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GAO runs from a good fight



Published: Tue, February 18, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The General Accounting Office has abandoned its fight of almost two years to lift part of the veil of secrecy in which Vice President Dick Cheney wrapped the Bush Administration's energy policy.

While it's true that the GAO was handed an initial defeat in court, it should have pursued an appeal as part of its responsibility to act as a nonpartisan and independent watchdog.

The GAO, which investigates the executive branch for Congress, had filed suit seeking to force Cheney to turn over information about which individuals and groups met in secret with the vice president when he was heading the administration's energy task force.

Cheney was found of accusing Congress of attempting to make him turn over reams of notes and documents that would virtually cripple an administration's ability to set policy on energy or anything else. But while the GAO had originally requested some such material, it scaled back its demands and sought only the who, not the what, when, where or why.

We can understand that the administration might be a bit embarrassed if the list had shown that, say, oil barons outnumbered conservationists 100-to-one in those meetings, or that financial supporters of the Bush-Cheney ticket from companies such as, oh, Enron, got favored seats at the table. But it isn't the job of Congress or the GAO to spare an administration embarrassment, and the taxpayers, through their elected representatives, ought to have access to such information.

The word of one judge

Unfortunately, U.S. District Judge John Bates threw out the case on grounds that the GAO lacked standing to file the suit.

That is a damaging ruling that will only embolden an administration that demonstrated a propensity toward working in secret long before homeland security became an issue.

Comptroller General David Walker, head of the GAO, issued a lame defense of his agency's retreat. & quot;Despite GAO's conviction that the district court's decision was incorrect, further pursuit of the information would require investment of significant time and resources over several years, & quot; Walker said.

That could well be true, but the fight would have been worthwhile. At least the GAO would have continued to be engaged with the administration in a battle over open government.

Unless the GAO is willing to become the administration's lapdog rather than watchdog, this issue will not go away. This administration will challenge Congress again and again over its presumed freedom to act in secrecy. The GAO had almost two years behind it in this fight. The next time -- if there is one -- that it is prevailed upon to challenge the administration, it will have to start from scratch.

In a government that is supposed to work on checks and balances, the GAO has allowed the administration and one district judge to pull the rug out from under Congress.




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