By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007 5:58 PM
Vice President Cheney's office has refused to comply with an executive order governing the handling of classified information for the past four years and recently tried to abolish the office that sought to enforce those rules, according to documents released by a congressional committee yesterday.
Since 2003, the vice president's staff has not cooperated with an office at the National Archives and Records Administration charged with making sure the executive branch protects classified information. Cheney aides have not filed reports on their possession of classified data and at one point blocked an inspection of their office. After the Archives office pressed the matter, the documents say, Cheney's staff this year proposed eliminating it.
The dispute centers on a relatively obscure process but underscores a wider struggle waged in the past 6 1/2 years over Cheney's penchant for secrecy. Since becoming vice president, he has fought attempts to peer into the inner workings of his office, shielding an array of information such as the names of industry executives who advised his energy task force, costs and other details about his travel, and Secret Service logs showing who visits his office or official residence.
The aggressive efforts to protect the operations of his staff have usually pitted Cheney against lawmakers, interest groups or media organizations, sometimes going all the way to the Supreme Court. But the fight about classified information regulation indicates that the vice president has resisted oversight even by other parts of the Bush administration. Cheney's office argued that it is exempt from the rules in this case because it is not strictly an executive branch agency.
"He's saying he's above the law," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which released a series of correspondence yesterday outlining the situation. "It just seems to me this is arrogant and shows bad judgment."
Cheney's office declined to discuss what it called internal matters. "We are confident that we are conducting the office properly under the law," said spokeswoman Megan McGinn.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, peppered with questions about the dispute today, called it "a little bit of a non-issue" and asserted that Cheney is "exempt" from the reporting requirement in the executive order.
President Bush is the "sole enforcer" of the executive order and "did not intend for the vice president to be treated separately from how he would treat himself," Perino said. She maintained that Bush and Cheney "are complying with all the rules and regulations regarding the handling of classified material."
The vice president's office is "not subject to such investigation" by the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, the spokeswoman said. But she could not explain why Cheney's office initially complied with reporting requirements, then stopped in 2003.
Perino was hard-pressed to explain the vice president's contention that his office is not strictly part of the executive branch. She called that argument "an interesting constitutional question that legal scholars can debate."
As the "author" of the executive order and "the person responsible for interpreting" it, Bush "did not intend for the vice president to be treated as an agency," Perino said.
The Justice Department confirmed yesterday that it is looking into the issue. "This matter is currently under review in the department," said spokesman Erik Ablin, who declined to elaborate.
The handling of classified information by Cheney's office has been a sensitive issue in the past. The vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in March in a case stemming from the leak of a CIA agent's identity. Libby testified during the investigation that Cheney instructed him to leak intelligence on Iraq, telling him Bush had declassified the information.
The standoff disclosed yesterday stems from an executive order establishing a uniform, government-wide system for safeguarding classified information. The order was first signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and was updated and reissued by President Bush in 2003. Under the order, an "entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information" must report annually how much it is keeping secret.
Cheney's office filed annual reports in 2001 and 2002 describing its classification activities but stopped filing in 2003, according to internal administration letters released yesterday. Cheney's office made the case that it is not covered because the vice president under the Constitution also serves as president of the Senate and therefore has both legislative and executive duties.
In 2004, the Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, a 25-member agency responsible for securing classified information, decided to conduct an on-site inspection of Cheney's office to see how sensitive material was handled. The vice president's staff, according to a letter Waxman sent Cheney, blocked the inspection.
After the Chicago Tribune reported last year that Cheney failed to report classification data, the Federation of American Scientists filed a complaint. J. William Leonard, director of the Archives' oversight office, sent two letters to Cheney's chief of staff, David S. Addington, requesting compliance with the executive order but received no replies. Leonard then wrote Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in January asking him to render a legal ruling on whether the vice president is violating the order. Gonzales has not replied.
In an interview yesterday, Steven Aftergood, who directs the federation's Project on Governmental Secrecy, said the dispute concerns "a very narrow bit of information" but indicated a broader disregard for following the same rules observed by the rest of the executive branch. "By refusing to comply with these trivial instructions, the vice president undermines the integrity of the executive order," he said. "If it can be violated with impunity on a trivial point, then it can also be violated on more important matters."
Leonard may have angered Cheney's office with his persistence. The administration is conducting a review of the executive order, and Leonard told Waxman's staff that Cheney aides proposed amending the order in a bid to abolish the Archives oversight office and explicitly exempt the vice president from its requirements. The elimination of the office has been rejected, Waxman said.
Leonard did not return phone messages yesterday. Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives, said: "In carrying out the responsibilities of the National Archives Information Security Oversight Office, we will continue to be responsive to the concerns of all governmental parties." Cheney's press office refused to comment on the changes proposed for the executive order.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.