Friday, July 18, 2003

Half a Secret

Judicial Watch is an interesting organization. It was one of the "yap dogs" financed by Richard Mellon Scaife specifically to harass the Clinton administration. Scaife is probably the most influential political actor of the late 20th century. Never heard of him? He likes it that way ... Now, one of the hazards of putting together an idealistic- looking organization to do your dirty work is that some of your phony idealists may actually turn out to be real idealists. It looks like Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch is one of those "stealth" idealists. With the Clinton administration gone, he is applying the same standards of conduct to the Bush administration. Oops.

Now, one of the early kerfluffles in the Bush administration concerned the White House Energy Policy, put together by VP Cheney. Basically, a lot of folks were concerned at the involvement of Ken Lay, President of Enron and a good friend of Georgie Bush. In the runup to the 2000 election through the early Bush administration, Lay was a close advisor to Bush, acting essentially like a cabinet secretary or corporate VP. For example, he interviewed all of the candidates for Bush's cabinet. When Enron collapsed, there were a lot of (legitimate, IMHO) concerns that the Energy Policy was simply a rubber stamp for Enron's interests. However, Cheney and company clammed up and refused to deliver their working papers, even under court order. Judicial Watch, among others has been trying to get their hands on these papers.

Well, they got some. (link via Tom Tomorrow) In particular, they got maps of "Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals". There are similar maps for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Note that at the time the report was written (March 2001) Iraq was still under embargo and would be for the foreseeable future.

Now, the question is what this "really means". We won't know, of course, until we get a hold of the full document. Cheney and company are still fighting this tooth and toenail; it'll be a while. A big problem is that this is isolated information -- there's no indication why this information was in the papers. It's easy to yell "See! It really was all about the oil!", but that's not necessarily the case. It does look really bad, however.

Now, I can see concerns both ways, here. In general, I think that it's a Bad Idea to release preliminary working papers. People need a chance to thrash out ideas (especially bad ideas) in private before throwing them out to the public. On the other hand, Enron's business model for its energy trading business was based on the lack of transparency in the energy market -- essentially trading on inside information. Involvement in the White House Energy Policy would give Enron the ultimate in insider information, as well as giving them a chance to write national policy to maximize their own advantage. Note the similarity to the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration.

Now, what we have here is half a secret. We know that the Energy Task Force discussed Iraqi oil, but we don't know why. If we'd never found out, we'd never know anything. If we knew the whole story, it might be completely harmless. Or it might be another Teapot Dome. There's no way to tell without the rest of the secret.

Unfortunately, one of the main characteristics of the Bush administration has been its secrecy fetish. The Energy Task Force is far from the only thing that's being kept secret for no discernible reason if there's nothing to hide. Where there's a secret, people naturally assume the worst. When, as now, we have half a secret, people really assume the worst.

The only thing that would quiet this down is for the Administration to release the working papers, as the courts ordered them to do. Not likely; they'll just spin it until it goes away. Will it? The docile US press is showing signs of waking up ...

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