When secrets rule


When Walter Lippmann, the politically pragmatic journalist and author, said in 1920 that there can be "no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies," he might have been describing the government's penchant for secrecy in present-day America.

More than anything, critics of the Bush administration are decrying its habit - particularly since Sept. 11 - of conducting state affairs under an unyielding cover of executive privilege and a "we know best" philosophy that precludes virtually any outside influence or advice.

The administration's secretive conduct has invited unwelcome comparisons with the Nixon era, notorious for cloak-and-dagger schemes that ultimately led to the president's resignation.

Still, administration leaders assert that the war on terror requires extraordinary measures, even at the expense of civil liberties at home.

"Freedom's cause is the right cause, and every action we take in support of it makes this world better and safer for our children," Vice President Dick Cheney said before a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on Tuesday.

"At home and with coalition partners abroad, we've broken up terror cells, tracked down terrorist operatives, and put heavy pressure on their ability to organize and plan attacks," Cheney said. "The work is difficult and very often perilous, and there is much yet to do. But we've made tremendous progress against an enemy that dwells in the shadows. We've counted on the skill and the dedication of our professionals in law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security - and, of course, on the United States military."

In pursuit of this mission, the administration has conducted extensive domestic wiretapping in secret, without first seeking court approval, as the law requires; sent terrorism suspects to secret prisons overseas, where many apparently have been tortured; launched FBI probes within government agencies to ferret out malcontent leakers of government information; and warned reporters that they could be prosecuted under espionage laws that have not been invoked against the press in decades.

Federal employees have been questioned about whether they revealed the wiretaps to The New York Times, or the existence of secret CIA prisons to The Washington Post.

"This administration does not believe in open government," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

"Our system is based on open government. That's what democracy means. We are not a totalitarian regime where our leaders refuse to explain themselves, although you could be fooled into thinking so."

Sloan and others are particularly distressed by what they view as the administration's violations of the Freedom of Information Act, which was set up to provide access to documents held by federal agencies.

Under President Bush, the Justice Department declared that it would support any agency's desire to keep records secret, no matter what they contained, a sharp about-face from the Clinton administration's stated practice of erring on the side of disclosure.

"The only way to get an FOI request honored these days is to go to court," Sloan said. "We can go to court and win, but some regular person is not going to know how to file a complaint in federal court and prepare a brief arguing that the administration is in violation of the law. And no one has endless resources to fight every denial. It's very effective, what they've done. They keep the information hidden."

The administration's insistence on secrecy has leached deep into the affairs of other branches of government. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government reported Monday that the records of almost 5,000 federal court cases across the country are being kept secret.

Studies by the Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press revealed the existence of the cases, which are not recorded in official dockets when filed, and in many cases continue through trial and sentencing without being officially recorded. At least two federal appellate courts have ruled that the practice is unconstitutional, the coalition reported.

Occasionally, though not often, courts have ruled in favor of openness. After four years of secrecy, a federal judge ruled in favor of the AP in a lawsuit that sought release of thousands of pages of court transcripts that contained the names of many of the 469 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who had been captured in Afghanistan. The Bush administration had refused to reveal the identities of the men, saying it would violate their privacy and might endanger their relatives.

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