Vice President Cheney revealed Wednesday that due to President Bush's rewriting of an executive order, Cheney has presidential-level power to declassify sensitive information.
Most immediately, that may give his former chief of staff a solid defense in a CIA leak case, if Cheney declassified the agent's name for his aide to leak. I. "Scooter" Libby Jr., accused of perjury and obstruction for lying about leaking the name as part of a political vendetta, might only have followed orders. On the other hand, some say the leak violated congressional secrecy regulations, over which Cheney has no control.
But the broader meaning of Cheney's revelation is more troubling. President Bill Clinton signed the original limited executive order in 1995, but Bush amended and expanded it in 2003 to include the vice president. There are certainly reasonable times for such actions. But even the National Review said Cheney revealed "a little-known, but enormously consequential expansion of vice-presidential power."
The conservatives' bible continued: "Throughout Executive Order 13292, there are changes to the original Clinton order which, in effect, give the vice president the power of the president in dealing with classified material."
That's a Bush administration theme, isn't it? If you don't like a rule, change it. Can't eavesdrop on American calls and e-mails without a warrant? Sure you can. Just get approval from an attorney who works for you. Can't hold prisoners indefinitely without charges? Sure you can. Just move them to Guantanamo, Romania or Torturestan. Can't invade another country without cause and congressional approval? Sure you can. Jigger intelligence and hype rhetoric so every American fears there's a WMD on the front stoop. The list goes on.
The problem with declassification by fiat is that it's too easily done opportunistically, selectively and politically. Is there any review panel? Any checks and balances? Are the congressional intelligence committees consulted or even notified? Have federal courts ruled on its legality? We think not.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the Wall Street Journal that if Libby had authority to discuss top-secret matters with the press, the vice president used his declassification authority "to advance the administration's political agenda."
"In other words, information that supports the administration's position on Iraq, or whatever, is selectively declassified and other information is not. That's not a criminal offense, but it's kind of sleazy." Any surprise there?