Cheney: Shooting friend was 'one of worst days of my life'

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The Independent US

Dick Cheney took full responsibility yesterday for shooting a friend in a hunting accident last weekend. He called the incident "one of the worst days of my life", saying "the image of him falling is something I'll never get out of my mind".

In an interview with the conservative Fox News cable channel, the normally reticent and secretive Vice-President gave his first personal account of how he peppered Harry Whittington with birdshot while shooting quail on a Texas ranch on Saturday. "It's not Harry's fault, you can't blame anyone else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

Yesterday the 78-year-old attorney, who suffered a minor heart attack, was still in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital in Corpus Christi, 60 miles from where the accident happened.

A hospital spokesman said he was in a stable condition and doing well, " sitting up in a chair, eating regular food and planning to do some of his regular attorney's work". Though he was being closely monitored, Mr Whittington was in the ICU mainly for privacy reasons, the spokesman added.

Until now the Vice-President - whose secretive ways and disdain for the press are legendary here - had issued only two written statements. But under intense pressure from Democrats, Republicans and President Bush's own staffers, he had little choice but to speak out.

Mr Cheney described how he had turned and shot, only to realise he had hit Mr Whittington, some 30 yards away. "I ran over to him. He was lying on his back bleeding ... he was conscious. I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there.' He didn't respond." Fortunately however, the Vice-President is accompanied by a medical team wherever he goes. They administered emergency treatment before Mr Whittington was taken to Corpus Christi.

But it was not clear whether Mr Cheney's interview would draw a line under what has been a PR disaster for the Bush administration, reinforcing its reputation for secrecy and highhandedness. For all the wrong reasons, Mr Cheney - perhaps the most powerful Vice-President in US history - has become even bigger news than his boss over the past three days. The episode has created visible tensions between the President's aides and Mr Cheney's own staff, insistent until yesterday that things be handled their way.

Under criticism from the White House press corps, Scott McClellan, the President's spokesman, let it be known that but for the Cheney camp's insistence, the White House would have spoken far more promptly.

Marlin Fitzwater, the spokesman for Presidents Reagan and Bush Snr, said he was "appalled" by how matters had unfolded. "The responsibility for handling this, of course, was Cheney's," he told the Editor and Publisher magazine yesterday, and a full account "could have been put out in about two hours on Saturday". In the event it dribbled out the following midday on the website of the local Corpus Christi newspaper, which had been tipped off by Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the hunt took place - it is said at the suggestion of Mr Cheney.

The move instantly backfired as White House reporters angrily asked Mr McClellan why they had not been told earlier.

Mr Cheney told Fox News he had no regrets about his decision. "I thought Katharine should put it out. She was there, she saw the whole thing happened. I though that was the right call. I still do."

The President's popularity is at a low ebb, sapped by the intractable insurgency in Iraq and by the controversy over warrant-less domestic wiretapping by the super-secret National Security Agency. Mr Cheney has been both architect and unrepentant advocate of the Iraq adventure, and a staunch defender of the legality of the NSA operation.

* Dick Cheney said yesterday he may be called as a witness in the case of his former aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who faces perjury and other charges in the leak of a CIA operative's identity. Mr Cheney refused to comment on reports that he directed Libby to use classified material to discredit a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war effort, saying: "It's nothing I can talk about."