Stemming the information flow


Policy: The Bush administration's apparent trend toward secrecy has raised concern among Democrats, presidential scholars and even some conservatives.

February 26, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In explaining why the White House is entitled to hold secret meetings with energy industry officials, Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, offers a lesson in American history.

"The Constitution was of course drafted in total secrecy," he says. The Founding Fathers, Fleischer explains, determined that the best way "to make careful decisions" was "to do so quietly."

In recent months, Bush and his team have embraced that idea to justify a series of steps that has begun to close the public's window into the day-to-day workings of his administration. The apparent trend toward secrecy has incited critics, who argue that it undercuts a bedrock of American democracy: the right of citizens to scrutinize their own government.

The question of where the line should be drawn is at the heart of a suit filed last week by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO wants the White House to release some details of meetings that energy executives had with a task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney to help draft the administration's energy policy.

White House aides counter that for a president to receive candid, unvarnished advice from citizens on important issues, some meetings must be held in private.

The GAO squabble involves just one in a spate of recent steps by the administration to control the flow of information to the public and Congress.

In addition, Bush has reserved the right to bring major suspects in the campaign on terrorism before secret military tribunals. He has also delayed the release of presidential records from the Reagan White House, declined to identify hundreds of people detained in the terrorism investigation, and kept documents about decades-old criminal investigations out of Congress' hands.

In another move, Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed government officials to be stingier about granting requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Many Democrats, presidential scholars, news analysts and even some conservatives call the trend dangerous. They say that while the White House has some right to preserve secrecy during a war for the sake of national security, the Bush administration is going too far.

"If you control information, you can control a large part of the debate, and that is clearly what is going on here," says Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

During a war, Gyllenhaal says, a government's occasional withholding of information can be "warranted, reasonable and important." But, he contends, the Bush administration has been taking much broader steps to operate in secret, drawing scant attention and little debate.

"And it is very difficult to ask questions, or you'll be accused of being unpatriotic," Gyllenhaal says. "But there is a need for careful review of these things."

Larry Klayman, head of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which made a business of attacking the Clinton administration for withholding public records, accuses the current White House of ushering in "a return to the Nixon era."

"They just don't want to be questioned," Klayman says. "This is like old-style government, where people should not question the sovereign and should take everything on its face because they are doing what needs to be done. Well, that's an old concept that no longer carries water."

White House officials insist that they routinely provide information to the public. But they don't deny that they are supplying less than some previous administrations did.

Even before Sept. 11, one White House official acknowledges, Bush and Cheney were determined to set a precedent that some duties are best carried out without the intrusion of lawmakers or the public.

"They want to restore some of the powers given to a president by the nation's founders," the official says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some scholars say they view the administration's claim that it wants to protect certain key presidential rights as merely a ruse that masks its desire to hide information that might be politically damaging.

"They are earnest in their view that the executive branch needs somehow to be revitalized," says Mark Rozell, a professor of politics at Catholic University and author of the book Executive Privilege: The Dilemma of Secrecy and Democratic Accountability.

"This just seems curious," he says. "They are really exaggerating the extent to which the executive branch has seen its power wither."

Many of those suspicious of Bush's attitude toward information maintain that the right of people to be informed was in fact a more substantial cornerstone in American history.

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