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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2003

The secrecy battle

In taking up the case of Vice President Cheney s clandestine energy task force, the U.S. Supreme Court is delving into what could be a dangerous expansion of secrecy on the part of the executive branch of the federal government.

If the court gives Mr. Cheney what he wants, future presidents and vice presidents will have authorization to sequester even more of their decision-making activities behind a shroud of executive privilege.

A favorable ruling from the Supreme Court would be the Holy Grail for an administration that prizes secrecy above almost everything else in the application of public policy.

In this case, it was a national energy policy apparently written by oil, gas, and coal companies. We say apparently because the administration won t reveal who all it talked to. But subsequent energy legislation, still pending before Congress, contains at least $23 billion in industry subsidies, leaving little doubt as to who was at those meetings.

The administration signaled it is going to the mat on the issue by declaring that the case raises “fundamental separation of powers questions.” Revealing how the panel operated and who was consulted interferes with the President s constitutional authority and makes it difficult for the administration to get candid advice, the lawyers argued.

But what s really at stake here is whether taxpayers have a right to know who s making policy at the highest reaches of its government.

Decisions on broad national policy made behind closed doors are, without a doubt, quicker and easier to tender, but they can be anathema to our democratic form of government.

This should not be a partisan issue and, in fact, the plaintiffs in this case come from different ends of the political spectrum: the conservative Judicial Watch and the liberal Sierra Club.

Now the Supreme Court will decide. Should the executive branch be allowed to appoint an advisory group using a government staff, then keep secret the records of who provided information and attended its meetings?

The obvious answer, backed both by democratic tradition and by federal law governing advisory panels, is no. A decision to the contrary by the high court will confer unnecessary powers of secrecy on the presidency.

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