During a heated press briefing today, White House spokesperson Dana Perino tried desperately to downplay yesterday’s report showing that Vice President Cheney has exempted his office from a presidential executive order designed to safeguard classified national security information. At one point, Perino called it “a little bit of a non-story.”
She repeatedly said that Cheney exempt from a mere “small portion” or “small section” of the executive order, and that President Bush never intended for the executive order to apply to Cheney any differently than it applies to the president’s own office.
Perino later contradicted herself: first, she stated definitively that Cheney’s office is “complying with all the rules and regulations regarding the handling of classified material.” But when questioned how she could be sure, Perino said it was a “good question” and admitted she isn’t “positive” that his office is in compliance.
Perhaps most importantly, Perino failed to answer two key questions raised by the scandal:
— Perino offered no explanation for the fact that Cheney’s office followed the requirements of the executive order in 2001 and 2002, then abruptly stopped. “That I don’t know,” she said. Later, she responded sarcastically when asked whether Cheney’s office would offer more than the one-line statement it released yesterday. “I’ll ask the vice president if he’ll come to the press briefing room and answer your questions,” she said.
— Perino refused to say definitely whether Vice President Cheney is part of the executive branch. She would only say it is an “interesting constitutional question that people can debate.”
UPDATE: Steve Benen has more.
SPEAKER: WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY DANA PERINO
QUESTION: Part of the rationale the Vice President’s Office gave is that as president of the Senate he’s part of the legislature — that he was legislative branch, almost distancing himself from the executive branch.
PERINO: You know, I saw those reports yesterday, as well. And I think that while that’s an interesting constitutional discussion about the separation of powers and different branches, between executive branch and legislative branch and different functions, under the role — as his unique role as the vice president of the United States.
The point of Chairman Waxman’s letter yesterday regarded the small portion of an executive order of which the president is the sole enforcer and of which he did not intend for the president (sic) to be treated separately from himself. QUESTION: Is the President’s Office and the Vice President’s Office — are they handling this the same way?
In other words, Waxman was asserting that the Vice President’s Office was saying, We don’t want to be inspected to make sure that we are following the procedures laid out in this E.O.
Is the president — does he feel the same way?
PERINO: The president and the vice president are complying with all the rules and regulations regarding the handling of classified material and making sure that it is safeguarded and protected.
PERINO: What is different is, regarding that small section of this ISOO office, that they are not subject to those — they are subordinate to the sole enforcer of the E.O., which is the president of the United States, and they are not subject to such investigation, as I understand it, as I read the E.O. and as I had preliminary discussions in between the gaggle and today.
QUESTION: Well, then why did the vice president not have any issue with this in 2001, 2002?
PERINO: That I don’t know.
All I know is what I have here, which is the executive order that was released in 2002, I think, did not intend to treat the vice president any differently than he would treat the president.
QUESTION: So, Dana, what are you saying? So the president supports the vice president saying that he doesn’t want these inspections?
PERINO: I don’t think that he doesn’t — it’s not a matter of wanting; it’s a matter of who is subject to them.
And I think that it’s important to remember, it’s — the vice president, his office yesterday said that they are in full compliance with all laws regarding classified materials, as is this president.
And the president expects that of everyone here at the White House, and of all the agencies across the executive branch that handle classified information.
QUESTION: So he’s supporting what the vice president is doing, saying he’s not part of the executive…
PERINO: If you would go back and you read the E.O., it’s — the president’s intention was never to separate the vice president out from himself. The president, as the sole enforcer of the E.O., is instructing agencies on how to handle classified material on a range of issues.
The issue that we were talking about yesterday — that Chairman Waxman was talking about in his letter yesterday is a very narrow one.
QUESTION: But the people at the National Archives say that they are meeting with resistance from the Vice President’s Office, and only the Vice President’s Office, not from the White House, not from the Office of the President.
PERINO: That’s what I just said. I don’t think that there’s any — think there’s been any complaint about compliance except for, in this regard, to the Vice President’s Office.
And as I just said, the president’s intention was not to have them separate. If you read that, that’s clear in the E.O.
In the E.O. as well, the ISOO does have the capability to go to the Department of Justice and ask for an opinion, of which they have done.
QUESTION: OK. Was that in January? They still haven’t heard anything.
PERINO: You’ll have to put that question to the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: So they have to apply to the president for any document that the vice president had charge of?
PERINO: No, all of the president’s documents and all the vice president’s documents are safeguarded. They are held. They are held in the archives as part of the Presidential Records Act. And all of those rules and regulation are followed.
The small section, regarding just the reporting requirements to this group, ISOO, that’s out of the National Archives, is different.
QUESTION: Why? He’s a public servant, paid by us. He’s accountable.
PERINO: And all the laws and regulations regarding classified materials are being complied with. And that’s what you as a taxpayer should expect.
QUESTION: How do we know that?
PERINO: Because I think that if they weren’t, there are other ways where people could challenge him.
QUESTION: What do you make of what Congressman Waxman referred to as absurd, which was the vice president’s contention that his office was not part of the executive branch?
PERINO: Well, I think — as I said, I think that that is an interesting constitutional question that people can debate.
