By William Fisher
To combat the Bush Administration’s penchant for secrecy, Americans interested in transparency in government have been forced to find new sources for information they once read in their daily newspapers. But thanks to a few dedicated individuals and not-for-profit organizations -- and the Internet -- such information is easier to come by than ever before.
Steven Aftergood, who conducts one of the most widely used ‘open government’ programs, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) “Project on Government Secrecy”, says:“The Bush Administration has taken secrecy to a new level. They have greatly increased the numbers and types of classified documents. They have made it far more difficult and time-consuming to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act. And they have imposed ‘gag rules’ on an ever-widening group of government employees.”
As a result, says Aftergood, the “variety of Internet-based sources has increased substantially during the Bush Administration”. And, says Aftergood, “Freedom of Information Act requests are on the rise, passing three million for the first time last year. What is behind all of these phenomena is a growing public appetite for official records. That is a healthy impulse that in a democracy should be respected and cultivated, not scorned.”
“Open Government’ websites provide a wide variety of information.
For example, at the website of George Washington University’s “National Security Archive” (www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/), you can read CIA manuals from the 1960s and the 1980s specifying approved methods of prisoner abuse. Or one of the last major pieces of the puzzle explaining American and British roles in the August 1953 coup against Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq. Or, just posted, the telephone conversations of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in which he berates high-level subordinates for their efforts in 1976 to restrain human rights abuses by military dictators in Chile and Argentina.
“OpenTheGovernment.org” is a new coalition of 33 organizations dedicated to combating unwarranted government secrecy and promoting freedom of information. (http://www.openthegovernment.org). Among recent postings: An evaluation by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on “the likely impact of Attorney General Nominee Alberto Gonzales on Press Freedoms and the Public's Right to Know." The Reporters Committee staff researched Mr. Gonzales' performance as a judge on the Texas Supreme Court from January 1999 to December 2000 and as White House counsel since January 2001.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) “Project on Government Secrecy” (www.fas.org/). publishes “Secrecy News”. A recent disclosure: “Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know.” As an example, the website reports the effort of a former conservative member of Congress to board a commercial airplane. “She was pulled aside by airline personnel for additional screening, including a pat-down search for weapons or unauthorized materials. She requested a copy of the regulation authorizing such pat-downs, and was told that she couldn’t see it.” Why? "Because we don't have to," said an official of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). "That is called 'sensitive security information.' She's not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else," he said. "She refused to go through additional screening [without seeing the regulation], and was not allowed to fly.”
“BushSecrecy.org.” sponsored by the highly respected “Public Citizen” organization, chronicles and documents the administration's obsession with secrecy, as well as steps being taken to fight it. The website provides a variety of links to up-to-date summaries of each of the administration's major secrecy initiatives, with additional links from those summaries to key documents, such as executive orders, congressional materials, judicial decisions, and legal briefs filed by both sides in the court battles raging over these issues.
A new “Coalition of Journalists for Open Government” has been established "to provide timely information on freedom of information issues and on what journalism organizations are doing to foster greater transparency in government." (http://www.cjog.net/) The Coalition’s website reports that “the Department of Homeland Security is requiring all of its 180,000 employees and others outside the federal government to sign binding non-disclosure agreements covering unclassified information. Breaking the agreement could mean loss of job, stiff fines and imprisonment.”
Like many of the ‘open government’ websites, the Coalition sends out a free email newsletter.
Some of the source sites charge for documents. One such is “InsideDefense.com”, for those interested in defense policy. It provides primary source documents gathered by a team of Pentagon reporters, and issues a free weekly publication, “The Insider”, to alert readers to new documents (http://defense.iwpnewsstand.com/insider.asp).
The FAS government secrecy project recently provided a sampling of other sources. A few examples: The “Society of Environmental Journalists” publishes a “Watchdog TipSheet” on First Amendment issues of interest to environmental journalists. “GlobalSecurity.org” provides “bottomless resources on all aspects of national security policy, and then some.” “The Resource Shelf” provides news on all aspects of government information policy and links to valuable source documents. “The Memory Hole” collects and publishes elusive records and documents that have been withdrawn from the public domain. “Cryptome” offers a rich collection of new official and unofficial documents on security policy.
“Behind the Homefront” offers "a daily chronicle of news in homeland security and military operations affecting newsgathering, access to information and the public's right to know." The “Project on Government Oversight” performs independent investigations to promote openness and government accountability.
The “Electronic Privacy Information Center” offers declassified documents and insights on cryptography policy and privacy. The “Center for Democracy and Technology” addresses access to government information along with its main focus on civil liberties. “Freedominfo.org” offers news and resources for freedom of information advocates around the world. “Access Reports” provides news and expert analysis on freedom of information policy. The Nautilus Institute’s “Global Disclosure Project” specializes in nuclear weapons policy and strategy.
Some websites are maintained by individuals, usually associated with universities. For example, the “Guide to Declassified Documents and Archival Materials for U.S. Foreign Policy and World Politics” is the work of David N. Gibbs of the University of Arizona. It provides a road map to declassified foreign policy records. “FOI.net” provides resources on national and foreign freedom of information law from Prof. Alasdair Roberts of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
Has the proliferation of ‘Open Government’ websites had an impact on Bush Administration policies? Says Aftergood: “Almost all of the recent statistical trends are negative, i.e. in the direction of greater secrecy. So it would probably be an exaggeration to say this work on challenging government secrecy has had much of an impact on the government during the current Administration. Between a secretive Administration and a compliant Congress, the environment for open government advocacy is simply not very hospitable. The real value of the work lies in the fact that it represents the creation of alternate channels for public access to government information. These efforts to provide new means of access are not exactly the solution to government secrecy, but they are a constructive response that leaves the public less vulnerable to official secrecy than it otherwise would be.”
Most other observers interested in open government agree that there is likely to be little change in the Bush Administration’s attitude toward fuller disclosure and predict that the number of alternative sources will continue to grow.
But even the continuing proliferation of new sources of information will not correct some of the problems arising from excessive government secrecy. For example, Timothy H. Edgar, Legislative Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, says: "Basic information that is crucial to oversight of the government's new spy powers under the Patriot Act -- such as how it is using new powers to obtain personal records -- has been cloaked in secrecy, making it impossible to judge the effectiveness of these powers or their impact on civil liberties."