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Court: Cheney Energy Policy Meetings Can Stay Secret

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A federal appeals court has turned aside an effort to learn who advised Vice President Cheney as he put together an energy plan. Cheney convened a government task force to help create a federal energy policy. Representatives of the energy industry gave their input. Among its many provisions, the policy proposed more oil drilling, more nuclear power plants and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Journalists and interest groups sued to find out which energy executives were involved. During the trial, Shannen Coffin was one of the lawyers who defended the White House side which now appears victorious, and Shannen Coffin joins us now.

Good morning.

Mr. SHANNEN COFFIN (Attorney): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Different groups requested a lot of information, I know, but one request was just for the names of people who came to speak to the vice president's task force about energy policy. What's wrong with just releasing the names?

Mr. COFFIN: Well, it's not much different than the media's battles often not to release the names of people they met with in formulating their stories. The concern is that there would be a chilling effect on the candor that the president would receive and the advice that he'd get.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you raise that comparison to journalists. Journalists right now are debating anonymous sources. Occasionally journalists will say they're essential, but a lot of journalists these days are saying that they're frequently bad, that they diminish public trust in the media, that you actually end up with worse information. How do you avoid diminishing public trust in what the government does if you don't provide information about what the government is doing and who they're talking to?

Mr. COFFIN: Well, first of all, it's important to note that the interests here of the president are even more important from a constitutional perspective. As the court said, the president has to be free--and this court was simply following other courts--that the president has to be free to seek confidential information from many sources. Here, the public has got the end result of the president's advice. There was a multipage report on energy policy that was issued by the White House. So the public was able to see what the end result of the meetings were and digest that policy for what it was.

INSKEEP: Mr. Coffin, even though you were victorious in this long series of court rulings, some of the information has come out over time. For example, it became known in 2002 that Ken Lay, the head of Enron, had met Vice President Cheney and that the next day Vice President Cheney announced Bush administration policy on the power shortage in California, which was a matter that affected Enron. What harm was done to the White House or to the country by the public knowing that information...

Mr. COFFIN: By the public knowing that information...

INSKEEP: ...because this is the kind of information we're talking about?

Mr. COFFIN: ...well, first of all, I mean, that information was disclosed by the White House. So the White House provided that information to Congress. Congress asked the White House how many times representatives from the White House met with representatives from Enron, and the White House gave that answer.

INSKEEP: And very briefly if you can provide that information, why not provide a little more?

Mr. COFFIN: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Repeat that question?

INSKEEP: If you can provide information, why not just provide a little more?

Mr. COFFIN: Well, I mean, where do you draw the line is the question, and the answer to that question that the court gave is that the White House has the ability to do that. The president has the ability to decide when and how information like this should be disclosed, and it's not up to Congress and the courts to do so. So this was a real vindication of a very important constitutional principle that the White House was fighting for.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much.

Mr. COFFIN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: That's attorney Shannen Coffin of the DC law firm Steptoe & Johnson.

You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.