Bush Administration's Habits of Secrecy Unprecedented and
On May 13, 1798, founding father and future fourth American President James Madison must have been thinking about President George Bush when he wrote to Vice President Thomas Jefferson, "Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad." Bush uses the pretext of national security to justify increased government secrecy and control of information, even for information that has nothing to do with protecting America from threats. In the name of terrorism the Bush Administration is using secrecy to control access to reams of self-damaging information and keep it away from the people so as to protect the administration and his father.
White House, Habits of Secrecy
President Bush has always resisted disclosing information about executive-branch decision making and activities. The White House has offered an extremely limited number of press conferences and Q&A sessions with President Bush. Often the only members of the public allowed to ask questions at 'town hall' events have signed Bush loyalty oaths before the carefully scripted events. (Compare this to British Prime Minister Tony Blair who periodically answers televised questions from elected officials.) The Bush administration also steadfastly refused to provide intelligence reports to the 9-11 commission investigating the attacks until the threat of a subpoena, even with substantial media attention. We now know Bush wanted the reports kept secret because they contained potentially embarrassing information. A report by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks found secrecy, or over-classification, is thwarting the government's ability to fight terrorists. Sens. Trent Lott (R-MI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) noted in an op-ed column in the New York Times that 9-11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean observed that "three-quarters of the classified material he reviewed for the commission should not have been classified in the fist place." Lott and Wyden criticized secrecy as excessive, saying it "has become so pervasive in the federal government that it's often unclear whether facts are classified for legitimate security reasons, or simply for the political protection of agencies and officials.
Regulatory Commission Defeats Community Activism
A former U.S. Army Ranger Captain, Joseph McCormick, wanted to find out more about a large natural gas pipeline slated to run through middle of his community. McCormick's goal was to exercise his right organize a protest against the construction, the first step of which was to discover which residents would be affected by the 100 foot wide, miles long, tree-cleared area through which the 30 inch high-pressure pipe would run. The Greenbrier Pipeline Company refused McCormick access to construction plans and a project map, so the Ranger turned to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The FERC denied McCormick's request on the basis that revealing the route could make information accessible to terrorists, even though the information was previously available to the public. McCormick has said he was bewildered. "I understand about security," the former business executive said, "But there certainly is a balance--it's about people's right to use the information of an open society to protect their rights." "It strikes me as not the full story," said McCormick of the notion that keeping critical information from an enemy was the reason for the government not revealing details of the enormous project. The FERC now classifies as secret even the most basic information about similar projects. An agency official has said its approach is "balanced," adding that security concerns amply justify the changes. When another local resident, Gini Cooper, was also rebuffed in her attempt to get pipeline information, she filed what is called a FOIA or Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Passed in 1966, the act is designed to protect the public's right to know. What she got in return was a list of planned affected landowners, about 80 pages long, with all of the names blacked out. Government officials later approved the pipeline, due in part to less effective opposition from the community, which in turn was partly the result of the FERC not providing a precise map of the project and disclosing its affected landowners. And in case you are a terrorist (please, do not read this if you are) and want to blow up the natural gas pipe, you can now freely enter the library in Floyd--without identification, criminal background check or even a card identifying you as a non-Muslim--and read a map which contains its exact route.
Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group, Super Secret
The National Energy Policy Development Group, an energy task force run by Vice President Dick Cheney, is another example of the Bush administration's reluctance to providing information. In May 2001 the task force released a report urging increased gas and oil drilling (including on public land) and easing regulatory barriers to building nuclear power plants. Because the White House refused to provide a satisfactory amount of internal documents about the task force, such as the names of its members, the antagonist activist groups Sierra Club and the gadfly Judicial Watch sued to obtain access to the records. They said that energy industry bigwigs were de facto task force members and therefore subject to a 1972 law called the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires disclosure of the work of advisory groups that include non-federal employees. The act requires such government committees to make their membership "fairly balanced in terms of points of view" and to hold meetings in public. Congress's General Accounting Office had already sued Cheney on February 22, 2002 for refusing to disclose the records, but lost its case. With the second litigation, a federal judge told the White House to provide the records, which was then appealed to the Supreme Court. The court battle continues. The White House is arguing the court cannot force Cheney to provide information about his advice to the president, citing the Constitution's separation of powers clause. Despite significant media attention, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to provide details regarding who the vice president met with in formulating the energy policy, reportedly saying such action would deprive the executive branch of the freedom to solicit wide-ranging and unvarnished opinions from outside the government.
