Cheney in the eye of secrecy storm

He fought to prevent environmentalists from discovering how often the oil and natural gas industry was consulted over energy policy, ordered the Secret Service to destroy visitor logbooks at his official residence, and he refuses to disclose the names or size of his staff.

Now Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, has taken his quest for secrecy a step further by challenging demands from the US National Archives for information about the volume of classified documents generated by his office.

The dispute has exposed Mr Cheney to a fresh wave of questions about his powerful role at the heart of the Bush administration and added momentum to efforts by the Democratic-controlled Congress to uncover the secrets of his office.

According to the House committee for government oversight and reform, which is investigating the matter, Mr Cheney has failed in each of the past four years to meet reporting requirements on his office’s handling of classified information.

“He's saying he's above the law,” said Henry Waxman, Democratic chairman of the committee. “This is arrogant and shows bad judgment.”

The uproar has been intensified by the explanation given for Mr Cheney’s refusal to co-operate with the National Archives.

According to documents released by the House committee, Mr Cheney's office argued he was exempt from the reporting requirement because his constitutional role as chairman of the Senate put him out of reach of rules governing the executive branch of government.

The argument was startling because Mr Cheney had previously proclaimed his position within the executive branch as justification for withholding information. For example, lawyers argued that documents related to his meetings with energy lobbyists must be kept secret to preserve the privacy of internal White House policy deliberations.

Anger about Mr Cheney’s new stance has been deepened by revelations that his staff responded to pressure from the National Archives by proposing that the office responsible for collecting the contested information should be shut down.

The White House says the issue has been blown out of proportion and claims the disputed rules apply only to government agencies and not to the president or vice-president. “We are confident that we are conducting the office properly under the law,” said a spokeswoman for Mr Cheney.

The controversy has coincided with publication this week of a four-part Washington Post investigation into Mr Cheney’s vice-presidency. The reports have detailed how he became George W. Bush’s “surrogate chief of staff”, often controlling debate and information flows within the White House and guiding decisions in the direction he favoured.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, Mr Cheney bypassed other senior officials, including Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, to push the president into a series of controversial decisions on how captured foreign fighters and terror suspects should be treated, according to the reports.

Over recent months, however, Mr Cheney’s influence and reputation have appeared to wane as his optimistic assessments of the war in Iraq have become increasingly at odds with conditions on the ground, while the anti-terrorism policies he helped craft have been successfully challenged in US courts. Another setback came in March, when Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Mr Cheney’s former chief of staff, was convicted on perjury charges and later sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Briefing reporters this week, Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, rejected the notion that the vice-president’s role had diminished. But she was less certain about whether his job remained part of the executive branch. “I think that that is an interesting constitutional question,” she said.

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