SOME MAY be tempted to dismiss this column as more self-interested whining from the media, but stick with it -- it's really about the public's right to know, not the media's. The Bush administration, resistant to scrutiny even before Sept. 11, has drawn a cloak of secrecy over its official actions that has steadily insulated it from the taxpayers. John Dean, counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandals, says the administration is using regulations and administrative actions to achieve what it could not get through Congress: an official secrets act.
"Their secrecy is extreme -- not merely unjustified and excessive but obsessive," Dean writes in his book, "Worse than Watergate." Indeed, when it comes to closed government, the Bush administration makes the Nixon White House look like the public library.
Bush has expanded the number of agencies with authority to classify documents as secret, including Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture. In March, 2003 he signed an excutive order allowing a broad range of documents to be kept beyond the reach of the public for up to 25 years. The number of documents classified in the Bush administration increased by over 50 percent since 2001. Freedom of Information Act requests, meanwhile, are increasingly subject to delays, costly fees, and exemptions.
The president doesn't read newspapers much, considers the press "filters" that get in the way of his message to voters, and simply rejects what they teach in journalism school: that the press is an important two-way conduit between the government and the governed.
Fine. But even on the campaign trail, supposedly the one opportunity every four years when voters get direct access to the candidates, Bush is staying under wraps. The Republicans screen ticketholders to campaign events and require signed loyalty oaths for attendance at some rallies. The home-viewing public sees nothing but adoring crowds. Anyone sneaking past the radar to protest is summarily escorted from the room.
California congressman Henry Waxman released a 90-page study last week detailing what he called "an unparalleled assault on the principle of open government." It describes whole realms of information that have been pulled from public view: reports of chemical releases taken off EPA websites; auto and tire safety information sealed by the Traffic Safety Administration. The so-called "critical infrastructure" provisions of the Homeland Security Act, passed in 2002, even allow private companies to protect damaging information from public disclosure and civil lawsuits. Any government official who releases the information faces criminal prosecution. Waxman has filed legislation to correct the most egregious coverups.
The administration is aided in its moves to shut off public access not just by national security concerns since Sept. 11, but by Americans' growing mania for privacy, especially with the advent of the Internet. For most Americans, privacy trumps openness.
A vivid example occurred in February 2001, when the race car driver Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in Florida. The Orlando Sentinel newspaper asked to examine the autopsy photos, not because editors intended to print them, but as part of an ongoing investigation into NASCAR safety. The reaction from the greiving family and Earnhardt fans was swift and fierce. Within days, Governor Jeb Bush had signed legislation making it a felony to release autopsy photos, and several other legislative assaults on the state's "sunshine laws" followed.
But under the guise of enhancing privacy, the government often actually enforces secrecy -- to the harm of average Americans. The federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act can prevent parents in some states from discovering whether school bus drivers have drunken-driving arrests on their their records. The "critical infrastructure" cloak in the Homeland Security Act can prevent citizens groups from learning if toxic chemicals are being stored or released in their neighbrohoods, or to use the information in court if they do find out.
White House aides deny the Bush administration has a particular penchant for secrecy, saying all presidents try to control access to sensitive information. But this administration has done something about it. In 2001, Bush issued an executive order rolling back the Presidential Records Act. The order shifts the burden of accessing presidential archives to the public; scholars could be forced to sue for memos and records of former presidencies. So even history may never know what Bush really intended when he pulled the wool over the people's eyes.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.