Disclosure of Embarrassing Friendships
It's been speculated that Cheney may be trying to protect himself from the embarrassment of having depended heavily on the self-interested-possibly dishonest--advice and propaganda of his girlfriends in the energy industry. In early 2001 Cheney met with Anadarko Petroleum's Robert Allison and then-Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay, head Indian of a corrupt and fraudulent company that for years has enjoyed extensive cooperation with Bush and President Bill Clinton. "The Bush Administration is obsessed with secrecy," reportedly said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee and lone-wolf pest of the Bush administration. "This is profoundly unhealthy to our democracy. The result is not just bad decisions on energy, but a rejection of the principles of open government and public accountability." (And for the historical record, just in case our readers accuse EVOTE.COM of being too hard on the Republican Bush, a decade ago it was also wrong for the Clinton administration to fight efforts to obtain records about the task force Hillary Clinton used to develop a national health care insurance proposal. So there.)
the Business Interests of Friends Through Secrecy
The initial contracts to rebuild Iraq, worth billions, were evaluated in secret. The involvement of Cheney's office in the awarding of enormous sole-source contracts for Iraq's reconstruction to his "former" employer (he's still getting paid), Houston, Texas-based Haliburton, were kept secret. Bids were limited to companies invited to participate and many were close to the Bush administration. Congress later pushed for open bidding on Iraqi contracts. When Keeping Data Secret Makes No Sense Bush even forced a court fight from senior members of a congressional committee to obtain access to the Commerce Department's corrected census counts. Census data obviously has nothing to do with security. Two persons were recently put on the federal no-fly list. When the individuals in question put in a FOIA request to find out why they had made the list, their request was denied on the basis that providing the two men information about themselves would violate their privacy. Data is often re-classified after it has already been widely disseminated. The Justice Department retroactively classified information that it had previously given to Senate staff members nearly two years earlier concerning allegations made by an FBI translator who accused the bureau of gross mismanagement and whistleblower retaliation. And the Defense Department retroactively classified embarrassing weaknesses in the National Missile Defense program after the unclassified information had been disclosed and widely disseminated. The U.S. Department of Defense censored its own video made to train employees on responding to public information requests. (Parts of the video released to the public were blacked out for copyright reasons, the department said.) Two other examples include federal officials forcing an Associated Press reporter covering a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Hattiesburg, Miss. to surrender a digital recording of the speech; and an AP photographer was removed from the scene of a train derailment in Woodbridge, N.J., after stepping onto railroad property. For the record, the feds prior to Bush number two getting into office also classified information that was not sensitive. Examples include World War II weather reports, newspaper articles on former Iran Hostage Terry Anderson, and information on a government official Halloween trick-or-treating with his progeny.
