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Confusing the Facts of the GAO-Cheney Dispute

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
February 4, 2002

In the recent dispute between Vice President Dick Cheney and the General Accounting Office (GAO), confusion has reigned supreme. In media coverage of the back and forth between the administration and GAO, it has become extremely difficult to understand the specifics of the GAO's request and the administration's reasons for not complying with it. This understanding, of course, is crucial for the public to evaluate what may become a historic court battle as the GAO prepares to sue the administration.

An analysis of the rhetoric from presidential spokesperson Ari Fleischer and Vice President Cheney reveals a disturbing pattern of dissembling that has caused much of the confusion. The two have consistently exaggerated the GAO's request to make it appear unreasonable and to paint the administration as a victim.

The GAO's request

The dispute between Cheney and the GAO began in April, when Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI) requested that the GAO investigate Cheney's energy task force. After back-and-forth during which the Vice President's office did not disclose all of the information requested, the GAO sent a letter to the Vice President (254K PDF) on July 18 making specific requests. In addition to financial records and information on who worked for the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), it also asked for information on meetings by task force staff and Cheney himself with people outside the administration.

In the May 4 letter, your counsel indicated that various members of the group support staff met with many individuals to gather information relevant to the NEPDG work. We request records providing the following information with regard to each of [the task force] meetings: (a) the date and location, (b) any person present, including his or her name, title, and office or clients represented, (c) the purpose and agenda, (d) any information presented, (e) minutes or notes, and (f) how member of [the task force], group support staff, or others determined who would be invited to the meetings.

In the next paragraph, the GAO requests the same information regarding meetings held by Cheney instead of the NEPDG staff. Note that the GAO asked only for information on meetings held with those outside the Administration, not the internal deliberations of the NPEDG.

After August 17, however, the issue became more complex and the spin more blatant. On that date, the Comptroller General, who heads the GAO, sent a letter to Cheney [120K PDF] (and a similar one to House Speaker Denny Hastert) modifying his request to specifically exclude notes and minutes from meetings with people outside the administration.

According to a GAO timeline of the dispute (75K PDF), officials previously discussed dropping the request for notes and minutes with Cheney's counsel on July 31 and August 1. Following the August 17 letter, therefore, the question of "notes and minutes" should no longer have been an issue. In addition to this communication, the GAO's revision was also reported in the media. A USA Today article from September 6 stated that the GAO had "[eliminated] a demand for the minutes and notes from the meetings held by task force staffers for consultation."

Fleischer dissembles

For Presidential spokesperson Ari Fleischer, however, the issue was apparently not clear, as he has repeatedly dissembled about the nature and extent of the GAO's request. In a September 7 press conference--just one day after the USA Today article--Fleischer responded to a reporter's question by saying:

The administration stands on principle on this matter. And the administration believes very strongly that it is not a matter of public purview for each and every meeting -- each and every minute of the president and the Vice President each and every day to be reported publicly. And they stand on that as a matter of principle.

By using the phrase "each and every minute of the president and vice president each and every day," Fleischer takes a very specific request and absurdly generalizes it. Perhaps most disturbing is that he is exaggerating a request that he surely knew had already been retracted.

As the GAO recently prepared to sue the administration to gain access to the records, Fleischer continued to claim that the request for notes and meeting records was still on the table. Here is what he said in a January 28 press conference:

And it's much bigger than just the energy policy, which is not just Enron that the GAO is seeking records of. They want everybody's records. They want notes from meetings, they want records from meetings, not only about Enron, but about anybody and everybody that they met with.

According to a January 29 Wall Street Journal report, Fleischer even dissembled on whether the GAO sent the modification of its request to Cheney. "White House spokesman Ari Fleischer," the article states, "said Monday that the GAO's letter to Mr. Hastert scaling back its demands didn't jibe with the memory of Mr. Cheney's attorney, David Addington, and was never communicated in writing to the vice president's office."

The August 17 letter, however, was addressed directly to Vice President Cheney.

Cheney joins in the spin

Vice President Cheney himself has echoed Fleischer in his blatant spin of the GAO's request. In an interview on January 27 on the ABC show "This Week," he made the GAO request sound much broader than it actually is:

The key question, though, where the debate lies is whether or not they have a right to--from the vice president--to information on every meeting that I hold, notes on those meetings that were taken, who attended, what kind of information was provided

The Vice President then pushed virtually the same spin in an interview that same day on "Fox News Sunday":

What we've not given them, and where the dispute lies, is they've demanded of me that I give Henry Waxman a listing of everybody I meet with, of everything that was discussed, any advice that was received, notes and minutes of those meetings.

Beyond dissembling about what the GAO is requesting, Cheney also misleadingly frames Waxman as the one requesting information, rather than the GAO, whom Waxman asked to perform the investigation. Given the dislike of many conservatives for the liberal Waxman, the reasons are obvious.

A pattern of disturbing dissembling

Rational debate requires a clear understanding of just what is being debated. Cheney and Fleischer, however, intentionally and repeatedly exaggerated the nature of the GAO's request in order to make it appear more unreasonable. With little clarity being provided by the media, they have been largely successful in preventing the public from understanding just what is at stake in the GAO's historic lawsuit against the White House.

Comptroller General Walker said in a recent interview with National Review Online that he does "not believe that Dick Cheney would knowingly lie." Even if we accept this most generous of interpretations, however, such dissembling from the Vice President and Presidential spokesperson is inexcusable and disturbing.

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