NEW YORK - "It's always a fight to find out what the
government doesn't want us to know. It's a fight we're once again losing ... (President Bush) has clamped a lid on public access ... It's not just
historians and journalists he wants locked out; it's Congress ... and it's
you, the public, and your representatives."
These are the words of Bill Moyers, one of the U.S.' most respected
broadcast journalists. Moyers was press secretary to President Lyndon B
Johnson when Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966.
That law established the principle that the public should have broad access
to government records.
In his 'NOW' program on U.S. public television, Moyers condemns the Bush
administration's penchant for secrecy. "We're told it's all about national
security, but that's not so," he says.
Government secrecy, never discussed during the just-concluded presidential
campaign, is likely to move back to the front burner when the 'lame duck'
Congress continues the deliberations it failed to complete before the Nov.
For example, according to 'The Palm Beach Post', "Civil liberties groups
and advocates of open government are alarmed at a provision moving rapidly
in Congress that would give a new national intelligence director power to
keep information secret to protect intelligence 'sources and methods'."
The provision is included in the two intelligence reform bills -- responses
to the report of the 9/11 Commission that probed the terrorist attacks of
Sep. 11, 2001 -- being merged by negotiators from the two houses of Congress.
Critics say the provision could lead to a major expansion of government
secrecy by increasing exemptions to the FOIA.
Under current law, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
has power to exempt sensitive information from public disclosure by
labeling it vital to national security. Advocates of open government fear
that power could be extended broadly under the proposed bill.
The measure could allow all agencies under the proposed intelligence
director to claim the information exemption, including the Federal Bureau
of Investigation (FBI), the Treasury Department and the Department of
The national security exemption does not allow judicial review, meaning
agencies would not have to explain their secrecy to a court.
Battles over government secrecy are also likely to affect Bush's
second-term environmental initiatives.
Gannett News Service reports, "Environmentalists expect continued battles
with President Bush in his second term over federal policies affecting
public lands, wildlife and water in the west."
It quotes Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, a leading U.S.
environmental group, who predicts an ongoing battle. "We can expect more
government secrecy, more suppression of basic scientific data, even efforts
to deny citizens the basic right to appear in court to defend themselves
and their communities against environmental assaults and dangers."
Similarly, many journalists expect the president's relationships with the
Washington press corps -- never famous for their transparency -- to become
even more secretive.
An article in 'The Washingtonian' magazine quotes the president of the
White House Correspondents' Association: "They have a remarkable ability to
control the message. After this election, it will be even harder than ever.
They don't need us any more."
A recent report accuses the Bush administration of a "systematic effort -
to limit the application of the laws that promote open government and
accountability," adding it has, "sought to curtail public access to
information while expanding the powers of government to operate in secret."
Authored by Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and one of the
administration's most vocal critics on the subject of secrecy, the
comprehensive report alleges that both U.S. citizens and Congress are being
denied access to millions of pages of documents to which they are entitled
"The actions of the Bush administration have resulted in an extraordinary
expansion of government secrecy. External watchdogs, including Congress,
the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have consistently been
hindered in their ability to monitor government activities."
The report finds, "a consistent pattern in the administration's actions:
laws that are designed to promote public access to information have been
undermined, while laws that authorize the government to withhold
information or to operate in secret have repeatedly been expanded. The
cumulative result is an unprecedented assault on the principle of open
That secrecy affected the work of the 9/11 Commission, adds the Waxman report.
Throughout the probe the administration "resisted or delayed providing the
commission with important information. For example, the administration's
refusal to turn over documents forced the commission to issue subpoenas to
the defense department and the Federal Aviation Administration."
The report accuses the administration of systematically withholding "a vast
array" of records from Congress, on subjects ranging "from simple census
data and routine agency correspondence to presidential and vice
Documents it says the administration has refused to release to the public
and members of Congress include, "the contacts between energy companies and
the vice president's energy task force (and) communications between the
defense department and the vice president's office regarding contracts
awarded to Halliburton" (a major defense contractor and recipient of
millions dollars worth of contracts in Iraq now accused of fraud for some
of those dealings).
Also kept secret, according to Waxman's report: "documents describing the
prison abuses at Abu Ghraib (in Iraq), memoranda revealing what the White
House knew about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and cost estimates of
the Medicare prescription drug legislation withheld from Congress."
Designating documents as "classified" has frequently provided the executive
branch of the U.S. government with a rationale to keep them out of the
Open The Government, a Washington-based coalition of journalists and
government watchdog groups, recently released a 'Secrecy Report Card',
declaring, "Government data now confirm what many have suspected: secrecy
has increased dramatically in recent years under policies of the current
The group says the administration classified 14 million new documents in
fiscal year 2003, an increase of 60 percent over the comparable figure for
fiscal year 2001.
The Waxman report also alleges the administration has "has issued guidance
instructing agencies to withhold a broad and undefined category of
Among the victims, the report says, is Congress itself. "On over 100
separate occasions, the administration has refused to answer the inquiries
of, or provide the information requested" by Waxman in his role as the
senior Democrat on the House of Representatives committee on government
It has also refused to furnish, "documents requested by the ranking members
of eight House committees relating to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib and
elsewhere," adds the report.
One of the country's leading news magazines, 'U.S. News and World Report',
supports the Waxman report's findings.
"For the past three years, the Bush administration has quietly but
efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of
the federal government -- cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and
removing from the public domain important information on health, safety and
"The result," it added "has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of
openness in government."
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