Cloak of Secrecy Could Cost Lives
Other needless government secrecy initiatives include critical consumer and business information that is increasingly being withheld form the public. Tire and automobile information, for example, that manufacturers are required by law to provide under the early-warning system created after the Ford-Firestone scandal five years ago, is now kept secret. In 2000 Congress passed the Tread Act, or Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, a new auto and safety law, just after one of the highest-profile corporate scandals within recent memory transpired; that faulty Firestone tires on Ford Sport Utility Vehicles were coming apart on the road and had caused accidents. According to the Department of Transportation, upwards of 270 persons died and 800 injured, where dangerous Firestone tires played a role. A key part of the law was an obligation that manufacturers provide safety data, such as consumer complaints, warranty claims, and field reports from dealers, to a government early-warning system which would inform consumers of potential dangers. But the tire and auto manufacturers blew a gasket. After months of lobbying by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and others, transportation officials deemed that important safety information such as consumer complaints, field reports from dealers and warranty claims be classified as secret. By July of 2003, the NHTSA also exempted from FOIA incident information on child restraint systems and tires. The manufacturers succeeded in convincing the Bush White House to limit the public access to the tire and auto safety information, which had been available to the public for many years, and was in direct opposition to the intent of the TREAD Act. The head of the NHTSA, Joan Claybrook, reportedly said the public's right to know is one of the law's cornerstones. "The intent (of the Tread Act) is to have an open, available source of information so consumers can not only contribute to it but can be saved by it too." After the successful lobbying effort by manufacturers, Claybrook commented that safety information was made secret "because the auto companies objected to it... This is a double check system that was created by the Congress to work, work for consumers, work for oversight of the government. And now it's being destroyed by the Bush administration keeping everything secret for no good reason." Laura MacCleery, auto-safety council for the nonprofit consumer group, Public Citizen has said "it was more or less a bait and switch. You're talking about information that will empower consumers. The manufacturers are not going to give up that easily." The NHTSA did not cave to industry pressure, reportedly said Ray Tyson, a spokesman for the agency. "We've listened to all who have opinions and reached a compromise that probably isn't satisfactory to anybody." Claybrook has said "the auto companies have a huge sway in the Bush administration, and not only with their financial contributions." Andrew Card ran a trade group of American automakers and was a lobbyist for General Motors. An attorney for the NHTSA, Jacqueline Glassman, is a former lawyer for DaimlerChrysler Corporation. In addition to the tire and auto information, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is also more frequently denying public requests for information that would allow Americans to analyze its product safety findings and product recalls. Flying in Secret
Of course America and the world must continue to take vigorous measures to prevent more planes from being used as missiles by terrorists. But due to this effort the Federal Aviation Administration has made it more difficult for Americans to view the kind of safety information once considered routine. Shortly after 9/11, the FAA stopped online access to records on enforcement actions taken against airlines, mechanics, pilots, and others who screw up. The FAA has made much, if not all, of that information secret. Rebecca Trexler, an FAA spokesman, has said this occurred when it was discovered that information was available on things like breaches of airport security. But instead of just keeping secret information useful for terrorist strikes, the FAA covered up all enforcement records, including safety information voluntarily submitted by the airlines. Because of rules the TSA adopted in 2002, Americans no longer have access to important government safety and security information of all modes of transportation. The sweeping restrictions on information that can be made publicly available goes beyond specifics about screening systems or security, but includes the effectiveness of security measures and enforcement actions. The new TSA rules also created a new, looser standard for denying access to information. The public can be withheld information if its "impractical" to release it. The agency denied a request to comment on the matter from a major media outlet.
Toxic Water or Terrorism: Which is More Dangerous?
The denizens of Aberdeen, Maryland can tell you all about Bush's abuse of keeping information secret at their health's expense. One evening about 100 persons powwowed at the Aberdeen firehouse to learn the latest about a potentially toxic ingredient in rocket fuel called perchlorate. It had entered the aquifer that supplies the town's drinking-water wells. Blame was quickly placed on the proximate U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, where weapons have been tested since World War I. After news of the water contamination became known, a group of citizens began working with the Army to stop the unseen pollution from spreading. But in early 2003, the Army deemed it had a good idea-good for themselves, that is. It began censoring maps, removing building locations and street names. This made it much more difficult for the residents to understand and follow the track of the pollution, or where environmental testing was being done. Army officials said the reason for the cloak of secrecy was that the expunged information could provide helpful clues to terrorists who wished to spy on or attack the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The head of a citizen's group and 20-year Army veteran, Arlen Crabb, reportedly said he does not buy it. His well is within two miles of the base and his group is suing the Army, arguing safety and health concerns. "It's an abuse of power," said Crabb. "We're not a bunch of radicals. We've got to have the proof. The government has to be transparent." Feds Stop Court Cases Because They Will Lose
