For a White House that has offered a bountiful stream of substantive scandals for six years, the latest dust-up might be the most bizarre.
The background details are surprisingly straightforward. In 1995, the Clinton White House issued an executive order establishing uniform rules for protecting classified information. In 2003, the Bush White House revised it. The order plainly includes any executive-branch agency, any military department, and "any other entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information." The entire branch of government, the order said, is subject to oversight.
This week, however, in light of revelations about the White House ignoring its own E.O., the Bush gang started spinning like a top
The White House said Friday that, like Vice President Dick Cheney's office, President Bush's office is not allowing an independent federal watchdog to oversee its handling of classified national security information.
An executive order that Bush issued in March 2003 -- amending an existing order -- requires all government agencies that are part of the executive branch to submit to oversight. Although it doesn't specifically say so, Bush's order was not meant to apply to the vice president's office or the president's office, a White House spokesman said.
Look, I can appreciate the fact that the White House is in a jam here. Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the gang repeatedly mishandled classified materials during a time of war, got caught, ignored their own rules, and is now struggling to rationalize their conduct. When the federal agency responsible for oversight tried to do its job, the Vice President reportedly tried to abolish the agency. This isn't a fact-pattern that's easy to spin.
But the explanations thus far have been transparently ridiculous, up to and including the notion that the Vice President, as defined in Article II of the Constitution, isn't actually part of the executive branch of government.
Perhaps it's best to take a moment to summarize the questions that need answers:
* Why did Bush and Cheney abide by the executive order in question in 2001 and 2002, and then stop in 2003? Is it a coincidence they started ignoring the E.O. on handling classified materials just as they started mishandling classified materials?
* Why did Cheney abide by the E.O. in 2001 and 2002 if he's not part of the executive branch?
* Why did the President exempt the Vice President from an executive order he was already following? Why did he later exempt himself?
* When, precisely, did the White House decide that Bush and Cheney should exempt themselves from their own rules?
* Does Bush consider Cheney part of the executive branch? Why has the White House thus far refused to respond to this question? Does the President consider this a trick question?
* In its response to questions about the E.O., why did the White House point to a provision of the E.O. that doesn't exist
* The White House insists, "There's no question that [Cheney] is in compliance
" with the E.O. If there is no oversight, and Cheney is unaccountable, how does the White House know?
* In yesterday's press briefing, the president's spokesperson dismissed the oversight provision of the E.O. as "small
" six times. Does the White House believe only "big" provisions need to be followed? How does the administration make the distinction?
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said yesterday, "Vice President Cheney is expanding the administration's policy on torture to include tortured logic. In the end, neither Mr. Cheney nor his staff is above the law or the Constitution."
At this point, I think they might quibble with that assertion.