What I think is absurd is…
PERINO: … is Chairman Waxman…
PERINO: I think what’s absurd is Chairman Waxman…
QUESTION: Hang on a second. Do you agree or…
PERINO: I think what is absurd is Chairman asserting some sort of authority over the president regarding an executive order of which he is the sole enforcer.
QUESTION: Do you agree with the contention that the Office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch?
PERINO: What I know — and I’m not a lawyer. And this is an interesting constitutional question that legal scholars can debate — and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of them inside the Beltway — is that the vice president has a unique role in our United States government. He is not only the vice president of the United States but in that role he is also the president of the Senate.
I will let them go ahead and…
PERINO: I will let that debate be held. But what I’m answering questions on is in regard to, this morning, was Chairman Waxman’s accusations about this small provision, going back and reading the E.O. and realizing that the president did not intend to have the vice president treated any differently than himself, and remember that the executive order is enforced solely by the president of the United States.
I think this is a little bit of a non-issue.
QUESTION: But the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, in his letter to the attorney general, says that the Vice President’s Office did initially comply, in 2001 and 2002, and then stopped complying.
They view that the Vice President’s Office should be participating and is not, and further suggest that the response from the counsel to the vice president was to eliminate the role of this office in handling and supervising how these classified documents (inaudible).
PERINO: I’m not disputing that there is a dispute in regards to how this executive order should be — who should comply with the executive order in regards to ISOO’s questions about the Vice President’s Office.
They have the right to seek a clarification from the Department of Justice, of which they’ve asked for. That has nothing to do with the president or our office in terms of the timing of when that’s released.
I’m going to ask you to take that to the Department of Justice. I haven’t talked to them about that today.
QUESTION: Does the president think the vice president is too secretive?
PERINO: I think the president thinks that the vice president is a great representer of the United States, and that he complies with all the laws regarding secret documents, classified documents, and that he’s someone who truly believes in the institution of the presidency and in keeping that intact.
QUESTION: Does the president think that the vice president — does he agree with the vice president’s handling of this matter?
PERINO: I don’t see any reason not to agree with it, especially when you read the plain face of the E.O.
QUESTION: And he’s not concerned at all that there’s too much secrecy, that he complied with it before or why he wouldn’t want to do the same thing he was doing before?
PERINO: I think that what the president wants to make sure of is that all of the laws and regulations regarding classified materials are being followed. And he is assured that that is the case.
QUESTION: Even though it’s still being looked at in the E.O…
PERINO: I don’t think there’s a question of the handling of the documents. There’s a question of the reporting.
In the handling of the documents, we are confident that we are in full compliance.
QUESTION: And does he have concerns about the reporting?
PERINO: I didn’t talk to him about that. I don’t believe so, no.
Especially since, as I just said in the E.O., he’s the sole enforcer of the E.O. and he never intended for the vice president to be treated separately from himself.
QUESTION: Dana, can I just clarify, since he’s the sole enforcer of the executive order, was the White House Counsel’s Office knowledgeable about the letter trail, the dispute trail when you consulted them today to ask about…
PERINO: Well, you know, I think that — this letter trail goes back many years and we have a new counsel and many new people in the Counsel’s Office.
So I’m not exactly clear on that.
QUESTION: … some members of the Counsel’s Office preceded Mr. Fielding. So I’m curious, when you consulted — can we write or say that the White House Counsel’s Office, on behalf of the president, was fully knowledgeable of the dispute before…
PERINO: I can’t tell you that right now, because I don’t know. But I can check.
QUESTION: Dana, can I just…
PERINO: There are a lot of new people, and I can’t tell you that the people that I talked to were here before.
PERINO: Sure, yes, I’ll go back and check. But the people I talked to weren’t necessarily here before.
QUESTION: Can we just go back to this phrase that the president never intended for the vice president to be treated any differently than? I’ll confess, I’m missing the whole thing here.
The vice president’s not getting treated any differently. He’s acting differently, according to the National Archive.
PERINO: No, but in the E.O., who is directed and how they respond. If you look on page 18 of the E.O., when you have a chance, there’s a distinction regarding the vice president versus what is an agency.
The president also, as the author of an E.O. and the person responsible for interpreting the E.O., did not intend for the vice president to be treated as an agency. And that’s clear.
QUESTION: But the Archive doesn’t have an issue with, say, the way the president’s handling this; the inspectors, the procedures, the protocols, all being followed. It’s the vice president who is acting differently.
PERINO: Right, but that’s because the president never — the president treats him differently in this E.O., separate from an agency.
And, again, I’m not disputing that there’s a dispute that the ISOO has with the Vice President’s Office, and they have a right under this E.O. to take that to the Justice Department. But they are not — but the vice president was not to be treated — to be interpreted to be treated separately from the president in this executive order.
QUESTION: Can we expect to hear from the vice president as to why his office did comply for two years and then made a decision to stop complying?
PERINO: If I could — I’ll ask the vice president if he’ll come to the press briefing room and answer your questions.
QUESTION: I mean, it is a little curious that all of this breaks and all we get is, like, a line response from the Office of the Vice President: We’re confident that everything is kosher.