And in the Federal courts, Bush is pursuing secrecy claims besides the much-publicized terrorist cases. Bush officials are increasingly invoking a "state secrets" privilege that allows government attorneys to request that criminal and civil cases be effectively closed by claiming that national security would be at risk if they proceed. A CIA Operations Officer, Jeffrey Sterling, 36, is black and sued the agency for discrimination. In September of 2003 a CIA security officer visited his lawyers and demanded they return documents the agency had already provided to them. The officer reportedly said a mistake had been made, and the records contained information that if disclosed would gravely damage national security. The lawyers have said the officer warned them that failure to comply could lead to prison or loss of a security clearance. The attorneys gave back the records, even though the papers were important for their case. So what was the important information that al-Qaeda could use to attack the United States in the case of Jeffrey Sterling? In a federal Alexandria, Virginia courtroom, a lawyer for the Justice Department said the records included a pseudonym given to Sterling for an internal CIA proceeding on his discrimination complaint. The pseudonym had never been used in an operation, and because of a clerical error, had already been disclosed. One of Sterling's lawyers, Mark Zaid, has said the pseudonym is just a misdirection play by the CIA. The real reason the agency demanded the files back, he said, is that they included information supporting Sterling's discrimination complaint. Zaid said he has never encountered such heavy-handed treatment from the CIA. "When they have an administration that is willing to cater (to secrecy), they go for it because they know they can get away with it." The CIA later provided the same information it previously said would put national security at risk.
Even Methods of Getting Information are Secret
In September of 2001, Mohammed Ali Ahmed (Is that an Irish name?) and his three children were removed from an American Airlines flight. In 2002 this Indian Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen filed a civil rights suit against the airline. But TSA Director Admiral James Loy intervened, reportedly saying that giving Ahmed information about his family's removal would compromise airline security. Wayne Krause, of the Texas Civil Rights Project and Ahmed's lawyer, reportedly said the government, in other words, was asserting a claim to withhold the very information Ahmed needed to pursue his case. "You're looking at an almost unprecedented vehicle to suppress information that is vital to the public and the people who want to vindicate their rights." Inability to get the information Ahmed's lawayers needed resulted in the TSA stopping the case against them. Go figure. It's Not a Secret, But You Still Can't Know About It
On his web site, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, (D-CA) detailed how the designation, "sensitive but unclassified", has been used by the Bush Administration to block the release of important government records. Waxman states that sometimes Bush invokes the designation "to cover up potentially embarrassing facts, rather than to protect legitimate security interests." It appears that virtually any government employee can stamp a document with the designation sensitive but unclassified. Examples include:
The State Department withheld unclassified conclusions by the agency's Inspector General that the CIA was involved in preparing a grossly inaccurate global terrorism report.
The State Department concealed unclassified information about the role of John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, in the creation of a fact sheet that falsely claimed that Iraq sought uranium from the African country of Niger.
The State Department's Inspector General also used the sensitive but unclassified designation to conceal the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in creating the grossly inaccurate 2003 annual terrorism report.
The Bush administration again abused the classification process to withhold releasing a report until after last year's election and the confirmation of Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State. The 9-11 Commission staff findings detailed that federal aviation officials received multiple reports that warned of airline hijackings and suicide attacks prior to September 11, 2001.
The Department of Homeland Security ironically concealed the unclassified identity and contact information of a newly appointed Transportation Security Administration ombudsman, whose responsibility it was to interact daily with members of the public regarding airport security measures.
The CIA concealed the unclassified names of U.S. companies that conducted business with Saddam Hussein under the Oil for Food program.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sought to prevent a nongovernmental watchdog group from making negative public criticisms of its nuclear power plant security efforts based on unclassified sources.
