Cheney's code of silence

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

February 16, 2006

THE WHITE HOUSE PRESS corps this week has been hopping mad over Vice President Dick Cheney's tardy, confusing and tightly limited public disclosure about accidentally shooting his friend, Harry Whittington. Although the reporters' indignation has been borderline comical, and the hunting accident terrific fodder for late-night humor on TV (except in the Whittington household), the episode is also a serious reminder that when it comes to the executive branch's doings, Cheney is the bottleneck.

While the vice president on Wednesday was belatedly accepting full responsibility for felling his comrade (though not for sitting on the news for a day or for letting White House aides blame Whittington for the accident), two other secrecy-related stories were making headlines, albeit in smaller type.

First, Australian public television aired grotesque new images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, which traveled around the globe. The facts conveyed weren't new, but they were another grisly illustration of what it looks like when amoral (and ineffective) interrogation policy is interpreted by flawed soldiers. And the images were a reminder that the original wave of righteous public revulsion did not occur until the first photos were released, over the objections of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The Bush administration could have released such material two years ago in a single, sickening lump, thereby limiting Washington's self-inflicted black eye to just one news cycle. Instead, the Pentagon has fought disclosure every step of the way, virtually ensuring that a story from 2003 gets fresh oxygen every time a new batch of photos becomes public. The vilest pictures have yet to be published, so this week's outrage is likely to be repeated at least once more down the line.

Americans deserve to know what's being done in their name, and visual images are part of that information. Just as important, prompt disclosure shows the rest of the world that the U.S. is confident enough to forthrightly confront its own problems, no matter how dire. Unfortunately, another news event this week confirms that the opposite is the norm.

The House Committee on Government Reform has been listening to witness after witness describe how they suffered workplace retaliation after blowing the whistle on national security activities they thought were unethical or illegal. One of the aggrieved whistle-blowers, former National Security Agency intelligence officer Russell Tice, also testified that the NSA has a secret domestic surveillance program capable of tracking Americans in the "millions," which would be far larger than previously believed.

Never mind the Armstrong Ranch. We wouldn't know about the NSA program or even Abu Ghraib if Cheney had his way. The vice president has been the single most influential Washington advocate for White House secrecy since 1974, when he persuaded his then-boss, President Ford, to veto the Freedom of Information Act. (The veto was overidden.) We'll be living with the consequences of Cheney's tight lips long after this week's brouhaha fades.