J. William Leonard learned the hard way the perils of questioning Vice President Dick Cheney. The veteran National Archives official challenged claims by the Office of Vice President (OVP) to be exempt from federal rules governing classified information. His efforts touched off a firestorm—and a counter-strike by Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, who tried to wipe out Leonard's job. (Addington did not respond to requests for comment on the subject.)
Now, Leonard is quitting as director of the Archives' Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO)—the unit that monitors the handling of government secrets. He tells NEWSWEEK that his fight with Cheney's office was a "contributing" factor in his decision to retire after 34 years of government service.
Leonard-described by National Archivist Allen Weinstein as "the gold standard of information specialists in the federal government"-spoke to NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Explain how all this happened.
Leonard: Up until 2002, OVP was just like any other agency. Subsequent to that, they stopped reporting to us…At first, I took that to be, 'we're too busy.' Then we routinely attempted to do a review of the OVP and it was at that point in time it was articulated back to me that: 'well they weren't really subject to our reviews.' I didn't agree with it. But you know, there is a big fence around the White House. I didn't know how I could get in there if somebody didn't want me to.
So how did matters escalate?
The challenge arose last year when the Chicago Tribune was looking at [ISOO's annual report] and saw the asterisk [reporting that it contained no information from OVP] and decided to follow up. And that's when the spokesperson from the OVP made public this idea that because they have both legislative and executive functions, that requirement doesn't apply to them.…They were saying the basic rules didn't apply to them. I thought that was a rather remarkable position. So I wrote my letter to the Attorney General [asking for a ruling that Cheney's office had to comply.] Then it was shortly after that there were [email] recommendations [from OVP to a National Security Council task force] to change the executive order that would effectively abolish [my] office.
Who wrote the emails?
It was David Addington.
No explanation was offered?
No. It was strike this, strike that. Anyplace you saw the words, "the director of ISOO" or "ISOO" it was struck.
What was your reaction?
I was disappointed that rather than engage on the substance of an issue, some people would resort to that…
What rules were they saying didn't apply to them?
The ones that tell you how you mark [classified documents], how you declassify, how you safeguard them, how you store…
Ultimately, the White House said the president never intended that the vice president would have to comply. This had to have been frustrating -to have been publicly thwarted for doing what you saw as your job?
Well, you know, that I've had 34 years of frustration. That's life in the big city. I also accept that I'm not always right….But this was a big thing as far as I was concerned.
A number of people have noted that the vice president's office stopped reporting to you and complying with ISOO in the fall of 2003 when the whole Valerie Plame case blew up. Do you think there was a connection?
I don't have any insight. I was held at arms length [from that.] But some of the things based on what I've read [have] given me cause for concern. A number of prosecution exhibits [in the Plame-related perjury trial of I. Scooter Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff] were annotated, 'handle as SCI.' SCI is Sensitive Compartmentalized Information, the most sensitive classified information there is. As I recall, [one of them] was [the vice president and his staff] were coming back from Norfolk where they had attended a ship commissioning and they were conferring on the plane about coming up with a [media] response plan [to the allegations of Plame's husband, Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson.] That was one of the exhibits marked, 'handle as SCI.'
These were internal communications about what to say to the press?
Let me give you some the irony of that. Part of the National Archives is the presidential libraries….So we're going to have documents [at the libraries] with the most sensitive markings on it that isn't even classified. If I were going to do a review [of OVP], that would be one of the questions I would want to ask: What is this practice? And how widespread is it? And what is the rationale? How do we assure that people don't get this mixed up with real secrets?
Is too much government business conducted in secret?
One of the things I've reflected on lately is that I truly believe we need to introduce a new balancing test. In the past, we've looked at it as, 'we have to balance national security against the public's right to know or whatever.' My balancing test would be national security versus national security: yes, disclosing information may cause damage, but you know what, withholding that information may even cause greater damage… And I don't think we sufficiently taken that into greater account.
The global struggle that we're engaged in today is more than anything else is an ideological struggle. And in my mind….that calls for greater transparency, not less transparency. We're in a situation where we're attempting to win over the hearts and minds of the world's population. And yet, we seem to have a habit—when we restrict information, we're often times find ourselves in a position where we're ceding the playing field to the other side. We allow ourselves to be almost reduced to a caricature by taking positions on certain issues, oh , we simply can't talk about that.