White House reporters pounced on presidential press secretary Scott McClellan like jackals circling a wounded antelope, teeth bared.
"Scott, do you think that the shooting accident involving the Vice President on Saturday should have been disclosed to the public on Saturday?"
isn't there a public disclosure requirement that should have kicked in immediately?"
But let's just be clear here. The Vice President of the United States accidentally shoots a man and he feels that it's appropriate for a ranch owner who witnessed this to tell the local Corpus Christi newspaper, and not the White House press corps at large, or notify the public in a national way?"
I mean, we have Blackberries
Did you know they were turning it over to a private citizen to inform people?"
Ah, hell hath no fury like a press corps scorned. I am endlessly fascinated by how much abuse we in the mainstream news media will take from the people we cover before we finally get our backs up.
This is particularly true of Vice President Cheney, whose penchant for privacy borders on the pathological. After word came a day late that Cheney on a hunting trip had accidentally shot Austin, Texas, lawyer Harry Whittington instead of a quail, you could almost hear the frustration bubbling up from past Cheney rebuffs of the public's right to know what he's been up to.
This tendency began to show itself "big time," as Cheney might say, during the Persian Gulf War. As secretary of defense, he declared a press blackout that delayed many reporter's news accounts for days, rendering them worthless to editors back home.
Under Cheney, the Pentagon's pool system corralled more than 150 reporters away from the action so that none produced a single eyewitness account, according to a post-war report by Patrick J. Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Desert Storm coverage while a senior correspondent for Newsday.
Less than 10 days after he became vice president, Cheney took charge of the Bush administration's energy policy task force. Under the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, task forces like Cheney's must conduct public meetings and keep records that are available to the public. Cheney declared "executive privilege" to keep his meetings and records closed and fought various legal challenges from government accountability agencies and private groups all the way to the Supreme Court.
Against that backdrop, it was hardly surprising to learn about President Bush's secret authorization of the National Security Agency to pursue terrorists through domestic eavesdropping without a warrant, in defiance of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. Long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Cheney opposed FISA and similar accountability moves as encroachments on the power of the executive branch.
More recently, documents filed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the obstruction of justice case against Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, say Libby told a grand jury that his "superiors" authorized him to leak classified information in the summer of 2003 to The New York Times' Judith Miller and other reporters. The purpose: to defend intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Could those "superiors" include Libby's direct boss, Cheney? Could the man who is so guarded about keeping his public, as well as his private matters, private be that eager to make his political critics' private matters public? We probably will have to wait until Libby's trial to learn more, considering how tightly Cheney walls the public off.
In the meantime, his penchant for secrecy will only encourage others to suspect the worst-and find something else to do, I'm sure, when he invites them to go quail hunting.
The danger posed by Cheney's posture is not to the rights of the press to snoop into the Vice President's personal life, but to our constitutional system of checks and balances. The Founding Fathers, quite properly skeptical of vesting too much power in one branch of government even during wartime, set up Congress and the courts to hold the executive accountable. Cheney is hardly the first strong leader in the executive branch to try to expand his turf of unchecked power. It's up to the rest of us, including Congress and the courts, to decide whether we're going to let him get away with it.