Never has a vice president played a greater role in shaping an administration’s foreign and domestic policy and its response to such unique events as 9/11 than Dick Cheney. A murky role, it has to be said, since Cheney is the most secretive official of a generally secretive administration.
So, of course, historians, journalists and think tanks are anxiously awaiting the public release of his records in the mandated five- to 12-year time frame after he leaves office. But they have a not unreasonable suspicion that Cheney will somehow foil their access.
Thus, an open government watchdog group has filed suit in Washington, D.C., asking a federal judge to declare definitively that Cheney’s papers are covered by the Presidential Records Act, citing an “imminent threat” that the vice president “will destroy, transfer, or otherwise dispose of” his records. The vice president’s office told the Associated Press that Cheney would comply with the law and turn his records over to the National Archives at the end of his term. That should settle it but there are still ample grounds for skepticism.
Seven years later and still no independent outsider has been able to view the records of the vice president’s industry-heavy energy policy task force. And the vice president’s office has refused to disclose other previously public records on such routine matters as staff, visitors and travel.
And in 2001 President Bush issued an executive order that may well violate the Records Act, and certainly violates its spirit, by tightening White House control over access to its own records and those of former presidents and vice presidents.
The vice president’s office has also advanced the novel argument that Cheney is neither of the executive branch or of the legislative branch but a separate entity altogether in his constitutional role as president of the Senate, a position whose sole duty is to break the occasional tie.
And then there is that worrisome issue of the 225 days of missing White House e-mails going back to the invasion of Iraq.
You would hope that our second highest official would honor the law, but Congress should overturn Bush’s executive order, add an enforcement mechanism to the Presidential Records Act, and forcefully restate its premise, that records generated in the course of government duties ultimately belong to the nation and at some point must be made public.