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What does Bush fear?
The war against an open society continues

TWELVE MONTHS AGO, we editorialized against the Bush administrationís penchant for secrecy. We asked what the president was trying to hide. (See "Information, Please," Editorial, November 29, 2001)

One year later, itís clear that we were asking the wrong question. President Bush isnít trying to hide anything with his unprecedented moves to keep documents and governmental actions from the public. Heís doing something much more pernicious: he is trying to change the way this country governs itself. This isnít about secrecy. This is about ideology.

Many of the Bush administrationís moves to restrict the flow of information and keep governmental operations from the public view have been criticized as outgrowths of the war on terrorism: detaining potential terrorism suspects without charging them; implementing secret immigrant-deportation hearings; creating secret military tribunals; requesting that broadcasters not air tapes of Osama bin Laden; and restricting congressional classified-briefing access to the four party leaders in the House and Senate and the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees. But it would be wrong to think Bushís penchant for secrecy relates only to September 11.

His aversion to public scrutiny predates his term in the White House. The Freedom Forum notes in a recent report assessing the state of the Freedom of Information Act that on his last day in office as governor of Texas, Bush sent 1800 boxes of official papers generated during his tenure "to his fatherís presidential library at Texas A&M, where the Texas public-information law as yet does not apply." And there have been other, non-terror-related headline-making moves to keep information from the public. There was the administrationís illegal refusal to provide information in response to the General Accounting Officeís request for information about Vice-President Dick Cheneyís energy-task-force meetings. And there was the presidentís unprecedented executive order prohibiting the release of presidential archives (the order was issued in time to keep many of the domestic-policy-related documents created during his fatherís administration from the public). Both have been chalked up to the simple, but clumsy, desire to hide potentially embarrassing information. But they show us more than that. They tell us that Bush and his cronies deeply distrust the workings of democracy.

We havenít seen his much contempt ó and fear ó of the public and its right to examine the workings of government since Richard Nixon was president. Nixon, with his jowls, beady eyes, persistent five oíclock shadow, and self-pitying whines about his "enemies," all but invited head-on opposition. But Bush, with his smooth suburbanite, country-club manner, keeps getting away with moves previous presidents could only dream of. This creates a clear and increasingly present danger to the spirit of democracy.

Last week brought yet another example of this threat to our society. The Los Angeles Times editorialized about the latest proposal to give governmental agencies the authority to manage their own archives. It sounds efficient ó the people most familiar with the large volume of reports, proposals, guidelines, and other documents that flow like water from every corner of the government would be in charge of publishing them. Office of Management and Budget director Mitch Daniels even claims the move will save $70 million annually. The only problem is that it would end the two-centuries-old practice of sending government documents to the Government Printing Office, which makes them available to the public through publication and distribution in 1300 reading rooms across the country, as well as online.

The Timesís summation of such a move is chilling ó and it shows that for all of Bushís nods to democracy (such as his apparent desire to bring democracy to Baghdad), he continually subverts it here at home: "Currently, a federal agency such as the Pentagon canít delete an embarrassing passage from a historical document without first going through the hassle of asking each reading room to obscure the passage with a black marker. If Daniels gets his way, all an agency will have to do is call up the document in Microsoft Word and quietly hit Control X to delete the passage for eternity."

In the meantime, the administrationís interference with the mediaís attempts to report on the military continues (see "Necessary Bedfellows," News and Features). The war in Afghanistan saw the Pentagon abandon even the pitiable press-pool system of reporting devised after the US invasion of Grenada. And now, there is only one briefing for reporters on the war on terror ó from the Pentagon. Even during the Gulf War and NATO action in Kosovo, there were two briefings for reporters: one in Washington and one from the field. As Washington, DCĖbased freelancer Richard Byrne writes, "The dual approach allowed reporters to probe operational details from two perspectives ó and often to find the truth through comparison. The effectiveness of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, for instance, was often gleaned from a complex interplay of briefings from NATO officials in Europe, half-truths broadcast by Serbian television, and later Ďclarificationsí from US officials in Washington, DC." But now, even that is gone.

The OMB Watch, an organization formed in 1983 to keep tabs on the executive branch's powerful Office of Management and Budget, notes that "we are rapidly shifting from a society based on the publicís right to know to one in which information is made available on a need to know basis."

Bush and Cheney have repeatedly said that they want to restore power to the office of the president. Yet a 21st-century president enjoys privileges, prerogatives, and power that the framers of the Constitution would find positively dictatorial. This shift toward government secrecy has attracted criticism from all quarters. Conservative demagogue Phyllis Schlafly wrote in March, "The voters arenít going to buy the sanctimonious argument that the Bush Administration has some sort of duty to protect the power of the presidency." Even Judicial Watch, the right-wing organization that tormented the Clinton administration with lawsuits, has joined the liberal Sierra Club in suing the Bush administration for refusing to release information about who met with the administrationís energy task force headed by Cheney. And conservative Republican lawmaker Dan Burton, who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, had to threaten the administration with a subpoena before he was able to get documents related to the FBIís corrupt relationship with mobster Whitey Bulger released to his committee. "They believe in making the chief executive stronger by protecting information and sources and the Congress," Burton told the Hill, which covers Congress. "Many people in Congress, like myself, feel we need to continue to fight for our right to have access to things so there is a difference of opinion."

Differences of opinion are not just good in a democracy ó they are vital. Bush has set out on a dangerous path, and he continues to move forward without any real opposition. The shame is that so few seem to understand the nature of this threat.

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Issue Date: November 21 - 28, 2002
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