Is Vice President Dick Cheney's office an executive branch agency? Or is it a Washington hybrid that works for both the executive and legislative branches of the US government? That's the underlying issue in a new controversy over Mr. Cheney's lack of cooperation with a government office charged with safeguarding national security information.
The whole matter sounds arcane, and in many ways it is. After all, it involves paperwork, classified information, and the filing of reports. But Democratic lawmakers say it is a serious matter that reflects on the vice president's penchant for secrecy – and that they might even hold up the funding for his office as a result.
"That might not be a bad idea," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California about cutting Cheney's budget during a broadcast interview on June 24.
At issue is the work of the Information Security Oversight Office – a small part of the National Archives whose job it is to oversee the government-wide security classification system.
As part of that work, the office collects data on how much US material is classified and declassified. Per a signed presidential executive order, agencies of the executive branch are required to hand this information over.
Cheney's office provided this information in 2001 and 2002. Then it stopped.
Prodded by an outsider's complaint, last spring the National Archives sent letters to Cheney's office requesting the classification data. It received no response.
Administration officials say Cheney's office is exempt from the executive order, since it has both executive branch and legislative functions. Per the US Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate, and may vote to break ties in that chamber.
On June 22, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the executive order didn't intend Cheney's office to be treated as an administration agency.
"He's not exempt from following the laws of the United States," said Ms. Perino. "He's exempt just from this reporting requirement in this particular executive order."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California rejected this assertion as absurd. Representative Waxman is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the classification matter. In general, Waxman has been a thorn in the side of the White House since the Democrats gained control of Congress.
"The vice president can't unilaterally decide he is his own branch of government and exempt himself from important, commonsense safeguards for protecting classified information," said Waxman on June 22.
Waxman has also asserted that Cheney, in response to this controversy, has suggested that the Information Security Office be abolished. Perino said she did not believe that was the case.
The data that Cheney has refused to turn over is interesting, given the vice president's involvement in so many crucial national security decisions such as US policy on interrogation and detention of terror suspects, says one expert on government classification methods. A large number of classified documents might indicate an unusual degree of activity on the part of the vice president's office.
Still, the information at issue is just a raw number, nothing more.
"It's not very revealing stuff," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy.
More interesting is the fact that Cheney has declined to reveal the number of documents, adds Mr. Aftergood, who claims it is like other vice presidential actions.
In 2001, Cheney attempted to block disclosure of the names of energy industry officials who met with his task force. He has withheld information about who works for him and who visits the vice presidential office.
As to where this issue goes next, one possibility is an attempt in Congress to eliminate funds for any executive branch activity by Cheney. He would be left with the approprations for his Senate activities, which is a relatively small amount.
Earlier this year, the Information Security Oversight Office sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting a legal interpretation as to whether the vice president's office is an agency and thus subject to classification disclosure rules.
The Justice Department has not yet ruled on this legal issue.