DALLAS — We know the folks in the Bush administration can keep a secret. The trouble is, they don't always know when not to keep one.
The pattern was set early, when the White House refused to identify the energy industry executives who met privately with Vice President Dick Cheney two years ago to shape a national energy policy.
Then came the war against terrorism, which played right into the administration's penchant for secrecy.
The White House doesn't want you to know what goes on in deportation hearings. It even went to court to keep proceedings closed to the press.
It doesn't want you to know about detainees, seeking — through the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, or Patriot Act II — to head off federal litigation that seeks basic information about them.
It sure doesn't want you to know anything about the over 600 "unlawful combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Locked up for over a year, they haven't been charged or allowed to consult with lawyers.
And it's likely that it didn't want you to know what has been dug up by Rep. Henry Waxman of California. Last week, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee went public with the news that the role the administration carved out for Halliburton Co. in rebuilding Iraq is larger and more lucrative than previously known.
We already knew that the Houston-based energy services firm, once headed up by Cheney, had — through its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) — been invited by the U.S. Agency for International Development to bid on an estimated $900 million contract to help rebuild Iraq and that it had, after the ensuing outcry, pulled out of the bidding process. We also knew that KBR walked away with a substantial consolation prize: a no-bid contract from the Defense Department to put out oil fires in Iraq, estimated to make the company at least $75 million.
Pocket change. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently informed Waxman in a letter that the deal with Halliburton goes beyond putting out fires to putting back together the Iraqi oil industry through things such as "operation of facilities and distribution of products."
That means Halliburton is the official oil company of Iraq — a country with the second-largest oil reserve in the world. That is one sweet deal that could make the company anywhere between $600 million and $7 billion over two years depending on how large the project turns out to be.
Asked about the Halliburton honey pot, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denied any collusion between the executive branch and those who give out contracts for work in Iraq.
For Waxman, the issue is the secrecy.
A spokeswoman for Halliburton insists that the company hasn't hid anything, and she points to a press release from March that says the company would ensure the "continuity" of the oil industry in Iraq.
But what about the administration? Could it have been concerned about the appearance of the vice president's old company — which already earns about $20 billion a year — getting richer on government dollars?
Interviewed this week on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," Waxman said that getting answers from the White House has been like pulling teeth.
"We can't quite get a straight answer about this Halliburton contract," he said. "We're getting information in dribs and drabs."
Some of what Waxman has learned he doesn't like. The contract allows for the government to reimburse Halliburton for costs incurred in Iraq. This could get pricey given what Waxman claims is the company's history of overcharging Uncle Sam.
That alone is a good argument fortransparency. It's what they teach in public-policy school. If there's information that could raise suspicions or prove damaging, put it out yourself. Right away.
And it's not always the big things. This week, Cheney was in Dallas to deliver a speech as part of a Southern Methodist University lecture series sponsored in part by The Dallas Morning News. Either at the request of the university or the vice president's office — no one knows which — SMU announced that the event was off the record. Reporters could attend the speech, but not write about it.
That's silly. But it is in keeping with the spirit of an administration that seems to operate from the premise that information should be disseminated on a need-to-know basis only — with the administration alone deciding what the public needs to know and when the public needs to know it.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company