Cheney’s Blackout

The General Accounting Office has finally blinked.

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The investigative arm of Congress released a report Monday declaring that administration stonewalling has made it impossible to determine how much influence industry players had over the government’s 2001 energy policy.

Congressional investigators have been trying for more than a year to determine whether the task force — launched by Vice President Dick Cheney on just his 10th day in office — provided the veep’s industry chums an inside track in crafting the policy. On Tuesday, Jennifer Millerwise, a spokeswoman for CheneyÕs office, “welcomed” the release the GAO report. Perhaps that’s because, with the investigation effectively killed, the allegations of gross ethical misdeeds by Cheney remain just that — allegations.

Those allegations aren’t going to disappear, of course. And the report actually vindicates some of the complaints that the task force, ostensibly formed to solicit advice and input from all sides, became little more than a means by which the administration’s deep-pocket donors in the energy industry steered national policy. As Mike Allen of The Washington Post reports, the GAO report at least sheds a little more light on who was involved — and the participant list reads like a roll call of energy industry heavies.

“The GAO said in the report that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham privately discussed the formulation of Bush’s policy ‘with chief executive officers of petroleum, electricity, nuclear, coal, chemical, and natural gas companies, among others.’

An energy task force, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, relied for outside advice primarily on ‘petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas, electricity industry representatives and lobbyists,’ while seeking limited input from academic specialists, environmentalists, and policy groups, the GAO said.

The report said several corporations and associations, including Chevron Corp. (now part of ChevronTexaco Corp.) and the National Mining Association, gave detailed energy policy recommendations.”

What the report didn’t, or rather couldn’t, conclude was how much influence coroporations had on the energy task force. According to Reuters the agencies involved in the task force stymied the inquiry by refusing to provide investigators with meaningful data on how much was spent in drafting the policy, or what industry recommendations were incorporated into the final plan.

“‘The extent to which submissions from any of these stakeholders were solicited, influenced policy deliberations, or were incorporated into the final report is not something that we can determine based on the limited information at our disposal,’ the GAO said.

Administration officials did not account for much of the money spent on the task force and could not remember whether anyone took official notes during the 10 cabinet-level meetings the group held in 2001, the investigators said.”

In justifying the 14 months of stonewalling, White House officials have consistently argued that the GAO had “overstepped its bounds,” and that turning over task force records would hamper their ability to get “unvarnished” advice. But the editors of the The Charlotte Observer contend that it is Cheney — not the GAO — who has gone too far.

“Presidential prerogatives are not genuinely compromised by letting the public know who has been invited to affect major policy.

Administration officials have created a dog’s breakfast of bad appearances by engaging in behavior that inescapably suggests they have something to hide. This is bad for the White House and bad for the country. The administration should change course and display some essential interest in coming clean with the public about a major piece of public business.”

The Observer certainly isn’t alone in recognizing the damage done by the administration’s evasions. But David M. Walker, the Comptroller of the United States and head of the GAO, tells the Post’s Allen that the scuttling of this investigation carries much larger implications for government accountability.

“Walker said the energy investigation was the first instance since he took office in November 1998 in which the GAO was unable to do its job and produce a report according to generally accepted government auditing standards.

‘The Congress and the American people had the right to know the limited amount of information we were seeking,’ Walker said.”

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