Cheney secedes from the executive branch
Dick Cheney is a wonder.
Remember back in 2001 when he basically invited the oil industry to write the administration's new energy policy? When people wanted to know who attended the advisory meetings Cheney refused to say, claiming executive privilege -- that is, as a member of the executive branch, he had a right to receive "free and frank" advice without those advisors having to worry about their names or words being made public. He won a court case on the matter using that argument.
Fast forward to 2004, where in order to -- again -- maintain the cloak of secrecy over his actions, Cheney claimed that the Office of the Vice President isn't part of the executive branch, exempting it from an executive order that lays out how agencies are supposed to handle and safeguard classified information. This came to a head when the VP's staff blocked an inspection by the National Archives office tasked with making sure the order was being followed.
The National Archives had a cow, to which the VP responded with ... silence. So the Archives wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. This time the VP responded -- by attempting to abolish the Archives office doing the questioning. Gonzales' response was ... silence.
The Veep's legal reasoning seems worthy of Alberto Gonzales. It asserts that the Office of the Vice President isn't an executive branch agency for the purposes of the executive order because it has both legislative and executive functions -- for instance, presiding over the Senate and casting a vote when necessary to break ties.
Not only is this assertion novel -- no previous VP has made such a claim -- but it's also a ludicrous technicality. The Vice President's legislative duties are narrow and relatively minor, and don't involve disclosures of classified information. Essentially all of the office's handling of classified data comes through its executive duties. The argument appears to make a distinction between the VP (an executive branch officer) and his office (which has mixed duties), allowing the office to claim executive privilege when convenient and legislative-branch status when convenient.
The Archives lay out the argument in a letter to Cheney (pdf) and the subsequent letter to Gonzales (pdf).
The common thread, of course, is Cheney's obsessive need for secrecy and nonaccountability -- as well as his penchant for lashing out at perceived enemies. In this case it's particularly nutty: Cheney is asserting that the government should simply trust that his office is handling classified information appropriately. This arguably places his dislike of accountability above the demands of national security.
Henry Waxman, chairman of the oversight committee, summed things up in a fiery 8-page letter (pdf) requesting answers from the VP's office by July 12. Expect the VP's response to be either silence or a dismissal of Congress' authority in this matter. The latter point might even be valid: Congress' oversight authority over the handling of executive orders is generally limited to attacking the orders themselves (if they lack statutory authority), not questioning whether they were carried out. It doesn't appear that Congress has the power to compel the executive branch to follow or enforce its own orders.
What Congress does have, however, is the power to embarass. Cheney seems immune to embarassment, but stonewalling or public defiance will simply mean that much more political capital drained from an administration that is already running on fumes in that department. And the fault for that lies with Cheney and his congenital and destructive secretiveness, not Congress.
Update: Pulling from the discussion in the comments, I wanted to highlight the aspect of the Executive Order that discusses what government bodies are covered. Section 6.1(b) reads as follows:
"Agency" means any "Executive agency," as defined in 5 U.S.C. 105; any "Military department" as defined in 5 U.S.C. 102; and any other entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information.
Now, Cheney's argument is that the VP's office isn't part of the executive branch, his earlier claims of "executive privilege" notwithstanding. There could be an interesting case to be made there, seeing as how his salary is actually paid by the Senate and his sole constitutional duty is presiding over the Senate. On the other hand, the job of Vice President is laid out in detail in Article II of the Constitution -- the article describing the executive branch.
Then there's the two centuries worth of practice, precedent and legal rulings that undermine Cheney's claim. At USA.gov, the government's directory of itself, the vice president is listed under the "executive office of the President." Besides having an office in the White House, he also has an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building -- which, notably, contains executive offices. He's part of the president's Cabinet, something no legislative branch member is. The list goes on.
Besides, if he's not part of the executive branch, then he's an employee of Congress and can be subpoenaed or otherwise overseen at will. I'm sure Congress would love to exercise that newfound power.
Cheney, politics, midtopia