Where There’s a Pipe, There’s Smoke

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

There’s nothing that stimulates the juices of investigative journalists quite as much as the release of heretofore hidden documents. The notion of irrefutable proof of corruption—people lie, but memos always tell the truth—is so central to the myth of crusading journalism that it’s part of the national language: the paper trail or, most significantly, “The Smoking Gun.”

And thus Enron junkies (we know who we are) were eagerly anticipating some 11,000 pages of documents pulled out of the Department of Energy this week, thanks to lawsuits from the Natural Resources Defense Council and others. While not specifically focused on Enron, the paperwork surrounding Dick Cheney’s energy task force gives a glimpse into the cozy world of energy executives and federal policy-makers.

Do the documents deliver? To an extent. The administration’s claim that it balanced the views of huge Republican contributors like Enron’s Kenneth Lay with the concerns of environmentalists and consumer groups has been amply demonstrated to be a fib. Both Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham refused to meet with NRDC and related green groups, at best whisking them off to lower-level staffers. By contrast, as the New York Times reported yesterday, the most powerful doors were almost always open to anyone whose hands were dripping with oil.

The DOE documents give a clear view of the policy implications flowing from this privileged access. I hope there are still U.S. citizens who find it shocking that substantial portions of the executive order for energy policy that Bush signed on May 18 were literally drafted by the American Petroleum Institute. (You can read it, with the accompanying e-mail message from API, here.)

Personally, the debt of the Bush clan to the oil industry seems like such an a priori political assumption that having API write the federal policy almost looks like an efficiency. Letting the regulated write the regulations may be wrong, but it’s kind of a GOP tradition, the Bush administration’s homage to Reagan and Gingrich.

And that’s where the impact of these DOE documents hits its limit. If you’ve paid any attention to the Cheney task force stories, you know that energy executives wrote the administration’s policies; the rest is just connecting the dots.

But this story is far from over, and the DOE documents do give the sense that some smoke might yet emerge from this pistol, for a very simple reason: The administration seems incredibly paranoid about the release of this information. Cheney’s refusal to disclose even rudimentary facts about his deliberations, while frustrating and probably counterproductive, at least has the fig leaf of constitutional justification surrounding it. But the DOE documents have been censored (the official term is “redacted”) so heavily and seemingly unnecessarily that they give off an odor of coverup.

Aficionados of the Freedom of Information Act are of course familiar with memos that have portions blackened out. There are several legal justifications for withholding information, many of them valid, such as protecting national security (e.g., the location of a nuclear missile) or protecting the identity of confidential informants, whether in law enforcement or spying.

When the issues at stake are as innocuous as who met with whom and what they discussed, one generally encounters a lower level of redaction. But not in this instance; some of the DOE pages, for example, are entirely blank. One page is blank except for the words “I hope this information helps, PJD.” What information? It’s a maddening tease.

There may be innocent explanations for the overwhelming secrecy. People tend to forget that the DOE, while responsible for soft-sounding issues like energy policy, also has substantial nuclear responsibilities; it’s probably the federal department most thoroughly integrated with the military after the Department of Defense. The DOE’s secrecy habit is deeply ingrained. Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense that something potent is being intentionally withheld.