The Task at Hand

Will Cheney’s secret energy meetings see the light?

Brian H. Kehrl

The Bush administration has until June 1 to turn over secret documents involving Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force or provide the legal grounds to withhold them.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman instructed the departments of the Interior and Defense, as well as several other government agencies, to make public thousands of pages of documents on the day-to-day operations of the classified meetings and records of the task force’s executive director, Energy Department employee Andrew Lundquist.

In his March 31 ruling, Friedman rejected arguments by the Bush administration that records from the meetings — including the names of those present — are protected by executive privilege. He found that the documents involve issues of public interest and importance and therefore fall under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The task force, formally known as the National Energy Development Policy Group, was created by President Bush in early 2001 to devise the nation’s energy policy. It was chaired by Cheney and consisted of 10 Cabinet-level officials who met with representatives from oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group, and Judicial Watch, a government watchdog organization, jointly filed suit three years ago after the administration refused to turn over a full accounting of documents. According to the NRDC, the partial set they received already reveal that the task force drew heavily from industry representatives, often using their recommendations word for word. 

The groups now contend that the remainder will prove that industry executives unduly influenced energy policy, particularly in relation to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the weakening of power plant pollution standards. Judicial Watch also believes the documents will prove that former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay and influential lobbyists-turned-politicians Marc Racicot and Haley Barbour were present.

The court decision opens up a potential treasure trove of information to the public on the operations of the energy task force,” says Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. The Bush administration penchant for secrecy has suffered another set back in the courts.”

A related case in which Cheney also claims executive privilege will be heard April 27 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Cheney’s duck-hunting buddy Justice Antonin Scalia has refused to recuse himself from the case.

The administration is under additional scrutiny for its energy bill now before the Senate that provides subsidies to energy industries and could prove ruinous to the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts.

Brian H. Kehrl, the former editor of Sifter magazine, is a reporter based in Washington D.C.
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