'Oil War' Questions Surround Cheney Energy Group


By Ritt Goldstein

Inter Press Service
September 12, 2003

''It is important that Halliburton, which has massive government contracts (including for the rebuilding of Iraq), not get away with Enron-style accounting tricks and alleged misdeeds,'' said Tom Fitton, president of the group Judicial Watch, in a statement. Fitton's salvo was prompted by a federal judge's dismissal this week of the group's lawsuit against Halliburton and Cheney, the company's chief executive officer (CEO) from 1995 to 2000.

But while Judicial Watch has been stymied on one front, earlier this summer it unearthed Commerce Department documents the group says illustrate that Cheney and his cronies were eyeing Iraqi oil two years ago. "Opponents of the (Iraq) war are going to point to the documents as evidence that oil was on the minds of the Bush administration in the run-up to the war," Fitton was reported to have said. The documents, he added, ''show the importance of the Energy Task Force and why its operations should be open to the public''. A Judicial Watch lawsuit is pending to discover more information, and other bodies are also questioning Cheney's actions.

On Aug. 25, the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released its report on the efforts of Cheney's 2001 energy task force, which the vice president has fought ferociously to keep from the public's eye. Congressman John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representative's Energy Committee, called the GAO report ''a sad chronicle of the efforts of the office of the vice president to hide its activities from the American people''.

The latest news strengthens the conviction, sparked by the previous disclosures of documents in and around the administration, that Iraqi oil was a goal long before President George W. Bush invoked the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction as a reason to invade that country. In May, it emerged that a high-level Pentagon policy document, 'Strategic Assessment 1999', had acknowledged that ''oil war'' was considered a legitimate U.S. military option while former president Bill Clinton was still in office. But while the Pentagon might have articulated the policy under Clinton, the Bush administration bears responsibility for questions of its pursuit, as well as where and when that pursuit was discussed.

Bush created the Cheney energy task force during his second week in office with the stated aim of developing "a national energy policy designed to help the private sector''. But controversy has swirled about the group since the summer of 2001, when the White House took the unusual step of refusing to publicly disclose internal Task Force documents. Bush has argued that disclosing such information would go against the U.S. Constitution's demand for a ''separation of powers'' between the different branches of government.

Like Bush, Cheney comes from an oil background, having served as CEO of Halliburton -- the Texas oil and gas giant whose Kellogg Brown and Root subsidiary provides much of the U.S. military's worldwide support services, especially in Iraq -- from 1995 until his run for the vice presidency. Cheney's relationship with the energy industry has been the basis of considerable speculation, particularly as his Task Force was reported to have provided the industry with preferential treatment when it prepared the National Energy Policy. Following the Policy's debut, news reports detailed how particular Industry ''wish-lists'' had been pursued almost verbatim.

But while questions of preferential access and treatment were piquing the interest of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) -- soon spawning their lawsuits as well as the first such GAO suit against the White House in its 81-year history -- the broader context of events has been slow to emerge.

Early in the Bush presidency the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) had joined with the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy to draft an energy proposal for the new administration. 'Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century' was the result. It forecast critical energy shortages unless oil and gas production was substantively boosted or conservation measures pursued, calling upon the administration to admit ''these agonising truths to the American people''. The report also saw both Caspian and Iraqi oil as answers to the projected crisis, additionally citing the possible need for ''military intervention'' to secure energy supplies.

Following in the footsteps of the Pentagon's ''oil war'' policy, the report's authors went on to urge that Cheney's task force include participation by the Department of Defence. The Task Force's recommendations were being delivered at about the same time that the U.S. Army War College featured a paper by Jeffrey Record, a former staff member of the Senate armed services committee, whose work has been promoted on the CFR website. Record argued the legitimacy of ''shooting in the Persian Gulf on behalf of lower gas prices'', additionally advocating that a president paint over such actions with a high-minded veneer, transforming them into a ''principled crusade''. Two months ago, a group of senior-level former U.S. intelligence officers sent an open letter to Bush calling for Cheney's resignation. They accuse the vice president of leading a ''campaign of deceit'' in promoting the Iraq war.

To date, the only Cheney task force materials released have been obtained via the governmental groups that the Task Force dealt with, and only as a product of lawsuits. But media reports have intimated a political bias behind some of the key court decisions concerning the Task Force. In December 2002, the GAO's suit was dismissed by Judge John Bates, a recent Bush appointee. Bates' decision found that the body had ''no standing'' to sue Cheney or any other executive branch official for information. Legal commentator John Dean (a former Republican presidential counsel) observed that Bates' ruling meant that the investigative arm of Congress had less power to compel the release of governmental information than an ordinary citizen.

But while the GAO suit is dead, a federal Appeals Court ruling in July has sparked political speculation anew. The Appeals Court rejected Cheney's efforts to block a lower court order that the Task Force begin turning over its records in the Judicial Watch suit or declare that the information contained in them is privileged and explain why. In reporting the decision by a three-judge panel of the court, media reports highlighted that the ruling split along political party lines. The case could now be appealed to either a full panel of the Appeals Court or to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nation's highest judicial body and one with a majority of Republican appointees.

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