There's a deep mystery surrounding Dick Cheney's energy task force, but it's not about what happened back in 2001. Clearly, energy industry executives dictated the content of a report that served their interests.
The real mystery is why the Bush administration has engaged in a three-year fight — which reaches the Supreme Court today — to hide the details of a story whose broad outline we already know.
One possibility is that there is some kind of incriminating evidence in the task force's records. Another is that the administration fears that full disclosure will highlight its chummy relationship with the energy industry. But there's a third possibility: that the administration is really taking a stand on principle. And that's what scares me.
Could there be a smoking gun in the records? Well, maybe Mr. Cheney was already divvying up Iraq's oil fields in 2001, but I'd be surprised to find anything that clear-cut. It's more likely that the administration fears that releasing the task force's records would alert the public to the obvious.
Those of us who have been following such things know that the Bush administration is so deeply enmeshed in the energy industry that it's hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Campaign contributions are part of it, but it's also personal: George Bush and Dick Cheney are only two of the many members of the administration who grew rich by relying on the kindness of energy companies. Indeed, the day after the executive director of Mr. Cheney's task force left the government, he went into business as an energy industry lobbyist.
In return, the Bush administration has given energy companies a lot to celebrate. One policy decision alone, effectively scrapping "new source review" in regulating power plant pollution, is worth billions of dollars to industry donors.
But if we know all this, why does the release of the task force's records matter? The answer, I think, is that there's a big difference between compelling circumstantial evidence and a more or less official confirmation.
Consider, as a parallel, the case of the nonexistent W.M.D. It was pretty clear by last summer that Saddam didn't have the weapons that were the ostensible reason for war. But it wasn't until January, when David Kay admitted that there was nothing there, that the absence of W.M.D. got traction with the broad public.
The main public justification for the Cheney task force was the 2000-2001 electricity crisis in California. For at least two years, we've known that this crisis was largely the result of market manipulation by energy companies — and surmised that some of those same companies were advising Mr. Cheney on energy policy. But the public will pay a lot more attention if it turns out there is documentation that any energy executives were telling Mr. Cheney how to solve power shortages even as their traders were busily creating those shortages.
Still, Mr. Cheney's determination to keep his secrets probably reflects more than an effort to avoid bad publicity. It's also a matter of principle, based on the administration's deep belief that it has the right to act as it pleases, and that the public has no right to know what it's doing.
As Linda Greenhouse recently pointed out in The New York Times, the legal arguments the administration is making for the secrecy of the energy task force are "strikingly similar" to those it makes for its right to detain, without trial, anyone it deems an enemy combatant. In both cases, as Ms. Greenhouse puts it, the administration has put forward "a vision of presidential power . . . as far-reaching as any the court has seen."
That same vision is apparent in many other actions. Just to mention one: we learn from Bob Woodward that the administration diverted funds earmarked for Afghanistan to preparations for an invasion of Iraq without asking or even notifying Congress.
What Mr. Cheney is defending, in other words, is a doctrine that makes the United States a sort of elected dictatorship: a system in which the president, once in office, can do whatever he likes, and isn't obliged to consult or inform either Congress or the public.
Not long ago I would have thought it inconceivable that the Supreme Court would endorse that doctrine. But I would also have thought it inconceivable that a president would propound such a vision in the first place.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company