Cheney's Energy Task Force Is Told to Turn Over PapersAssociated Press
The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2002
WASHINGTON -- Government attorneys admitted Thursday they haven't completely reviewed documents from Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, despite claiming that they "all involve sensitive communications between and among the president and his closest advisers' that should be kept secret.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered task force documents to be made public by Nov. 5 and said he was shocked the Justice Department attorneys had not examined all the documents after asserting for more than a year that each of them involved confidential information.
"That is a startling revelation," Judge Sullivan said, after rejecting the Bush administration's claim that he lacks authority to order the release of the task force papers.
The judge directed the government attorneys to either produce the documents or supply a list of each one being withheld, and an explanation of why it is so sensitive.
"It's like everyone else has to do," Judge Sullivan said in explaining why the task force should have to provide papers on its inner workings. Judge Sullivan said his intent was "to carve out a middle ground because obviously the battle lines have been drawn."
The judge said he wanted the documents or the list by Nov. 5 -- Election Day -- but gave the government an opportunity to first file objections. He set another hearing for Oct. 31, but acknowledged a federal appeals court may end up deciding the issue.
Shannen W. Coffin, a deputy assistant attorney general, said attorneys for the White House "haven't completed a document review" and that "we're not going to ask our clients to complete the review" because doing so would be "too burdensome."
Sharply questioned by the judge, Mr. Coffin tried several times to explain himself more fully, then said he had misspoken.
"We have done a review. We haven't completed it," he said finally. "We haven't done everything necessary for a [document] production."
In court papers the Justice Department handed out at Thursday's hearing, the government asserted the task force documents involve "sensitive deliberations at the highest levels of the executive branch, including presumptively privileged presidential communications."
The government argued in a Sept. 3 memo that those documents "are all presumptively privileged because they all involve sensitive communications between and among the president and his closest advisers," and said that turning them over would "raise separation-of-powers concerns."
"The fact that all or nearly all of the requested information in a given case might be privileged suggests the presence, not the absence, of a separation-of-powers problem," the Justice Department wrote.
Judicial Watch, a conservative-leaning legal rights organization, and environmentalists have sued for the documents, as has the General Accounting Office, a congressional investigative agency.
They have argued, in several separate federal court cases, the public has a right to learn the details of any industry influence on the national energy plan that Cheney's task force put together more than a year ago. An energy bill the White House calls a top priority and essential to reducing U.S. dependence on Mideast oil is bogged down in negotiations between the House and Senate.
Federal agencies that also are defendants in the cases have produced thousands of pages of documents to the private groups.
Larry Klayman, chairman and general counsel of Judicial Watch, urged the judge to require quick action by the administration because "what they're trying to do is to get past the election" next month and, possibly, beyond the 2004 presidential election.
"Their entire strategy is delay. That's why they're willing to thumb their nose at the court," Mr. Klayman told the court via conference call. He said White House legal claims based on the substance of the documents, without first reviewing all of them, is "a demonstration of the bad faith in this case."
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