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Cone of silence (continued)

ē Bush appointees have issued regulations to federal agencies making it more difficult to obtain records about everything from consumer complaints to the location of energy-industry installations. Such regulations, the report contends, would have made it harder to learn about the Firestone tire-safety case, and will make it difficult to learn about potential hazards posed to a community by such things as gas pipelines. As former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta wrote in the September 2003 American Prospect, "The exemption provides a convenient way for businesses to conceal even routine safety hazards and environmental releases that violate permit limits from public disclosure. Shielded from public scrutiny, these hazards are much less likely to be addressed."

ē In November 2001, President Bush issued an executive order that makes it much harder for members of the public to obtain presidential records, thus undermining reforms that were put in place after Richard Nixonís corrupt and secretive presidency. Previously, virtually all records eventually would become public ó a stance in favor of openness that Bushís supposed role model, Ronald Reagan, endorsed when he was president. But under the Bush executive order, the release of a previous presidentís records can be blocked indefinitely by either the current president or the former president ó or even by the former presidentís family, in the event of death or incapacity. Nor is this surprising behavior on Bushís part: several years ago, he made an unsuccessful attempt to place his records as governor of Texas out of the public eye.

"From my point of view as an historian, it just seems to me that if youíre working on the public time, the public ought to know what youíre working on," says William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. "Aside from military and diplomatic secrets ó which prima facie you can understand why those things canít be shared ó when you go back into the archives, more often than not what you find are people insisting on secrecy to save themselves from embarrassment or to hide some scheme." Of Bush, Fowler adds, "Not in his defense, but historically governments always tend toward secrecy. Governments love secrecy, so we always, always, always as citizens have to be on the alert."

ē Between 2001 and 2003, documents were classified at a rate 50 percent higher than the average for the five previous years, when Bill Clinton was president. Conversely, the pace of declassification was 60 percent slower than it was during the Clinton years. Moreover, Bush handed a TOP SECRET stamp to several officials who had previously not had that power. Among these is the secretary of agriculture, whose secret plan for defeating Al Qaeda with killer corn is now safely protected from the publicís prying eyes.

ē The war against terrorism has resulted in an explosion of government secrecy, of which the Patriot Act is the most potent symbol. But the Patriot Act is far from the only way the White House has sought to hide its anti-terrorist activities from public scrutiny. For instance, the Waxman report observes that some 9000 prisoners are being held around the world in detention facilities operated by the US military and the CIA. Little is known about these detainees, and the administration refuses to provide any information. Even more egregious are the "ghost detainees" ó perhaps as many as 100 suspected terrorists whose imprisonment the government has declined to confirm.

ē The administration has refused to comply with numerous requests for information from Congress, something itís been allowed to get away with mainly because the Republicans control both the Senate and the House. On issues ranging from Cheneyís energy task force and Halliburton to Abu Ghraib and Nigerien uranium, the administration has just said no. The Waxman report cites a Washington Post article from November 2003 in which the White House made it clear that it simply would not respond to congressional Democrats anymore.

The Post quoted an e-mail from White House official Timothy Campen that read in part: "Given the increase in the number and types of requests we are beginning to receive from the House and Senate, and in deference to the various committee chairmen and our desire to better coordinate these requests, I am asking that all requests for information and materials be coordinated through the committee chairmen and be put in writing from the committee."

What was left unsaid by Campen ó but understood by all ó is that every committee in Congress is chaired by a Republican.

US Representative John Tierney recalls the struggle that he and other Democrats went through to bring to light information about the failures and shortcomings of the National Missile Defense Program ó Bushís update of Reaganís old "Star Wars" pipe dream. Tierney, of Salem, who serves with Henry Waxman on the Government Reform Committee, says, "We had to fight like cats and dogs over a period of months" to get the requested information. And then, after the information had been brought to light, the White House reclassified it, forcing Congress to remove it from publicly available Web sites. Calling the White Houseís attitude "an absolute lack of cooperation," Tierney says, "Itís as though the White House doesnít want Congress to have a role. In essence, they want to shut up the voice of the people and do what they want to do."

If anything, US Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat and, like Tierney, a member of the Government Reform Committee, is even blunter. Lynch supports legislation that would undo some of the Bush administrationís assault on the Freedom of Information Act, but he has little hope that it will pass the Republican Congress. "Itís just part of an overall pattern to prevent Congress from doing their job," Lynch told me. "We are supposed to exercise certain checks and balances upon each other, and in this case, largely because of executive privilege or executive order, they have vastly reduced the amount of information that Congress has at its disposal to do its job. We are heading toward a constitutional crisis."

But before we can have a constitutional crisis, we need some sign that the public cares about what itís not being told. I put that to Waxman, and he responded by blaming the media. Heís right. "I think the public is not aware of all that they donít know about," he says. "I donít think the press has been particularly responsible in reporting these stories. I think there was a lot of attention paid to Vice-President Cheney and his energy task force, which he insisted on keeping secret. And I think that the public did not like that. But other stories come, and some of these matters get pushed aside. And thatís why we did the comprehensive report we did, because I donít think most people realize what a clear pattern there is." Yet how is the public supposed to know about Waxmanís report if the media, for the most part, havenít reported on it?

We are dealing with an administration that uses secrecy to advance every aspect of its political agenda. If we donít act to stop it now, it may soon be too late: we wonít know what we donít know, to paraphrase Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, believe it or not, was an outspoken supporter of the Freedom of Information Act when he was a Republican congressman from Michigan in the 1960s.

"We as a society have taken openness for granted for almost 40 years now," says long-time First Amendment activist Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesotaís School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "You only miss something when itís gone. The reality is that the Bush administration has been savvy enough to know that they just canít categorically rescind the First Amendment or cancel the Freedom of Information Act. Itís this slow erosion of access." Kirtley adds: "This is a Molotov cocktail waiting to go off. If Bush is re-elected, my suspicion is that the mandate is then going to be justification for even more of this kind of thing."

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Bushís penchant for secrecy is that, if heís successful, heíll have established a precedent for how a failed president can win re-election: by placing evidence of his failure beyond public view, locked away, making it impossible for people to cast an informed vote. You canít get upset that government agents are snooping on Internet users if you donít know theyíre doing it. You canít worry about missing explosives in Iraq if you havenít been told theyíre missing.

If you think about it, Bushís entire campaign has been based on a simple-minded appeal to protect you from them: terrorists, trial lawyers, gays and lesbians, whatever. Itís not the sort of appeal that holds up well to a full airing of the issues. Secrecy, in other words, is Bushís best friend. The more you listen, the less you know. And the longer Bush is president, the less youíll be allowed to know.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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