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   Does White House Have a 'Fetish for Secrecy'?

Does White House Have a ‘Fetish for Secrecy’?

According to a story by Finlay Lewis via Copley News Service on Dec. 1, “The debate over the new Homeland Security Department’s sweeping secrecy powers has intensified a broader struggle over the Bush administration’s policies aimed at choking off public access to a vast body of government information”

The author quotes Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a group that battles excessive government secrecy, as saying, “There is a very strong bias toward nondisclosure in this administration. Post-9/11 there may be very legitimate reasons to limit public disclosure. But what frustrates us is that they’re driving a Mack truck through this opening to really carry their broader secrecy agenda.”

Efforts to block the disclosure of information began well before 9/11. Lewis cites as an example that The White House “withheld revised data on the 2000 Census that would have increased federal funding for California, and refused Republican requests for information about FBI use of informants in Boston decades earlier. The White House even refused to disclose the brand of the pretzel that choked the president.”

Other points mentioned by Lewis include:

  • A provision in the Homeland Security law threatens government whistle-blowers with criminal penalties if they leak information provided by corporations about infrastructure vulnerability that could harm public safety.

  • An executive order complicating and possibly blocking the public release of hundreds of thousands of pages of former President Ronald Reagan’s confidential papers.

  • A directive issued last spring by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card ordering agencies to restrict access to “sensitive but unclassified” information. The memo prompted the Pentagon recently to delete about 6,000 documents from its website.

  • A memo issued in October 2001 by Attorney General John Ashcroft assuring agency heads that the Justice Department would back their decisions to deny public requests for access to government records under the Freedom of Information Act. Ashcroft's stand effectively reversed the policy of his predecessor, Janet Reno, of encouraging bureaucrats to lean toward openness.

  • A lawsuit brought by the General Accounting Office to force the White House to disclose the identities of energy industry executives who cooperated with a task force headed by Vice President Cheney that shaped the administration’s energy policy.

  • The secret detention following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of hundreds of individuals on suspicion of immigration law violations. Also caught up in the dragnet were people believed by prosecutors to have been material witnesses to terrorist acts.
Conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein is quoted as saying that the administration appears to be overreaching as a result of a “fetish for secrecy.”

Lewis points out, “At the crux of the debate is a fundamental disagreement over whether the nation’s defenses are strengthened or weakened by policies, such as the Freedom of Information Act, that safeguard and even expand the public’s access to government information.”

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Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on February 10, 2003.
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