Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cheney's Right to Declassify Data

Old Business: Cheney was Drunk?

Cheney foes have latched onto the idea that Cheney was drunk at the time of the hunting accident.

So far, the evidence that I have seen in support of the assertion is entirely circumstantial. Some people argue, “I know other people who hunt and who get drunk.” Another popular argument is, “Why did Dick Cheney not go to the hospital to look over his sick friend?” And there is the question, “Why did the local authorities not interview Cheney until 14 hours had passed, if not to allow time for Cheney to sober up?”

I can think of hundreds of alternative explanations for all of this.

First, I know people who drive while under the influence of alcohol. This does not justify the conclusion that everybody who gets in an automobile accident – even everybody who causes an automobile accident is drunk. My Uncle George liked to drink. He also liked to hunt. However, he would have likely shot anybody who insisted on bringing alcohol on a hunting trip. Most people are responsible.

Second, I can think of two reasons for Cheney not to go to the hospital. (A), having the Vice President with all of his secret service and eventually all of the press around the hospital would not have done anybody any good. If I had been Vice President, I would have stayed away from the hospital and allowed the staff to do its work, rather than insist on going and getting in everybody’s way. (B) Cheney might have been a bit embarrassed and did not want to be out in public. If I had ever accidentally shot somebody, I would have been physically ill.

Third, though Cheney should have been interviewed immediately after the incident, I can easily imagine a local sheriff being overwhelmed at the prospect of having to deal with the Vice President of the United States. A local sheriff facing a situation well over his head simply screwed up. He gave the Vice President more latitude than his position demanded.

I am not saying that Cheney was not drunk. Yet, I have heard of no evidence that Cheney has a history of hunting while drunk. In fact, I have heard no stories about Cheney getting drunk even when he was not hunting.

Maybe Cheney was drunk; I cannot prove his innocence. The issue is, nobody has an obligation to prove that they are innocent. Those who make the charge must prove guilt.

What are these people doing?

They are latching onto a conclusion that they want to believe (e.g., Cheney was drunk; Iraq had weapons of mass destruction), then they are fixating on an interpretation of the data (intelligence) that suports their favorite conclusion. They are blinding themselves to other interpretations because of what they want to believe. They are doing exactly that which they condemn in others. They are engaging in exactly the same mental exercise that is responsible for much of the mess that the country now finds itself in. Yet, they tell us that they are "better than" their political opponents.

I accuse Cheney of committing those wrongs for which I have evidence. Accusations cast without evidence is as irresponsible as firing a weapon without knowing what one is aiming at.

New Business

One skill that the Bush Administration excels at is hiding the truth. They are magicians when it comes to distracting public attention with something bright and flashy in one hand while the other hand conceals what the magician does not want its audience to see.

Yesterday, while the press focused on the Cheney's hunting accident the news was filled with other stories that the Administration would hope to have slip underneath the radar.

For example:

Cheney claimed the authority to declassify information.

An Australian television station showed additional photographs of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which the Pentagon has kept from the public for two years. Also, the United Nations declared that Guantanamo Bay prison was a torture facility, and the Iraqi government asked the United States to transfer its Iraqi prisoners to its custody.

A group of Republican members of the House of Representatives released a report on the handling of the Katrina disaster that was even critical of the Bush Administration.

I will cover each of these stories in turn over the next three days in the hopes of nudging each of them a little further into the limelight than they would have otherwise been.

New Business: Cheney's Power to Declassify Information

Cheney used the opportunity to discuss his hunting accident with Fox News to also announce that he had the authority to declassify information. He did not say that he had ever used that authority, but he claimed to have that authority. President Bush, of course, did not disagree.

The information is considered relevant to the investigation into who leaked the fact that Valerie Wilson, the wife of former ambassador Jim Wilson, worked for the CIA. Cheney's former Chief of Staff I "Scooter" Libby has been charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury as a result of this explanation. Libby is now saying that a higher authority told him to leak that information. Libby's boss at the time was Vice President Cheney.

I have read news reports suggesting that this was meant to help Libby. I do not see how this follows. Unless Cheney is also going to claim that he has the power to authorize others to lie under oath and obstruct justice (which would not surprise me), he is not saying anything that would help Libby.

Instead, it seems reasonable to believe that Cheney is out to help himself. If Libby is now willing to finger Cheney as the one who released this information, then it is in Cheney's interest to say that his actions were legal. Cheney is defending himself from potential criminal charges, not Libby.

Ultimately, this blog is concerned with ethics, not with law. Therefore, I am not going to concern myself with Cheney's claim to have the legal authority to release the information is correct. I am only interested in his moral authority.


Readers familiar with this case can skip the next two paragraphs.

Former Ambassador Joe Wilson went to Nigeria to investigate a report that Iraq sought to buy material for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Wilson reported that the reports were false. Later, he heard the Bush Administration mention the evidence Wilson had discredited to justify its invasion on Iraq. He then went to the press to report that the Administration was defending its war under false pretenses.

To defend the Administration, Cheney and others sought to attack Joe Wilson himself by claiming that he got the assignment as an act of cronyism. They leaked the information that his wife, a CIA employee, got him the assignment. The fact that Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee was classified information, and leaking that information is against the law. Allegedly, Libby sought to obstruct the investigation into this crime, in part, by lying to the grand jury.

The Moral Issue

Moral Objection 1: Cheney declassified this information in order to try to discredit Joe Wilson. In other words, Cheney traded America's security for a chance to attack a political rival. Valerie Wilson was a spy working on securing information on weapons of mass destruction. Even if Cheney has the legal authority to declassify information, he does not have the moral authority to bargain away national security for political power.

Moral Objection 2: The information leaked was not relevant to the facts of the case. Cheney sought to use this information as a part of an argumentum ad hominem attack on Mr. Wilson. An ad hominem attack is a form of rhetoric designed to divert others from paying attention to what another person says by having them pay attention instead to some irrelevant fact about that person.

Using ad hominem arguments is, itself, a morally objectionable act. These types of arguments are only used to create a smokescreen for concealing relevant issues. In this case, the relevant issue was whether the Bush Administration was making claims that it knew or should have known was false to defend its decision to invade another country. Cheney and others used this information to create a smoke screen where people were asking instead whether Valerie Wilson was funneling government work to her husband.


If we combine these two objections, we come up with a case in which Cheney sacrificed national security to launch a personal attack on a private citizen for the purpose of creating a smoke screen to shield the Bush Administration from legitimate questions about its use of material it knew or should have known was false in order to justify an assault on another country.

Or, another way that we can describe this event – Cheney took a cheep political shot at somebody criticizing the Administration and ended up inflicting serious wounds on our national security, because he either did not (care to) determine what else might be standing in his line of fire.

I think that there is good reason to view such behavior as morally objectionable.

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