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Two new reports have renewed long-standing controversies within the White House Today, and Vice President Dick Cheney plays a key role in both. One report is from the Associated Press. It says that top national security advisers were close to recommending that Guantanamo Bay be closed as a prison for terror suspects. The other, from the Washington Post, says Cheney's office was under investigation for refusing to comply with executive orders governing classified information.
NPR's Don Gonyea has the latest on both.
DON GONYEA: Last night, the Associated Press reported there would be a meeting at the White House today where top cabinet and National Security officials would discuss closing the Guantanamo Bay facility where the U.S. has held prisoners designated enemy combatants for the past six years. The report said a decision to close the prison was near, with the remaining inmates being dispersed to other federal facilities.
The White House immediately denied the report and said there was not even a meeting planned on that subject for today. The White House denial greatly reduced coverage of the AP story overnight and in Friday morning newspapers. But today, the White House admitted there had been a meeting scheduled on Guantanamo today, and that it was only scrubbed late last night after the AP story first hit the wires.
Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino tried to say the originally scheduled sit-down on the fate of Guantanamo was no big deal.
Ms. DANA PERINO (Deputy Press Secretary): There's meetings scheduled regularly to talk about Guantanamo. They happen frequently. They happen often, because people are charged with the responsibilities that the president has given them to try to close down that facility. Yes, there was going to be a meeting today, but there was a determination that it wasn't needed.
GONYEA: Perino was immediately asked if the meeting was cancelled because of the AP story.
Ms. PERINO: I think that the decision to make - to not have the meeting happened late in the day after that story came out. But what I can tell you is that meeting was not a decisional meeting.
GONYEA: The AP had reported that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were both favoring a closure of Guantanamo but that Vice President Cheney continued to resist it. The Guantanamo flare-up came on the same morning the Washington Post reported that a little known agency of the executive branch charged with securing classified materials has been locked in a four-year struggle with the vice president's office over Executive Order 12958 issued in 1995.
In his first two years in office, the vice president did comply with the order's requirement that the White House turn over classified documents to the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives. But since 2003, the vice president's office has not replied to annual requests by that agency for documents. There has been no explanation why he stopped. Cheney's office simply issued a statement saying it is in compliance with the executive order.
But Perino said today the Cheney position is complicated by the vice president's dual role as president of the Senate, which would mean he is not a regular part of the executive branch.
Democratic congressman and frequent Cheney critic Henry Waxman called that argument quote, "absurd." Documents released by a congressional committee showed that earlier this year, the vice president's office went so far as to try to abolish the Oversight Office at the National Archives. That prompted this on the Senate floor today from the number two Democratic leader, Richard Durbin.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): To attempt to abolish the agency that was putting pressure on him to follow the law shows that he has gone entirely too far. Vice President Cheney is not above the law. He is required to follow the law as every American citizen should.
GONYEA: The Cheney story dominated today's White House briefing by the deputy press secretary. She promised to try to shed more light on an issue the vice president's office has said very little about. But Perino also seemed intent on keeping her answers short, as she did when asked if the vice president is indeed part of the executive branch.
Ms. PERINO: I think that that is an interesting constitutional question that people can debate.
GONYEA: She said lawyers are being consulted on that point. As for the nature of the dispute, Perino offered this.
Ms. PERINO: I'm not disputing that there is a dispute.
GONYEA: Then came the question: does the president think the vice president is too secretive?
Ms. PERINO: I think the president thinks that the vice president is a great representor of the United States and that he complies with all the laws regarding secret documents, classified documents and that he is someone who truly believes in the institution of the presidency and in keeping that intact.
GONYEA: And when asked why Cheney complied with the law for two years and then stopped.
Ms. PERINO: I'll ask the vice president if he'll come to the press briefing room and answer your questions.
GONYEA: That prompted a reaction from the press corps, which is all too aware that Cheney has never come to the briefing room to answer questions.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House.
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