The Cheney Branch of Government

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Vice President Dick Cheney

On the same day that the CIA announced it will soon release hundreds of pages of once-classified documents that detail some of the agency's most closely guarded — and controversial — secrets of old, it was revealed that Vice President Dick Cheney has been resisting even his own Executive Branch's efforts to find out what kind of secret material his office has been stashing away over the last four years.

Cheney's office, according to a story first reported by the Chicago Tribune, has resisted attempts by a tiny federal agency to compile information — in accordance with an executive order signed by George Bush himself — on the classified documents being held by the Vice President's operation. Cheney's office argued that the Vice President's office, because it has both executive and legislative branch duties, is exempt from the order.

Cheney's dustup with the normally non-controversial National Archives and Records Administration is the latest reminder that Cheney believes he can play by his own rules. And it probably secures for Cheney a place alongside Richard Nixon in the Washington pantheon of secret-keepers.

It is useful to tally up the ironies that are piling up outside the Veep's door. Cheney was chosen by Bush as a running mate in 2000 not because he had any visible political assets but because he had no political liabilities. He was believed to be just what Bush needed: a chief operating officer who would give great advice, based on his years of experience, and who, because he had no ambitions for his boss's job, wouldn't have his own agenda. But as it turned out, a lot of his advice, delivered privately, has been poor — and some of it (Iraq) was calamitous. His political antennae are usually furled and not very sensitive. And so rather than proving to be an asset with no liabilities, he has turned out to be a liability with hard-to-identify assets.

Yet Cheney remains quite powerful. That is at least partly because, unlike other powerful figures who became liabilities in previous administrations, there is no moving him along. You can't fire him. You can't reorganize him into another job. You can't compost him — and find someone to squeeze in on top of him. And there is no evidence that Bush would if he could, though just about every Republican I know privately wonders about this. One former Bush adviser posed the question in a recent conversation: After Iraq, does the President weigh Cheney's advice in the same way?

Cheney's resistance to oversight by anyone — congressional or executive — isn't new. It dates to the mid-1970s, when a Democratic Congress, emboldened by the excesses of Watergate, reined in the executive branch in a variety of ways: imposing a new budget regimen on the Presidency, passing a war powers law that tied its hands overseas and holding months of oversight hearings of agencies like the FBI and CIA, which had run amok in the Nixon era.

If it sounds a little familiar, it is partly because many of the same Democrats who were around in 1975 — David Obey, Henry Waxman and George Miller — are now powerful players in the Democratic House who, for the first time in 12 years, have subpoena power again.

It is a classic confrontation more than 30 years in the making, and it will continue until the Bush era ends: One side is completely comfortable with using its subpoena power against an executive branch, while the other is utterly content to ignore it.