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The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Private Dick, Forever Undercover

Elizabeth Sullivan

It's lucky for vice presidential se crecy that Dick Cheney joined the legislative ranks only recently. Back in 2001, when Cheney secretly talked energy policy with oil company CEOs, he was a privileged member of the executive branch - as he later argued to the courts.

Energy task force records: sealed.

By 2003, the vice president was keeping his manipulations of pre-Iraq war intelligence quiet by using his chief aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, as his front guy. Now that Libby's probably going to jail because of it, the vice president can't even be bothered to write a letter of testimonial.

Iraq manipulations: sealed.

Lately, Vice President Cheney has been surfing the waves of government secrecy once again - this time as a member of the legislative branch. At least, that's the excuse Cheney's office is using to avoid complying with an executive-branch order intended to safeguard classified material.

For every year since 2003, Cheney has failed to disclose the exact amount and nature of intelligence his office has made secret - or declassified.

Not so coincidentally, that's the very time frame covered by the Libby investigation.

The Chicago Tribune first reported this last year in a story few noted - apart from the guardians of those documentary secrets within the National Archives.

Now, however, after more than a year of unsuccessful attempts by the archives to extract the required information from the vice president's office, the case has turned into a full-blown confrontation.

According to Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who made the blow-up public last week, as tenaciously as the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office has pressed for vice presidential compliance, Cheney's office retaliated just as forcefully.

The vice president is trying to get the archives oversight office abolished.

And Cheney's office has yet to open its documents to inspection.

The National Archives appealed to the attorney general's office but, unsurprisingly, has yet to hear back from Alberto Gonzales. Meanwhile, Cheney's office is trying to close off such an avenue for appeals even as Cheney seeks to have the executive order amended to exempt his documents.

At least the National Archives is finally showing some teeth over document security.

It needed to, after the Sandy Berger debacle.

In the case of President Clinton's former national security adviser, Berger walked away with little more than a slap on the wrist after repeated, egregious violations of secrecy pledges and rules in his handling of top-secret documents at the archives.

In 2002 and 2003, Berger was preparing to testify to the 9/11 commission. Not only did he purloin top-secret documents and notes from the archives, he later could not account for their whereabouts. Even worse, because the archives had not tagged or chronicled all of the documents Berger reviewed, its staff was unable to say for sure just what had been lost or destroyed.

The inability to reconstruct the exact nature of the security breach was why Berger got off so easy, via a plea agreement that brought him only a fine and probation.

Still, Berger was out of office when he executed his secrecy shuffle.

What's most striking - and troubling - about the Bush administration is how some of its leading ideological lights repeatedly treat national secrets like personal political real estate.

When John Bolton was undersecretary of state for arms control during the first Bush term, he misused his access to top-secret National Security Agency wire intercepts to praise the cleverness of one of the U.S. officials whose comments had been recorded.

Cheney misused Iraq weapons secrets both to sell the war and then to deflect attention from his role in formulating the sales pitch. Now that he's been caught hoarding those secrets, he's misusing his clout to try to sweep aside the officials who are challenging him.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan

© 2007 The Plain Dealer

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