The doors stay closed
A federal appeals court last week ruled that Vice President Dick Cheney could continue to keep confidential the way energy policy was shaped in secret meetings.
The meetings probably dealt with the Bush administration’s plan to make Nevada’s Yucca Mountain home to a dump for high-level nuclear wastes. The secrecy of the meetings is part of an overall administration shroud thrown over the energy-policy process.
Former Nevada Governor and Senator Richard Bryan says, “Why it’s important for us in Nevada is because at those meetings, clearly, a strategy … was developed that was an anti-Nevada, pro-nuclear strategy.” It was at those meetings, he says, that Bush energy planners answered the question, “How does the Bush administration advance the cause of Yucca Mountain?”
The court’s decision was unanimous, with eight judges participating. Four of the judges were Democratic appointees, four Republican.
The lawsuit dates back to the early days of the administration, when the Vice President’s Office coordinated development of energy policy. An energy task force formed by Cheney reported its recommendations for energy policy on May 18, 2001, and those recommendations were considered unusually favorable to oil, gas, coal, and nuclear mining interests.
That sparked efforts by Congress and organizations like the Sierra Club to find out more about how the recommendations were arrived at, including a first-ever lawsuit by the General Accounting Office. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, had tried and failed to obtain access to basic information, such as task-force meeting records, names of task-force participants, even dates and subject matter of meetings. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the GAO in the unsuccessful suit.
Bryan says, “But Nevadans ought to be very concerned about an administration that in effect is taking its lead from the nuclear power industry [instead of] the state and those folks who represent a broad as opposed to a private interest.”
After the Sept. 11 tragedies, the administration zealously increased secrecy and hardened its determination to keep information secret, even in areas unrelated to security. A month and a day after Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned federal agencies against release of public information under the Freedom of Information Act and offered help in defending court cases.
The lawsuits to force disclosure of the Cheney meetings and records met with long delays in the courts. At one point during the 2004 political campaign, when the secret meetings were a campaign issue, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed a resolution until after the election by sending the case back to the appeals court level for further action.
The action decided last week, In re: Richard B. Cheney, was consolidated from lawsuits filed separately by the conservative group Judicial Watch and the liberal Sierra Club. It charged that the task force became so cozy with private-business representatives of affected industries that the lobbyists became de facto task-force members. The administration maintained that it need not disclose to the public with whom it consulted or what was said, and the court upheld that position.
“The outsider might make an important presentation, he might be persuasive, the information he provides might affect the committee’s judgment,” Judge A. Raymond Randolph’s opinion said. “But having neither a vote nor a veto over the advice the committee renders to the president, he is no more a member of the committee than the aides who accompany congressmen or Cabinet officers to committee meetings. Separation of powers concerns strongly support this interpretation.”