Slow Leak: How Cheney Stalled News Reports of Hunting Accident

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Cheney had his own plan for getting the word out, sources say

The Vice President was the press strategist, and Karl Rove was the investigative reporter. Vice President Cheney overruled the advice of several members of the White House staff and insisted on sticking to a plan for releasing information about his hunting accident that resulted in a 20-hour, overnight delay in public confirmation of the startling incident, according to several Republican sources.

"This is either a cover-up story or an incompetence story," said a top Republican who is close to the White House and has rarely been critical of the Administration in the past five years. "Karl was constrained, as was the entire communications operation, because the Vice President had arranged for how this was to come out."

As described by the White House spokesman at a pair of rowdy briefings and in a follow-up e-mail to reporters, Cheney accidentally shot a 78-year-old hunting companion on a ranch near Corpus Christi on Saturday at about 5:30 p.m. local time, or 6:30 p.m. in Washington. A traveling aide to the Vice President gave what one official privately called a "heads up" to the staff at the White House Situation Room, who notified White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. He called President Bush around 7:30 p.m. "to inform him that there was a hunting accident" in the Vice President's group, a spokesman said, but Card "did not know the Vice President was involved at that time," according to an e-mail to White House reporters. Rove, a deputy chief of staff, later spoke to the ranch owner, who is a longtime friend, and discovered that the Vice President had acccidentally shot someone. Rove called Bush shortly before 8 p.m. to tell him, according to the e-mail. Press Secretary Scott McClellan was not told until 6 the next morning. At that time, he began "pushing to get the information out," according to an official who learned about the conversations from someone besides McClellan.

But that did not happen right away. Cheney insisted on carrying out a strategy he had worked out with the ranch owner, Katharine Armstrong, in which she was to call a trusted reporter at the local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, to disclose the news. Caller-Times Managing Editor Shane Fitzgerald told TIME that the newspaper had done its usual nightly checks with local law enforcement agents on Saturday and had been told nothing was going on. Armstrong started leaving messages at the newspaper at 8 a.m., reached a reporter by 11 a.m. and the newspaper posted its story on the Web at 1:48 p.m. local time Sunday. At 3:34 p.m. Eastern Time, The Associated Press finally flashed the news: "Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and injured a man during a hunting trip in Texas." Fitzgerald said he is "mystified" about the chain of events and that the public should have been notified much earlier, even if the shooter had been some random guy. Even on Monday, the newspaper struggled to get a copy of the accident report. "I think it has become a bigger deal than Mr. Cheney and/or the White House anticipated," the editor said.

That is perhaps the understatement of the day. McClellan endured two of his testiest briefings ever, with NBC's David Gregory saying at an off-camera morning briefing that the Administration neglected its duty to put out the information and that White House reporters "don't care if some ranch owner calls a local paper." McClellan accused Gregory of grandstanding: "Hold on. Cameras aren't on right now. You can do this later." That infuriated Gregory. "You don't have to yell," McClellan said. Gregory shot back: "I will yell. If you want to use that podium and try to take shots at me personally, which I don't appreciate, then I will raise my voice, because that's wrong." McClellan said: "Calm down, David."

On Monday night, the Vice President's office said in its first written statement about the incident that although Cheney was carrying a $125 Texas non-resident season hunting license, he did not have the required $7 stamp for for hunting upland game birds. The statement said the Vice President had overpaid by buying a Federal stamp he already possessed. "The staff asked for all permits needed, but was not informed of the $7 upland game bird stamp requirement," the statement said. the check was sent Monday, the statement said.

McClellan said during his on-camera afternoon briefing: "You can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job." But he made it clear that the Vice President had been calling the shots, and that McClellan's own approach had been different in the past. "I think it's always important to get information out as quickly as possible," he said. "I think of a similar incident when the President was in Gleneagles, Scotland, and he had a biking accident with a police officer there, and I quickly tried to give that information to the press through the pool reporter and provide that information to you all." Late-night comics had their predicted field day. "We can't get Bin Laden," David Letterman said on CBS, "but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney."

The Vice President was at the White House yesterday, but did not meet reporters. He has no public events scheduled on Tuesday. So the staff will continue to be peppered with questions that only the boss can answer.