WASHINGTON – Government lawyers admitted to a judge Thursday that they haven't reviewed all of the documents from Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, despite claiming every one is sensitive and should be kept secret.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the documents to released by Nov. 5 and said he was shocked that Justice Department lawyers had not examined them all after asserting for more than a year that each involved confidential information.
"That is a startling revelation," Sullivan said, ordering the government to either produce the documents or supply a list of each one being withheld and the reasons they are sensitive.
Sullivan gave the government an opportunity to object to his decision, scheduling an Oct. 31 hearing. The judge acknowledged a federal appeals court may end up deciding the issue.
Larry Klayman, chairman and general counsel of the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch, which is suing to obtain the documents, said the White House claims are "a demonstration of the bad faith in this case."
Shannen W. Coffin, a deputy assistant attorney general, said White House lawyers haven't finished reviewing the documents and would not be asked to do so because it would be "too burdensome."
Sharply questioned by the judge, Coffin tried several times to explain himself more fully, then said he had misspoken.
"We have done a review. We haven't completed it," he said finally. "We haven't done everything necessary for a [document] production."
In court papers handed out Thursday, the government asserted the documents involve "sensitive deliberations at the highest levels of the executive branch, including presumptively privileged presidential communications."
The government argued in a Sept. 3 memo that the documents "all involve sensitive communications between and among the president and his closest advisers," and turning them over would "raise separation-of-powers concerns."
"The fact that all or nearly all of the requested information in a given case might be privileged suggests the presence, not the absence, of a separation-of-powers problem," the Justice Department wrote.
Besides Judicial Watch, environmentalists and the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have sued to get the documents.
They have argued the public has a right to learn whether industry influenced the task force's national energy plan. The White House energy bill is bogged down in negotiations between the House and Senate.
Federal agencies have provided thousands of pages of documents to the private groups.
Klayman urged the judge to require quick action by the Bush administration because "what they're trying to do is to get past the election" next month and, possibly, beyond the 2004 presidential election.
"Their entire strategy is delay. That's why they're willing to thumb their nose at the court," Klayman said.