White House Defends Delay in Report of Shooting

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The White House defends its decision to wait 22 hours to inform the public that Vice President Cheney had accidentally sprayed his hunting partner with birdshot. President Bush found out about the incident Saturday evening, but the media wasn't informed until Sunday.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Two days after being shot by Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident, Harry Whittington is still recovering in the hospital. The 78-year-old Texas lawyer has been moved out of an intensive care unit. The White House has acknowledged that the vice president was hunting without the necessary seven-dollar stamp for his hunting license. That stamp allows him to hunt upland game birds. The Vice President's Office says it expects Cheney to receive little more than a warning citation. The White House, meanwhile, defended its decision to wait 22 hours to inform the public that the vice president had inadvertently sprayed his hunting partner with birdshot. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: Down in Corpus Christi, Texas Hospital Administrator Peter Banko said that Harry Whittington would be spending another night in a hospital bed. Banko said Whittington was in stable condition and recovering well.

PETER BANKO: The trauma team evaluated him this morning. He's going to be moving to our trauma step-down unit later on today. Despite some of the rumors that have gone around, and they have not come out of the hospital, he was never planned on being discharged today.

GREENE: Whittington is a prominent Austin Republican and chairman of the Texas Funeral Services Commission. He was named to that post by President Bush while Mr. Bush was still Texas governor. Hunting accidents are not uncommon but for the vice president the incident is potentially embarrassing and the White House didn't exactly scramble to acknowledge it, or release details.

The incident took place late Saturday afternoon but news first broke Sunday morning when an owner of the ranch called her local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller Times. The caller, Katharine Armstrong had been in the hunting party with Cheney, Whittington and Pamela Willeford, the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland.

Reporters in Washington didn't learn of the accident until Sunday afternoon. Today at the White House reporters like David Gregory of NBC News kept asking Spokesman Scott McClellan the same questions, why the delay?

DAVID GREGORY: You got a situation room here. You've got people that monitor stuff. It's impossible to find out. I mean the vice president knew immediately, oh no, I've shot somebody accidentally and it takes 22 hours to for that...

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: And you know what his first reaction was? His first reaction was go to Mr. Whittington and get his team in there to provide him medical care.

GREGORY: Why is it that it took so long for the president, for you, for anybody else to know that the vice president accidentally shot somebody?

MCCLELLAN: Well, early the next morning Mrs. Armstrong reached out to the Corpus paper. That's her local paper to provide...

GREENE: According to McClellan's account, here's what was taking place at the White House. On Saturday evening around seven PM, Chief of Staff Andrew Card told Mr. Bush that Cheney was involved in a hunting accident. A short while later, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove gave the president new detail, that Cheney was the shooter. Still, nobody made this public that night. As for McClellan who is Press Secretary is ultimately responsible for getting information out. He says he didn't know all the details until Sunday around 6 AM.

MCCLELLAN: It wasn't 'til very early Sunday morning that I found out that the vice president was involved in this accident. And of course in a position like mine, I was urging that that information be made available as quickly as possible. And the vice president's office was working to get that information out.

GREENE: McClellan said he would not discuss further what advice he offered to the vice president's office. As for Cheney, he's never hidden his passion for hunting. In fact, during a campaign appearance outside Pittsburg in 2004, Cheney poked fun at Democrat John Kerry for going hunting in Ohio. A move widely seen as an effort by Kerry to win over swing voters.

DICK CHENEY: The Senator wore a new camouflaged jacket for the occasion, which made me wonder how often he'd been goose hunting before. (Laughter)

GREENE: Cheney also poked fun at Kerry as a late convert to gun owners' rights.

CHENEY: My fellow sportsmen, the cover-up isn't going to work because you and I know the Second Amendment is more than just a photo opportunity.

GREENE: Last weekend is the not the first time a Cheney hunting trip has made headlines. In January 2004, he invited Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia to hunt waterfowl in Louisiana. Not long before the Supreme Court considered a case involving the vice president's refusal to release information about who had advised his energy task force. David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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