I want to spend a few moments talking about someone you may have heard of, a fella by the name of "Dick" Cheney - assuming that's his real name. When it comes to our cloak-and-dagger veep, one can never be too sure.
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We are indebted to the Washington Post for vigorous reporting that reminds us what a piece of work the vice president is. Meaning last week's rigorously researched series illustrating how the hand of Cheney has moved in ways unseen to seize power, undermine authority and circumvent the rule of law.
Still, appalling as that is, I think the vice president's character - and that of the administration he serves - is illustrated just as clearly if not more so in a story that broke a few days before the Post piece. It seems there's an office in the federal bureaucracy, the National Archives and Records Administration, whose job includes verifying that the various entities in the executive branch with access to classified information have safeguards to protect that information. We learn from these latest news stories that the vice president's office has refused, since 2003, to file required annual reports on its possession and stewardship of the nation's secrets. When the NARA pressed Cheney's office on the issue, he reportedly tried to have it abolished.
It would be, in any ordinary context, a rather minor dust-up involving an obscure federal office. But we're not dealing with an ordinary context. Rather, the context here is of a vice president and an administration whose obsession with secrecy borders on mania and whose respect for the public's right to know is simply nonexistent.
They have withheld information on matters of personal embarrassment (Cheney shoots a man in the face), public interest (they still won't tell us who advised Cheney's energy policy task force) and even distant history (last year, the government reclassified as secret Cold War-era military information that had been in the public domain for years). They have withdrawn documents from the public sphere, sealed visitors logs from public scrutiny, fought transparency every step of the way.
Now Cheney fights to keep secret from the agency charged with protecting secrets his process for protecting secrets. Unbelievable.
And somewhere, I am sure, Valerie Plame is wishing they had protected her confidential information with equal vigor.
Don't bother, you Bush dead-enders, to send me e-mail pointing out that every administration has secrets. No administration in history has withheld information as prodigiously, determinedly or indiscriminately as this one.
Indeed so secrecy-fixated is this White House that John Dean, Richard Nixon's White House counsel, was once quoted in the Daily Telegraph of London as saying, "Bush and Cheney are a throwback to the Nixon time. All government business is filtered through a political process at this White House, which is the most secretive ever to run the United States."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when Nixon's consigliere calls you secretive, it's like Tony Soprano saying you have anger management issues.
What's most important here is not that the vice president feels himself above the law, though he obviously does. But the larger issue is embodied in that line from the Declaration of Independence about government "by the consent of the governed." Like the public's right to know, that consent is in danger.
You see, people who are not informed cannot ask pertinent questions. They cannot demand accountability. They cannot give informed consent.
They can only be led. Or, perhaps more accurately, herded. Sheep are herded. We all know what happens to them.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.
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