Are secret meetings a waste of energy -- who knows?
Vice President Dick Cheney is jealously guarding the identities of the men and (we presume) women who helped the Bush Administration develop its energy policy.
Cheney headed a task force of Cabinet members and White House aides who worked in secret for months early last year to develop a policy that was submitted to Congress. Parts of that policy were passed by the House, but stalled in the Senate.
Who's who? The task force met privately with representatives of about 200 industry, labor, consumer, academic and environmental groups. But with a relatively few exceptions, the American people don't know who those people were. And they certainly don't know what they said.
It is known that Cheney himself met with only half a dozen of the interest groups, including officials of Enron and the Edison Electric Institute, an energy trade group. And White House logs show that he met with Enron chairman Ken Lay for half an hour last April.
Cheney, with the backing of President Bush, says it would damage the administration's ability to govern if it couldn't protect the confidentiality of its advisers.
No one is suggesting that the president or vice president should never have a private conversation. But when either of them establishes a task force to examine as important a public issue as the nation's energy supply, it should be an open process. We felt no differently eight years ago, when the Clinton Administration attempted to develop health policy behind closed doors.
Only narrow issues of national security should be subject to the kind of secrecy under which either of those task forces did their important work.
If it were an open process, would some of the vice president's advisers declined to participate? Perhaps. But others would have taken their place. Why should one small group of people have the privilege of arguing their points in private before the vice president when the resulting policy is going to affect everyone?
Matter of trust: The administration is asking the American people to trust that special interests did not bend national energy policy to their own ends. The citizenry is expected to trust that Cheney was not swayed by friends and former associates in the energy business when he developed the administration's energy policy.
We would prefer to follow the advice of former President Ronald Reagan: "Trust, but verify."
Until the administration voluntarily releases the records and minutes of the task force, or until a court orders such a release (which is a long shot), the American people can verify nothing. And without verification, there can't be trust.