Keeping Secrets From Itself
Bush is not only worried about information getting to al-Qaeda-but also that other nest of terrorists. (Namely, members of Congress.) New administration policies have limited Congress' ability to exercise its constitutional authority to monitor the executive branch. Occasionally even obtaining basic information about the White House's actions is prohibited. During the 2003 debate about the Medicare bill, for example, the chief actuary of the Medicare program was told he would be fired if he answered questions from members of Congress. The Bush administration, during the debate, withheld from Congress more accurate and consequently much higher cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation than what they claimed. When Congress did vote on the bill, virtually every lawmaker believed the legislation would cost hundreds of billions less, during a 10-year span, than what the Bush administrations says it will now cost. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are now angered they voted on the bill with such grossly inaccurate information. FOIA Rollbacks Underway
The Freedom of Information Act is the brainchild of former California Congressman John Moss. During the nearly four decades the act has been around, created as one of the 1960s landmark laws that promote "government in the sunshine," FOIA has helped Americans learn about important issues from government researchers secretly injecting unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium to corporate farms pocketing taxpayer subsidies. Continually employing alarmist national security propaganda as a pretext for just about everything during the post 9/11 zeitgeist, on October 12, 2001, former Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a memo to government agencies discouraging the release of informational documents. It said, basically, 'If you can find any good reason, legal reason (the exact phrase was "sound legal basis"), for withholding information, we'll back you up.' Tucked into the charter of the new Department of Homeland Security is the single greatest rollback of FOIA since its creation. Indeed, the DHS actually issued regulations which say that in certain circumstances, if a court orders them to release information, their employees are instructed to ignore the court order. The Bush administration also sought and won a legislative FOIA exemption in 2003 for all National Security Agency "operational files." Their main rationale was that conducting FOIA searches diverts resources from the agency's mission. Since this of course applies to all government agencies, the Bush crowd simply used this excuse to get more needless secrecy. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has also recently issued regulations that have the effect of limiting the disclosure of what is now called "critical energy infrastructure information" under FOIA, such as gas pipeline safety information. "This flies in the face of openness in government," Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) has said about Bush's evisceration of FOIA. "While I understand every president wants to protect their turf and keep people from overseeing what they're doing, it's the responsibility of Congress to do just that." And predictably, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Bush crowd says they still love FOIA. Daniel Bryant, the Bush administration's assistant attorney general for legal policy, reportedly said, "I think what you've seen is a White House that has valued openness and that knows that openness with the public facilitates confidence in government." "The fact is the government is as open as it has ever been," reportedly said Mark Corallo, director of public affairs at the Justice Department. "Everything we do, we do in public. Any perceived secrecy has to do with the fact that we are at war with a global terrorist network that wants to kill innocent Americans. But despite that, we are the most open government in the world." Protecting the (Bush) Family
In another attempt to protect security-the security of the Bush family name, that is-on November 1, 2001, President George Bush quietly issued a sweeping executive order that effectively repealed the post-Watergate, 1978 Presidential Records Act, which required the release of presidential papers five years after leaving office. (Some restrictions apply up to 12 years, with others continuing longer.) The meat of the executive order says that, should someone want to see specific presidential records, unless the former president, vice president, possibly their heirs or representatives, or current White House agrees to have the archival documents released, it could remain secret indefinitely. To get access, whoever wants the records must take the matter to court and win. "President Bush has made it very difficult for people to gain access to presidential records," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has said. "We're talking about things that are not national security issues," reportedly said Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), while he was chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. "We're talking about other issues that need to be explored and looked at very thoroughly." The Bush administration has said the order was intended to create "an orderly" process for releasing presidential records. "We believe it does a good job, as we've seen in the release of former president Reagan's records," White House spokesman Anne Womack has said. White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett has defended Bush and rejected the negative criticism of what many say is its penchant for secrecy. Bartlett has said that besides the extraordinary steps the president has taken to protect the nation, Bush and other senior officials must keep private advice given in areas such as intelligence and policymaking, if that advice is to remain candid. Overall, Bartlett said, "the administration is open, and in the process in which this administration conducts its business is as transparent as possible." There is "great respect for the law, and great respect for the American people knowing how their government is operating." Bartlett also said that some administration critics "such as environmentalists... want to use (secrecy) as a bogeyman. For every series of examples you could find where you could make the claim of a 'penchant for secrecy,' I could probably come up with several that demonstrate the transparency of our process." When the communications director reportedly was asked to provide examples, he offered none.