The 'Secret' Scandal

The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy has little to do with national security.

| Wed Sep. 22, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

The U.S. Constitution was originally designed to promote transparency in government, as Elaine Scarry reminds us in a recent essay on the USA Patriot Act. True, there has always been a lively debate over the need to balance national security with an open government, but the presumption has usually been in favor of openness. At least, until now. Under the Bush administration, secrecy has become standard fare, and most of it has very little to do with national security. The administration has withheld information from Congress, stonewalled public access to federal records, and embarked on a classification spree, often for the sake of petty politics. It's not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

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The administration's penchant for silence, secrets, and cover-ups has been thoroughly documented in a new report, entitled "Secrecy in the Bush Administration", put out by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) from the House Committee on Government Reform. The report finds a "consistent pattern" in the Bush Administration's actions: "laws that are designed to promote access to public information have been undermined, while laws that authorize the government to withhold information or operate in secrecy have repeatedly been expanded." It's a reminder of how far we've traveled from the Constitution's original intent.

While speaking about intelligence, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once made a distinction between "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." So it is with the White House. There are many things that we know the Bush administration has withheld from the public. It has yet to release details about Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy task force, which crafted national energy policy back in 2001. Government watchdog groups have long sought to know whether outside companies exercised improper influence over the country's energy policy, and whether they lobbied for inappropriate legislative handouts. News reports have already indicated that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay played a prominent role in writing energy legislation, but little else is known. Cheney has ignored federal court orders to disclose the proceedings of the meetings, and ended up bringing the case to the Supreme Court, which in turn bounced it back to a federal appeals court. To date, the issue remains unresolved.

The energy task force is only the start. The administration has refused to disclose memos between Cheney's office and the Defense Department about Iraq reconstruction contracts awarded to Halliburton. Time magazine recently uncovered a Pentagon email suggesting that Cheney was intimately involved in helping to secure a $7 billion no-bid contract for his former company. Pentagon officials later admitted that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith had discussed a March 2003 Halliburton contract with Cheney's office. Nevertheless, Cheney has repeatedly rebuffed further House requests for documentation.

As the Waxman report details, the administration has also hoarded documents related to Abu Ghraib—especially information on the "ghost detainees" that Rumsfeld ordered to be kept away from international monitors—and has withheld information related to Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction. We also know that, until media scrutiny forced Bush to flip-flop, the administration kept crucial documents away from the 9-11 Commission—including the infamous August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing revealing that the White House had an explicit warning about al Qaeda prior to September 11.

And those are only the "known unknowns." Perhaps more important—and far more damaging to the everyday workings of the U.S. government—are the "unknown unknowns," the information that no one even knows the Bush administration has withheld. For example, during the vote on Medicare legislation in 2003, Congressmen believed they were voting on a bill costing $400 billion. Even with these estimates, Republicans only barely managed to get the bill passed in the House, holding the vote open for far longer than the traditional 15 minutes, and reportedly threatening moderate Republicans in order to secure their votes.

Soon thereafter, however, Congress learned that the administration had lied about the true cost of the bill—which will in fact cost at least $534 billion. It was later revealed that when Richard Foster, an actuary for the Department of Health and Human Services, had tried to present this information to Congress before the vote, he was rebuked by Thomas Scully, whom Bush had appointed to run Medicare. According to the Wall Street Journal, Scully sent Foster an e-mail saying, "The consequences for insubordination are extremely severe." Foster backed down. Had Congress known that the bill would carry a far higher price tag, it never would have passed. But they didn't know, and they had no way of knowing.

What else has the Bush administration "declined" to tell us, and how would we even know? Unfortunately, the Waxman report hints that there could well be many more "unknown unknowns" out there. The administration has limited the ability of both the public and Congress to access federal information—in particular, by altering the guidelines governing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), an act created in the 1960s to place the government "in the sunshine." Under Bush, federal agencies are now encouraged to withhold any information deemed "sensitive"—a broad and vague category. In addition, new rules now prevent the release of a wide range of information pertaining to health, the economy, and homeland security.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has revised longstanding guidelines on classification, arguing that documents may be classified "even in cases of significant doubt," expanding federal authority to classify information, and delaying the automatic declassification of information. In the last year alone, classification decisions rose 25 percent, at a cost of some $6.5 billion, according to openthegovernment.org. Lest one thinks this is solely a security issue, note that a record number of federal agencies are allowed to classify information these days, including Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and the Environment. Are we really that worried that sensitive agricultural information will fall into the hands of terrorists?

Congress, too, has found itself stonewalled by the Bush administration. In times past, the "Seven Member Rule" decreed that if seven members of the House's Government Reform Committee wanted federal information, the executive branch would have to provide it. But the Bush administration has decided not to play along, forcing House members to turn to district courts. In the most prominent case, House members simply wanted to look at adjusted census records. Are census records a pressing national security issue?

Indeed, these days the Bush administration can no longer pretend that it is withholding information for security reasons. When the Senate Intelligence Report was released, even Trent Lott called the administration's redactions "ridiculous, uncalled for, and counterproductive." Oftentimes the administration simply classifies information that it finds embarrassing. In the joint House and Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war intelligence, the White House blacked out 28 pages on Saudi Arabia's role in the 9/11 attacks, even as Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) said that the information was basically harmless. Meanwhile, the White House thought nothing of sharing security briefings and other "classified information" with journalist Bob Woodward to use in his pro-Bush book. John Aschroft, similarly, had no qualms about selectively leaking a classified 1995 memo to embarrass 9-11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick. National security, it seems, isn't such a big deal when political concerns rise to the fore.

To be sure, in an age of global terrorism, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the need for some government secrecy. The White House kept its negotiations with Libya under lock and key for security reasons. Nevertheless, an administration that pursues secrecy almost reflexively—and pursues it for the sake of pushing through wasteful spending bills, rewarding crony contractors, and embarrassing its political opponents—has lost the right to carry out that debate.