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White House defends handling of Cheney shooting

Cheney gets warning from Parks and Wildlife Department

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(CNN) -- The White House is defending its delay in disclosing Vice President Dick Cheney's weekend hunting accident, telling reporters Monday the focus was on making sure the man Cheney shot got medical attention.

Cheney was hunting quail at a friend's South Texas ranch when he shot and wounded Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old attorney from Austin and Bush-Cheney campaign contributor, about 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

Whittington, who was hit with birdshot in the face, neck and upper torso, was being moved out of intensive care Monday at a hospital in Corpus Christi, officials at the facility said.

Sheriff's deputies in Kenedy County, near Corpus Christi, questioned Whittington on Monday. They had questioned Cheney on Sunday.

While the state Parks and Wildlife Department issued Cheney a warning for not possessing a required stamp on his hunting license, the sheriff's department said there was "no alcohol or misconduct involved in the incident."

"This department is fully satisfied that this was no more than a hunting accident," the Kenedy County Sheriff's Department announced in a statement issued Monday evening.

President Bush was told Saturday night that Cheney had been involved in a hunting accident, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. But Cheney's office did not acknowledge the shooting to the public until Sunday afternoon, after the family that owns the ranch told a Corpus Christi newspaper about it.

"It's important, always, to work to make sure you get information out like this as quickly as possible," McClellan said. "But it's also important to make sure that the first priority is focused where it should be, and that is making sure that Mr. Whittington has the care that he needs."

McClellan said Cheney agreed that his friend Katharine Armstrong, who saw the incident, should be the one to tell the newspaper. CNN and other news organizations confirmed the report with the vice president's office shortly after 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Cheney, an avid hunter, was shooting at a covey of quail at the Armstrong Ranch near Kingsville, southwest of Corpus Christi, when the accident occurred. Kenedy County Sheriff Ray Salinas said his deputies are conducting an investigation into the shooting but consider it an accident. (Full story)

Armstrong said no one discussed telling the public until Sunday morning, when she and her mother, ranch owner Anne Armstrong, raised the matter with Cheney. Saturday night, she said, "The only concern we all had was about Harry."

Asked whether it was appropriate "for a private citizen to be the person to disseminate the information that the vice president of the United States has shot someone," McClellan said, "That's one way to provide information to the public.

"The vice president spoke with her directly and agreed that she should make it public and that they would provide additional information," he said.

McClellan said he was not aware that Cheney had shot someone until about 6 a.m. Sunday.

Cheney returned to Washington on Monday. Asked whether the vice president would answer questions about the matter, McClellan referred reporters to Cheney's office.

Wounds 'superficial at best'

Whittington, a prominent Texas Republican, was among a handful of people accompanying the vice president when the accident occurred Saturday afternoon. Cheney visited him Sunday "and was pleased to see he is doing fine and in good spirits," spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said.

Peter Banko, a spokesman for Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, said Monday that Whittington was making good progress but was likely to remain hospitalized for another few days.

"He is talking, awake, alert and in good humor," he said.

Dr. David Blanchard, the emergency room chief at Christus Spohn, said Whittington was hit by "many, many" pellets. But he said most of the wounds were "superficial at best," and many of the pellets would be left inside Whittington's body.

Armstrong said Whittington was about 30 yards from Cheney when the vice president fired. She said Whittington had just shot a quail and dropped back to retrieve it. He was hit upon rejoining the group and "apparently came up unannounced" as Cheney prepared to fire.

Cheney and his wife, Lynne, are longtime friends of the Armstrong family and have often visited their 50,000-acre ranch. When Katharine Armstrong's father, longtime Kenedy County commissioner Tobin Armstrong, died in October, Cheney delivered a eulogy at the funeral, along with former Secretary of State James Baker.

Armstrong is the daughter of ranch owner Anne Armstrong, who served as U.S. ambassador to Britain in the Ford administration. She has also served on the board of directors of Halliburton, the oilfield services company Cheney ran before becoming vice president. Cheney was hired as the company's chief operating officer in 1995.

Prominent GOP activist

Whittington, a prominent Texas Republican, has been active in state politics since the 1960s and served as chairman of the state Board of Corrections from 1979 to 1985. In 1999, then-Governor Bush named him to the state Funeral Services Commission, which had been stung by allegations of widespread corruption and mismanagement in the industry. (Whittington profile)

He contributed $1,000 to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and $2,000 to his 2004 re-election bid.

Katharine Armstrong said Cheney has gone hunting there for at least 15 years, and she called him "a very conscientious hunter."

"I would shoot with Dick Cheney everywhere, anywhere, and not think twice about it," she said Sunday night. But she said, "The nature of quail shooting ensures that this will happen. It goes with the turf."

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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