When the Veep Shoots Someone

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

HOW IS IT THAT the vice president of the United States can shoot and wound someone and the American public doesn't learn of it until 18 hours later -- and then only because the owner of the location where the event occurred decided the next day to tell a local reporter? The White House has no satisfactory answer; neither does the vice president's office. But this much is known, following press inquiries: While quail hunting on a privately owned Texas ranch Saturday, Vice President Cheney accidentally sprayed a hunting companion, Harry Whittington, with birdshot from a shotgun about 5:30 p.m. The shooting wasn't disclosed until Sunday morning, when Katharine Armstrong, a member of the family that owns the ranch, called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and the paper posted the story on its Web site in the afternoon after confirming the account with Mr. Cheney's office. Until then, the White House and the vice president's office were mum. By every standard and by all accounts, the failure to promptly disclose the accident was wrong.

Of course, the first priority when a person is shot and wounded is to make sure the victim receives the necessary medical care. That apparently was done at the scene by medical attendants accompanying Mr. Cheney. And the Secret Service reportedly notified the local sheriff's office of the incident on Saturday, according to the New York Times. The vice president's staff also regarded the matter as serious enough to alert President Bush on Saturday and to give the White House updates on the condition of Mr. Whittington, who was released from intensive care yesterday afternoon but remains at a Corpus Christi hospital with wounds to his upper body.

What makes little sense, however, was the White House's decision, according to press secretary Scott McClellan, to defer disclosure of the shooting incident to the vice president's office, and that office's decision to further defer to the owners of the ranch. Mr. Cheney did not check his official title at the Armstrongs' front gate. That was no private citizen who pulled the trigger, sending someone to the hospital. That act, though accidental -- and doubtless both agonizing and embarrassing -- was committed by the country's second-highest public official. Neither Mr. Cheney nor the White House gets to pick and choose when to disclose a shooting. Saturday's incident required immediate public disclosure -- a fact so elementary that the failure to act properly is truly disturbing in its implications.

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