Cheney breaks silence on shooting

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney took the blame on Wednesday for accidentally shooting a friend while bird hunting and said it was "one of the worst days of my life", but he dismissed concerns he waited too long to make it public.

Under pressure from Democrats and some Republicans to break his silence about his Saturday shooting of 78-year-old Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, Cheney described the incident to the Fox News Channel in dramatic fashion.

"The image of him falling is something that I'll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired and there's Harry falling. And it was ... one of the worst days of my life at that moment," Cheney said.

Whittington suffered a minor heart attack on Tuesday due to birdshot lodged hear his heart. Doctors treating him in Corpus Christi, Texas, said his heartbeat had returned to normal with the aid of medication.

Christus Spohn Hospital administrator Peter Banko said Whittington was mystified by all the attention over the incident and dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the Texas ranch where it occurred and who disclosed the accident to a Texas newspaper, faulted Whittington for not announcing his presence before getting sprayed with birdshot.

Cheney said he himself was to blame.

"You can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line. And it's not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else," Cheney said. "Ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

Cheney's goal was to avoid the issue becoming a political liability to President George W. Bush at a time when both men are suffering from low job approval ratings.

Secrecy

Democrats accused Cheney of a pattern of secrecy and said his interview with one news organisation was not enough.

"The vice president hasn't had a press conference in three and a half years and he ought to have one to clear the air not only on this issue, but more importantly on the many other issues that have been shrouded by a veil of secrecy," said New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.

A source familiar with Cheney's decision to break his silence said the vice president made the decision on his own to go public and did not have to be prompted by the president.

Cheney came under fire from both Republicans and Democrats for not getting the incident out to the public for 18 hours.

"He has been reluctant to share information with anyone, particularly the Congress and considers himself basically not bound by what others would see as normal requirements of transparency," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank.

White House officials have acknowledged privately they thought it was a mistake to wait. White House spokesman Scott McClellan was grilled repeatedly this week about the delay and replied that "you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job."

But Cheney unapologetically stuck to his decision to not release the information until the next day, saying it was important to get accurate information about it first.

Ranch owner Armstrong ultimately told The Corpus Christi Caller Times.

"I thought that was the right call. I still do," Cheney said. "I had no press person with me .... I was there on a private weekend with friends."

With Whittington on the ground bleeding, Cheney said he approached his friend and found him conscious. "I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there,'" Cheney said. He said Whittington did not respond.

Whittington was still in intensive care in Texas.

"He's in stable condition ... He's sitting up in a chair, eating regular food, and he actually plans on doing some of his attorney work in his room today," hospital administrator Banko said.

- REUTERS

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