The White House defended Vice President Cheney Friday in a dispute over his office's refusal to comply with an executive order regulating the handling of classified information as Democrats and other critics assailed him for disregarding rules that others follow.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Cheney was not obligated to submit to oversight by an office that safeguards classified information, as other parts of the executive branch are. Cheney's office has argued it does not have to comply because the vice president's role as president of the Senate means his office is not an "entity within the executive branch."
"This is a little bit of a non-issue," Perino said at a briefing dominated by the issue. Cheney is not subject to the executive order, she said, "because the president gets to decide whether or not he should be treated separately, and he's decided that he should."
Democratic critics said Cheney is distorting the plain meaning of the executive order. "Vice President Cheney is expanding the administration's policy on torture to include tortured logic," said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "In the end, neither Mr. Cheney or his staff is above the law or the Constitution."
The dispute stems from an executive order issued in 1995 by President Bill Clinton and revised by Bush in 2003 establishing a uniform, government-wide system for protecting classified information. Cheney's office, like its predecessor, filed reports about its handling of classified information to the National Archives and Records Administration oversight office in 2001 and 2002, but has refused to do so since. The office also blocked an on-site inspection to examine its handling of classified data.
The Archives' Information Security Oversight Office sent two letters to Cheney requesting compliance but never received a response. The office then asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in January to decide whether Cheney was violating the executive order, but he has not responded either. Instead, according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Cheney's staff tried to get the oversight office abolished this year.
Perino said the president does not think the office should be eliminated "and I don't think that anyone has suggested that." Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride would not comment on the record Thursday about whether the office targeted the oversight office or about why Cheney's staff complied with the order in 2001 and 2002 before deciding not to in 2003.
The argument that Cheney's office is not part of the executive branch prompted ridicule by many administration critics. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that has been highly critical of the White House, suggested that Cheney is "attempting to create a fourth branch of the government." If he is not governed by executive branch security requirements, it asked if he would be covered by Senate rules.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Ill., said he plans to offer a measure next week to a spending bill that funds executive operations to place a hold on money for Cheney's office and home until he clarifies which branch of government he belongs to. Emanuel acknowledged the proposal is just a stunt but said if Cheney is not part of the executive branch, he should not receive its funds. "As we say in Chicago, follow the money," he said.
"" Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.
White House backs Cheney's exemption claim