September 3, 2002

Bush Expands Government Secrecy, Arouses Critics

By Alan Elsner, National Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As part of its "war on terrorism," the Bush administration has vastly expanded government secrecy, removing information from the public domain, limiting its disclosures to Congress and allowing law enforcement agencies to operate in the shadows.

Its policies are beginning to stir growing criticism from the courts, Congress and even from some conservatives.

"For whatever reason, this administration has gone way way too far in its pursuit of secrecy in some particularly worrying ways," said Mark Tapscott, head of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Administration officials, from the president down, have justified their policy on the needs of fighting terrorism.

"We can't have leaks of classified information. It's not in our nation's interest," Bush said last October.

But the policy goes beyond classified information. A March 19 memorandum from White House Chief of Staff Andy Card urged government agencies to more aggressively protect "sensitive but unclassified" information.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration was expanding secrecy. It moved to hold up the release of presidential papers from former President Ronald Reagan and insisted on keeping secret members of an energy policy task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Last week, the White House said it would keep secret 4,000 pages related to presidential pardons granted by former President Bill Clinton in the final days of his administration. It said all presidents had the right to discuss and decide on pardons in private.


"This administration is the most secretive of our lifetime, even more secretive than the Nixon administration. They don't believe the American people or Congress have any right to information," said last week Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative group that is suing the administration to force it to reveal the members of the energy task force.

A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department revised its policy on releasing documents under the Freedom of Information Act, urging agencies to pay more heed to "institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests."

Gary Bass of OMB Watch, a private group which monitors government spending and legislation, said the change represented a dramatic reversal of decades of open government.

"We are moving from a right to know to a need to know society," Bass said.

The administration wants its new Department of Homeland Security exempted from many requirements of the Freedom of Information Act but Senate Democrats are opposed.

"The administration is asking us to put this new department above the law and outside the checks and balances these laws are put there to ensure," said Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Thousands of pages of information that were publicly available on the Internet suddenly disappeared after Sept. 11. Some related to areas of obvious security concern but others were much less clear.

For example, researcher and community activists could no longer access data on chemical plants that violate pollution laws or on where hazardous chemicals are stored.

"Some degree of secrecy is obviously justified but we are seeing far more secrecy than is warranted by national security requirements," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

"There is a pattern of secrecy that is a defining characteristic of the Bush administration. It resists even the most mundane requests for information," he told Reuters recently.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress rushed through the USA Patriot Act, which vastly expanded the government's ability to track and detain suspected enemies in secret.

The government gained the power to conduct searches of homes without informing their owners until long after; it can conduct telephone and e-mail traces of people not suspected of a crime and investigate people on basis of activities such as writing a letter to the editor or attending a rally.

Last month, book publishers and booksellers criticized the Justice Department for refusing to reveal how many times it had used new powers under the act to force bookstores, libraries and newspapers to reveal confidential records, including the titles of books an individual has purchased or borrowed.

The Department refused to turn over this information to the House Judiciary Committee, saying it would give it only to House Intelligence Committee, which does not have oversight responsibility for the act.

Some judges and legislators are beginning to bristle. House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner and ranking minority member John Conyers said this secrecy was "an open invitation to abuse of government power."

Gladys Kessler, a federal district judge in Washington, recently called the government's secret arrests after Sept. 11, "a concept odious to a democratic society."

In a rare public rebuke, the secret court that supervises the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in May alleged that Justice Department and FBI officials supplied erroneous information to the court in more than 75 applications from search warrants and wiretaps.

The court found that new procedures proposed by Ashcroft in March would have given prosecutors too much control over counterintelligence investigations and allowed the government to misuse intelligence information for criminal cases.

Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited