriff and the public the next morning.
President Bush and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove were told of the shooting Saturday night but deferred to Cheney on providing information to the public, White House aides said. In what one official described as a break with the White House practice of disclosing such high-level mishaps immediately, Cheney waited more than 14 hours after the shooting to disclose it publicly.
Cheney's spokesman said the vice president was more concerned about the health of the accident's victim, Republican lawyer Harry Whittington. But even some White House officials said Cheney mishandled the response and opened the administration to criticism that it was withholding important public information.
In his news briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan -- who was not alerted to Cheney's involvement in the shooting until early Sunday morning -- suggested he would have done it differently.
Cheney, 65, shot Whittington on Saturday afternoon at the exclusive 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch near Corpus Christi during a hunting party with three other people. The host, Katharine Armstrong, said no one had been drinking before the shooting and all were wearing blaze-orange safety gear.
She said Whittington did not announce himself when trudging toward the group after picking up a quail he had just shot. Cheney did not see him as he swung his 28-gauge shotgun toward a covey of quail just taking flight, said Armstrong, who witnessed the accident. Cheney hit Whittington with a spray of birdshot in the face, neck and chest.
The White House directed reporters to Armstrong's comments and did not fault Cheney. Cheney, who had a private White House lunch with Bush yesterday, did not comment on the shooting. Late yesterday, he issued a statement that did not mention the shooting but acknowledged not having paid $7 for a permit that allows him to shoot upland birds; it said he is sending a check to the state. Cheney said he expects to be issued a warning by state authorities for not obtaining the permit.
Hunting-safety experts said the onus would typically be on a hunter who had left his usual spot in a group to let the others know where he was. "The shooter always has the ultimate responsibility" but sometimes it is impossible to anticipate mistakes made by fellow hunters, said Donnie Buckland, senior vice president of Quail Unlimited.
But the experts also said hunters are taught to learn where everyone in their party is before firing. "If you are squeezing the trigger, you will not get that shot back and you need to make sure of the target and surrounding area and make sure it is safe to shoot into to," said Mark Birkhauser of the International Hunter Education Association. The details of the shooting remain murky because Armstrong was the only person present who has provided details to reporters.
Kenedy County Chief Deputy Gilbert San Miguel Jr. issued a statement late yesterday saying the incident had been investigated by local authorities and was determined to be "no more than a hunting accident." He told reporters the case remains open.
Local law enforcement officials did not interview Cheney until Sunday morning, about 14 hours after the shooting, in an agreement worked out between the Secret Service and Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas III. Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said at least one deputy was turned away shortly after the shooting because security personnel at the ranch were not aware of the agreement between the sheriff and the Secret Service.
In a telephone interview, Armstrong said that she, her mother and her sister, Sara Storey Armstrong Hixon, decided on Sunday morning after breakfast to report the shooting accident to the media. "It was my family's own volition, and the vice president agreed. We felt -- my family felt and we conferred as a family -- that the information needed to go public. It was our idea," Armstrong said.
The White House typically releases information immediately on incidents involving the president's personal life, such as bike-riding accidents, to avoid the appearance of covering up embarrassments. It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the White House to allow a private citizen serve as its de facto spokesman.
But current and former aides said the White House rarely imposes its practices, especially on press matters, on Cheney. The vice president's office often operates autonomously in a manner that many top White House officials are reluctant to challenge.
In this case, Cheney worked with family members and former aide Mary Matalin on how to handle the fallout of the shooting accident, said a person close to the vice president who demanded anonymity to talk about internal discussions.
Armstrong contacted the Corpus Christi Caller-Times around 9 a.m. Central time on Sunday. Asked why the information was not disseminated on Saturday night, immediately after the accident, Armstrong said: "The last thing that was on our mind was the media. We were thinking about Harry."
Armstrong; her sister; Cheney; Whittington; and Pamela Pitzer Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, went out on the ranch to hunt quail. Armstrong said the protocol they used was to have three hunters shooting at one time: While two sat in the hunt vehicle, the other three were hunting. They would then rotate.
The hunters, wearing bright-orange vests and caps, walked in a line across a pasture. From what Armstrong said she saw as she sat in the hunt vehicle about 100 yards from Cheney and the other hunters, Whittington walked back, away from the line, to look for a bird that he had shot but that a dog did not find.
He then walked forward toward Cheney, approaching from behind and to the right of him and the other hunter when the vice president shot at a quail and hit the lawyer.
The manager of a ranch in neighboring Brooks County attended a quail lunch at the Armstrong Ranch headquarters midday Sunday with Cheney. Lavoyger Durham, manager of El Tule Ranch, said the luncheon talk was of "North Korea, India, China, Taiwan."
There was no discussion about the accident the night before, he said, but it became known at the luncheon that Cheney asked to have the morning hunt canceled. "He didn't want to shoot," Durham said.
Moreno reported from Sarita, Tex.