Wrap your head around this: the Obama administration wants to save former Vice President Dick Cheney from the likes of Daily Show host John Stewart.
That was the thrust of arguments the Justice Department presented Thursday seeking to prevent the release of an interview Cheney gave in 2004 to Special Counsel Pat Fitzgerald as part of his investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
In an afternoon U.S. District Court hearing in Washington, Judge Emmet Sullivan presided as Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Smith defended the policy of the previous administration. David Sobel, an attorney for the group suing for the documents, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was there to argue against it. Here’s how it went:
Sullivan asked if President Barack Obama’s appointees stood by the Bush administration’s steadfast refusal to make the Cheney interview public, noting, “there’s a new administration.”
“This has been vetted by the leadership offices,” Smith said. “This is a department position.”
“It is disappointing that the new administration apparently is picking up where the old one left off,” said Sobel.
Smith argued that allowing Cheney’s interview to become public could have a “chilling effect” on the willingness of future vice presidents and presidents to cooperate with law enforcement investigations.
“Says who?” Sullivan asked.
Smith said that was the conclusion of Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who was in office at the time briefs were filed in the case last year. However, the only formal statement the government presented in its papers was from Bush Justice Department official Stephen Bradbury.
“Bradbury’s a political appointee. I don’t know what his experience was,” Sullivan said skeptically. “It’s just an assumption this man makes…He didn’t talk to the vice president.”
“What the Justice Department doesn’t want is to become an information-finder for the president and vice president’s political enemies,” Smith added. “We don’t want future vice presidents to see us as the conduit to them being mocked.”
“The government doesn’t want to have what’s in these documents end up on a late night comedy show,” Sullivan said.
A key legal question in the case is whether the potential for future investigations of the White House is too speculative to permit withholding records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sobel argued that the government’s stance would render the records of any kind of White House-related investigation off limits to the public—not just an inquiry into a sensitive issue like the disclosure of classified information.
“The argument would apply to a murder in the White House, selling drugs in the White House, bribery in the White House,” Sobel said. “We would be carving out the White House….for special treatment.”
Sobel also said it was "unseemly" for the court or the Obama administration to be predicting that there would be illegal activity involving White House officials.
Smith said the prospect of a future inquiry at the highest levels of government was far from speculative. “It has happened in every administration in the last 30 years, unfortunately,” he said.
Sobel’s client, CREW, has aligned itself with Cheney’s political opponents. The group represented Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband Joseph Wilson in a civil lawsuit against Cheney and others over the leak. The case was dismissed.
Sullivan didn’t decide immediately whether the summary and notes of the Cheney interview should be made public, but the judge said Bradbury’s declaration was inadequate to justify withholding the records. He ordered the Justice Department to supplement its filings by July 1 and to produce the documents for him to examine in private.