Washington — Setting the stage for a showdown with congressional Enron investigators, President Bush said Monday he will not identify the executives who met with him about energy policy.
"It's an encroachment on the executive branch's ability to conduct business," he said.
The head of the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, said he will decide this week whether to sue to force the White House to turn over documents on the meetings Vice President Dick Cheney held with energy companies. They included the now-collapsed Enron Corp., a Houston-based concern with deep ties to Bush.
Bush said that as president he reserves the right to hold private consultations about policy. Like Cheney, who predicted this matter will be resolved in court, Bush said he would resist the GAO's efforts.
"In order for me to be able to get good, sound opinions, those who offer me opinions, or offer the vice president opinions, must know that every word they say is not going to be put into the public record," Bush said. "We're not going to let the ability for us to discuss matters between ourselves to become eroded."
The White House has said that representatives of Enron, the troubled energy trader that was ranked as the seventh-largest U.S. corporation, met six times last year with Cheney or his aides to discuss energy issues. The GAO has not announced a decision about its next steps but its head, Comptroller General David Walker, said Sunday, "The ball is in the White House's court."
The White House went into a protective stance Monday, as if the GAO had already decided to sue. When asked whether the White House would try to avoid a lawsuit, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer noted the flurry of news stories about the matter and said: "If you read what they leaked over the weekend, they've already said they're going to."
In an interview with CNN, Cheney said the administration made these same arguments against disclosure with the GAO last summer, and the agency backed off at that time.
"I think because they know they've got a weak case," he said.
"What's happened now, since Enron's collapse, is the suggestion that somehow now the GAO ought to come back and get this information," Cheney said. "The collapse of Enron in no way, shape or form affects the basic principles we're trying to protect here. This is about the ability of future presidents and vice presidents to do their job."