The war has moved into a new phase: Walker vs. Cheney. No, it's not John Walker and the War on Terrorism. It's David Walker and the War on the Public's Right to Know. Walker is the comptroller general of the United States. His foe is the vice president of the United States. Their battleground is government accountability vs. the Bush administration's desire to keep secrets. Sunshine vs. shadows.
Sunshine scored a victory Wednesday when U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Energy Department to release thousands of records on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force to the National Resources Defense Council. In her ruling, Kessler criticized the government for moving at "a glacial pace."
Of course, to hear the White House spin it, this unprecedented legal showdown between the legislative and executive branches -- prompted by last week's filing of a lawsuit by the General Accounting Office -- isn't really about lifting the veil on the energy industry's influence over the administration's regressive energy policy. It's about protecting freedom, liberty, the Constitution, motherhood, puppies and everything good.
"We're handling it the way we're handling it because there's a principle involved," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Administration spokeswoman Anne Womack responded to the GAO lawsuit by sounding the same righteous tone: "We are ready to defend our principles in court. This goes to the heart of the presidency and to the ability of the president and vice president to receive candid, discreet advice."
For his part, defendant Cheney also took great pleasure in standing on "principle." "It ought to be resolved in a court, unless you're willing to compromise on a basic fundamental principle, which we are not," he said, offering his best Patrick Henry impression. I'm surprised he didn't blurt out: "Give me candid, discreet advice or give me death!"
Well, let me offer my advice -- as candidly (if not discreetly) as possible:
It's time for the vice president to 'fess up that all this principled posturing is a load of rubbish. A linguistic smoke screen designed to obscure the fact that Cheney is fighting tooth and nail to hide something incriminating. But it's not his information to withhold. He doesn't own it. We do. And it's the job of the comptroller to make sure we get it.
What makes this abuse of the language particularly distasteful is that the White House is using the same words to defend Cheney's attempt to cover his task force tracks as it is using to defend its prosecution of the War on Terrorism.
"We are in a fight for our principles," President Bush said in his initial post-Sept. 11 address to Congress. And Cheney recently regaled the Council on Foreign Relations on the importance of "standing for those values and principles on which our own society is founded."
The conflation of the makeshift, self-serving principle underlying Cheney's efforts at concealment with the bedrock beliefs underlying the War on Terrorism is not only ill-conceived, it's dangerous. This is no time to be kneecapping the very words we're using to justify America's fight for freedom abroad. Soldiers have died overseas defending the same principles Bush is undercutting here at home.
Making matters worse, the White House's dedication to the principle it claims to be fighting to preserve -- that is, keeping executive branch discussions confidential (I'm sorry, "discreet") -- appears to be a matter of expedience rather than true devotion.
How else to explain the Bush administration's decision to release to congressional investigators thousands of documents generated by senior officials in the Clinton White House -- including a transcript of a candid and discreet conversation between President Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak?
In arguing why Cheney shouldn't have to tell us what he and Ken Lay chatted about, Justice Department lawyers claimed that doing so "would chill future deliberations by senior presidential advisers who would fear that their candid comments ... might some day be disclosed." Does the White House expect Mr. Barak and other world leaders will feel any less frosty about their private conversations being made public?
So much for principles -- and consistency.
As part of his Out of the Cave and into the Limelight Tour, Cheney paid a visit last week to the Richard Nixon Library. I wonder if he took the time to commune with the spirit of the man of the house? Can't you see the two Dicks now, wandering the halls, commiserating about pesky, do-gooding congressional snoops and discussing the finer points of stonewalling, coverups, doublespeak and the privileges of the executive branch?
In the end, Nixon's executive privilege gambit didn't work, and there is no doubt that Cheney, too, will eventually have to come clean. It's just a question of when. Perhaps he's waiting for the number of Americans who say they are following the Enron scandal -- 61 percent -- to drop before tossing some more fuel on the fire.
The American people will eventually win this war. It would just be nice if the White House were on our side.