As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

How Fourthbranch Works

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff has posted a fascinating interview with J.William Leonard, the head of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which deals with classified documents from the executive branch. He was the major figure in the fight by Dick Cheney to define his office as a fourth branch of government existing outside executive branch accountability. I've been calling him "Fourthbranch" ever since (like the Taco Bell ad: "think outside the Constitution"). In the interview, Leonard details just how uniquely Cheney and his minions see their responsibilities to other government agencies.

NEWSWEEK: Explain how all this happened.

Leonard: Up until 2002, OVP was just like any other agency. Subsequent to that, they stopped reporting to us…At first, I took that to be, 'we're too busy.' Then we routinely attempted to do a review of the OVP and it was at that point in time it was articulated back to me that: 'well they weren't really subject to our reviews.' I didn't agree with it. But you know, there is a big fence around the White House. I didn't know how I could get in there if somebody didn't want me to.

So how did matters escalate?

The challenge arose last year when the Chicago Tribune was looking at [ISOO's annual report] and saw the asterisk [reporting that it contained no information from OVP] and decided to follow up. And that's when the spokesperson from the OVP made public this idea that because they have both legislative and executive functions, that requirement doesn't apply to them.…They were saying the basic rules didn't apply to them. I thought that was a rather remarkable position. So I wrote my letter to the Attorney General [asking for a ruling that Cheney's office had to comply.] Then it was shortly after that there were [email] recommendations [from OVP to a National Security Council task force] to change the executive order that would effectively abolish [my] office.

Who wrote the emails?

It was David Addington.

No explanation was offered?

No. It was strike this, strike that. Anyplace you saw the words, "the director of ISOO" or "ISOO" it was struck.

Here we have the Fourthbranch way. Assume the laws don't apply to you; when pressed, threaten to abolish the law or the agency that attempts to execute it. And since Cheney is not a lawyer, his appointed henchman in these matters is now David Addington. There's always one degree of separation for Fourthbranch, be it Libby or Addington or whoever. And the new firewall may get torched by the ongoing torture tape investigation.

The House Intelligence Committee has scheduled a hearing on January 16 (pdf) regarding the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes of two al Qaeda suspects held in secret overseas prisons, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

The order to destroy the tapes allegedly was given by Jose Rodriguez who at that time was head of the CIA’s clandestine service. Rodriguez, who has hired lawyer Robert Bennett to represent him, has no intention of being the scapegoat.

The TimesonLine reports Rodriguez is seeking immunity for his testimony. Who might he give up?

Four names in the White House have surfaced so far. My money is on Cheney lawyer (now his Chief of Staff) David Addington.

Reports have cited four White House and OVP staffers as having discussed the tapes with the CIA, and have gone out of their way to assure that three of them advised against destruction. Only Addington is left hanging out to dry. And of course, the CIA ignored the advice of everyone but Addington.

It's hard to understate the level to which Fourthbranch runs this government without being subject to regular government scrutiny. Just this week he's been implicated in denying a waiver to California to set their own greenhouse gas emissions targets. You can add that to the secret energy meetings, enabling the Enron energy blackouts in California in 2001, the Plame leak, official secrecy including making up a classification for his own documents, the tax cuts ("This is our due!"), war in Iraq, the looming threat of war in Iran, environmental policy, and well, everything in the Angler series.

The Office of the Vice President is a relic of the compromise that forged the Constitution, almost wholly unnecessary in the function of a 21st-century state. While it seemed a useless honorific only given meaning when a President died in office (and there are plenty of other ways to create a line of succession), it lingered because nobody could fathom anything bad arising from it.

They never met Fourthbranch.

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