Turn Over Energy Documents

The V.P.'s 'unvarnished advice' from the energy industry deserves public scrutiny

The ongoing showdown between Vice President Dick Cheney and Congress over documents crucial to the investigation of the Bush administration’s relationship with the energy industry—and with Enron in particular—is beginning to echo the most infamous cover-ups of previous administrations.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’ investigative arm, has requested that Cheney release information that would allow the GAO to begin mapping out the relationship between members of the energy industry and the administration. The GAO is asking for lists of the individuals present at each meeting of Bush’s energy task force and, in addition, lists of the people with whom each task force member met, along with the date, subject and location of those meetings. With this information, the GAO will be able to scrutinize in greater detail the administration’s involvement with Enron prior to its collapse.

Cheney should release those lists immediately to aid the GAO’s investigation, and we support the GAO’s determination to obtain those lists, even if it must sue the White House and the Vice President. Congress is constitutionally responsible for overseeing the executive’s activities, and a collapse of the magnitude of Enron’s is a clear justification for a GAO investigation.

Cheney’s energy contacts do not fall under the protection of executive privilege, and we are glad that the administration has said it will not invoke such arguments. Executive privilege was intended to protect private conversations between the president and his counsel, not between the vice president and energy executives—especially when some of those executives may be implicated in a financial scandal of the highest order. Neither Clinton nor Nixon could successfully extend the doctrine to protect private conversations outside of their small circle of counsel and cabinet; Cheney should take note of this historical precedent.

Nor does releasing the lists set a precedent that will prevent essential outside advice from reaching the White House. In recent interviews, Cheney has argued that policy discussions should be kept private—even those involving industry insiders—to ensure that the president and vice president can receive “unvarnished advice.” He has said that industry executives will be less likely to come forward if the extent of their discussions with the administration may someday become public knowledge. However, the GAO is not asking for the vice president to reveal the contents of every conversation; he is not being asked to indicate who on the list of names was a whistle-blower. And if a precedent of disclosure prevents this and future administrations from receiving advice that should not be given in the first place—from individuals with their own interests bound up in the final policy decisions—then we welcome the change.

Unfortunately, this reluctance to release information appears to be the rule rather than the exception for the Bush administration. From a virtual news blackout on the ground in Afghanistan to the administration’s earlier refusal to release many of former President Ronald Reagan’s presidential papers, we find it troubling that Bush and his advisors have so little faith in America’s ability to handle the truth.

Considering the catastrophic damage of Enron’s collapse, costing employees and taxpayers billions of dollars, America needs answers. The Bush administration has emphasized that it did not rescue Enron and that its policy decisions were not unduly influenced by hefty campaign contributions from energy insiders. Therefore, we expect that disclosure would only confirm the administration’s integrity. In a recent ABC-Washington Post poll, 70 percent of Americans said they want full accounting of Enron’s failure. Now is no time to keep secrets from the American people.