Energy Policy Lawsuit Thrown Out

A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to find out just who participated in meetings with a task force on energy policy directed by Vice President Dick Cheney. Journalists and some advocacy groups have been seeking the names of people the task force met with ever since it convened early on in the first Bush term.

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Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force does not have to reveal the names of private advisers it consulted in shaping administration policy. That ruling came today from a federal appeals court in Washington. Two interest groups are seeking the names since the task force met in 2001. As NPR's David Greene reports, their legal avenues may be at an end.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

For critics of the Bush White House who say it is secretive, this case has been exhibit A for nearly four years. Shortly after President Bush took office, Cheney invited people from oil and gas companies and others in the energy sector to discuss the energy policy he was drafting. Journalists and others tried to find out who these consultants were, and a lawsuit was filed by two organizations, the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, an activist group known for having been tough on the Clinton White House.

But Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney balked at identifying the private advisers. They said if a White House must make such disclosures, outside advisers would not be as candid. The president called that a principle worth fighting for in a March 2002 press conference.

(Soundbite of March 2002 press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: These were privileged conversations. These were conversations when people come into our offices and brief us. And can you imagine having to give up every single transcript of what has advised me or the vice president? Our advice wouldn't be good and honest and open.

GREENE: The interest groups argued that industry officials meeting with federal employees to advise on the president's energy plan were, in effect, members of a federal advisory committee. That is an important distinction. Under federal law, the public has a right to the identities and input of a federal advisory committee. And they noted that the energy policy that later emerged gave energy companies much of what they wanted: more oil and natural gas drilling, an expansion of the nuclear power industry and flexibility in pollution laws.

They took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, which sent the case back to a federal appeals court in Washington after warning that the suit threatened the independence of the executive branch and its right to meet with people in private. The federal appeals court has now responded with an order for a lower court to dismiss the case. The unanimous ruling said that the private advisers were not part of a federal advisory committee because they did not have a formal voice or vote in the proceedings. Chris Farrell, director of investigation and research at Judicial Watch, said the ruling threatens the intent of the Watergate-era law governing these issues.

Mr. CHRIS FARRELL (Director of Investigation and Research, Judicial Watch): It's very disturbing. It essentially guts why the Federal Advisory Committee Act was created in the first place, and that was to make sure that there wasn't influence peddling by outsiders in these very important government task forces government commissions.

GREENE: Cheney's press secretary, Lee Anne McBride, said today that the White House is pleased with the court's ruling. She said the decision will, quote, "help preserve the confidentiality of internal deliberations among the president and his senior advisers that the Constitution protects as essential to wise and informed decision-making." Both Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, however, announced that they did not consider the case to be over. David Bookbinder is the Sierra Club's senior attorney.

Mr. DAVID BOOKBINDER (Senior Attorney, Sierra Club): We intend to keep fighting for the rights of the American people to know exactly how the energy industry crafted the Bush administration energy policy.

GREENE: Both groups say they may still try a final appeal to the Supreme Court. David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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