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June 7, 2006

Adventures in the Washington Echo Chamber

Persuading reluctant sources to talk is always a challenge -- especially when you’re writing about the phenomenon of official silence. In reporting on secrecy in the vice president’s office, I found myself running up against the Catch-22 encountered by many open-government advocates: it’s hard to pinpoint an inquiry when you’re poking around in an information blackout.

The first hurdle was that, perhaps not surprisingly, the VP's press office does not make its contact information public. After digging up a phone number with the help of another reporter, I asked for an explanation of Cheney’s self-exemption from the reporting requirements for classification activity.

Spokesperson Lea Anne McBride replied promptly: "This matter has been carefully reviewed, and it has been determined that the reporting requirement does not apply to [the Office of the Vice President], which has both executive and legislative functions."

Fair enough. So I followed up by asking 1) whether there was something specifically in the executive order that bars entities with some legislative functions from complying with the reporting mandate, and also 2) whether this determination was made in 2003 – with the implication that this is a fairly recent development, after the Vice President had complied with the order for some time.

These questions were raised in a phone conversation with another press officer, but received the same basic one-line reply. Finally, an email to Ms. McBride yielded this illuminating response:

"Thanks for following up for clarification – this requirement has been thoroughly reviewed. After this careful consideration, it was determined that this requirement not to apply to the Office of the Vice President.  Thanks again."

Apparently, "clarification" consists of no less than three different versions of the same one-line statement.

I was beginning to think that I must have made a poor first impression on Team Cheney, but then realized that the same response, verbatim, had turned up in other media coverage of the Office’s classification activity.

And then I stumbled across this gem from the May issue of The American Prospect. In a dissection of Cheney’s staff, senior correspondent Robert Dreyfuss has this to say about the VP’s communications staff:

It is… especially Cheney’s press secretaries – he has run through seven of them -- whose job is saying nothing, and saying it often. His press people seem shocked that a reporter would even ask for an interview with the staff. The blanket answer is no -- nobody is available. Amazingly, the vice president’s office flatly refuses to even disclose who works there, or what their titles are. "We just don’t give out that kind of information," says Jennifer Mayfield, another of Cheney’s "angels." She won’t say who is on staff, or what they do? No, she insists. "It’s just not something we talk about."

Shucks. And I thought it was just me.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.