Secrecy Cloaked During Election Campaign

NEW YORK – "It’s always a fight to find out what the government doesn’t want us to know. It’s a fight we’re once again losing. … [President Bush] has clamped a lid on public access. … It’s not just historians and journalists he wants locked out; it’s Congress … and it’s you, the public, and your representatives."

These are the words of Bill Moyers, one of the U.S.’ most respected broadcast journalists. Moyers was press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson when Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. That law established the principle that the public should have broad access to government records.

In his NOW program on U.S. public television, Moyers condemns the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy. "We’re told it’s all about national security, but that’s not so," he says.

Government secrecy, never discussed during the just-concluded presidential campaign, is likely to move back to the front burner when the "lame duck" Congress continues the deliberations it failed to complete before the Nov. 2 election.

For example, according to The Palm Beach Post, "Civil liberties groups and advocates of open government are alarmed at a provision moving rapidly in Congress that would give a new national intelligence director power to keep information secret to protect intelligence ‘sources and methods.’"

The provision is included in the two intelligence reform bills – responses to the report of the 9/11 Commission that probed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – being merged by negotiators from the two houses of Congress.

Critics say the provision could lead to a major expansion of government secrecy by increasing exemptions to the FOIA.

Under current law, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has power to exempt sensitive information from public disclosure by labeling it vital to national security. Advocates of open government fear that power could be extended broadly under the proposed bill.

The measure could allow all agencies under the proposed intelligence director to claim the information exemption, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Treasury Department, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The national security exemption does not allow judicial review, meaning agencies would not have to explain their secrecy to a court.

Battles over government secrecy are also likely to affect Bush’s second-term environmental initiatives.

Gannett News Service reports, "Environmentalists expect continued battles with President Bush in his second term over federal policies affecting public lands, wildlife, and water in the West."

It quotes Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, a leading U.S. environmental group, who predicts an ongoing battle. "We can expect more government secrecy, more suppression of basic scientific data, even efforts to deny citizens the basic right to appear in court to defend themselves and their communities against environmental assaults and dangers."

Similarly, many journalists expect the president’s relationships with the Washington press corps – never famous for their transparency – to become even more secretive.

An article in The Washingtonian magazine quotes the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association: "They have a remarkable ability to control the message. After this election, it will be even harder than ever. They don’t need us any more."

A recent report accuses the Bush administration of a "systematic effort to limit the application of the laws that promote open government and accountability," adding it has "sought to curtail public access to information while expanding the powers of government to operate in secret."

Authored by Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and one of the administration’s most vocal critics on the subject of secrecy, the comprehensive report alleges that both U.S. citizens and Congress are being denied access to millions of pages of documents to which they are entitled under law.

"The actions of the Bush administration have resulted in an extraordinary expansion of government secrecy. External watchdogs, including Congress, the media, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have consistently been hindered in their ability to monitor government activities."

The report finds "a consistent pattern in the administration’s actions: laws that are designed to promote public access to information have been undermined, while laws that authorize the government to withhold information or to operate in secret have repeatedly been expanded. The cumulative result is an unprecedented assault on the principle of open government."

That secrecy affected the work of the 9/11 Commission, adds the Waxman report.

Throughout the probe the administration "resisted or delayed providing the commission with important information. For example, the administration’s refusal to turn over documents forced the commission to issue subpoenas to the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration."

The report accuses the administration of systematically withholding "a vast array" of records from Congress, on subjects ranging "from simple census data and routine agency correspondence to presidential and vice presidential records."

Documents it says the administration has refused to release to the public and members of Congress include "the contacts between energy companies and the vice president’s energy task force [and] communications between the Defense Department and the vice president’s office regarding contracts awarded to Halliburton" (a major defense contractor and recipient of millions dollars worth of contracts in Iraq now accused of fraud for some of those dealings).

Also kept secret, according to Waxman’s report: "documents describing the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib [in Iraq], memoranda revealing what the White House knew about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation withheld from Congress."

Designating documents as "classified" has frequently provided the executive branch of the U.S. government with a rationale to keep them out of the public eye.

Open The Government, a Washington-based coalition of journalists and government watchdog groups, recently released a "Secrecy Report Card" declaring, "Government data now confirm what many have suspected: secrecy has increased dramatically in recent years under policies of the current administration."

The group says the administration classified 14 million new documents in fiscal year 2003, an increase of 60 percent over the comparable figure for fiscal year 2001.

The Waxman report also alleges the administration has "has issued guidance instructing agencies to withhold a broad and undefined category of ‘sensitive’ information."

Among the victims, the report says, is Congress itself. "On over 100 separate occasions, the administration has refused to answer the inquiries of, or provide the information requested" by Waxman in his role as the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives committee on government reform.

It has also refused to furnish, "documents requested by the ranking members of eight House committees relating to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere," adds the report.

One of the country’s leading news magazines, U.S. News and World Report, supports the Waxman report’s findings.

"For the past three years, the Bush administration has quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government – cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety and environmental matters."

"The result," it added, "has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.