By William Fisher
Transparency in government is one of the ‘values’ nobody talked about in the recent election. Yet it is among America’s more important attributes; it distinguishes the United States from most other governments. But, sad to say, transparency has never been one of George W. Bush’s long suits. On the contrary, excessive secrecy has been a hallmark of the Bush Administration since Day One. And unfortunately, it is a characteristic that seems unlikely to change in Mr. Bush’s second term.
The President’s contempt for the media was evident as early as his press conference the day after the election. He made it clear he would not respond to what he termed “multiple questions”. There would be no opportunity for follow-up questions either. In other words, the press will simply have to play by the president’s rules.
Journalists complain that this obsession with secrecy has greatly increased the difficulty of accurately reporting the Bush White House. According to US News and World Report, the Administration has “quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government --cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety, and environmental matters. The result has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government…”
Nor are the media the only victims in the president’s secret world. Congress, too, has been short-changed. A report prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), says: “On over 100 separate occasions, the Administration has refused to answer the inquiries of, or provide the information requested” by Congressman Waxman in his role as the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform. The Administration has also refused to provide documents requested by the ranking members of eight House Committees relating to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and documents requested by the 9/11 Commission, the Report says.
Bill Moyers, one of America’s most respected broadcast journalists, who was press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson when Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, notes, “It's always a fight, to find out what the government doesn't want us to know. It's a fight we're once again losing…(President Bush) has clamped a lid on public access... It's not just historians and journalists he wants locked out; it's Congress... and it's you, the public and your representatives…We're told it's all about national security, but that's not so”, he says.
Access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act has been particularly adversely affected by Administration policies. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration increased public access to government information by restricting the ability of officials to classify information and establishing an improved system for the declassification of information. The Bush Administration has gone the other way, giving more officials more authority to classify more documents. This has “expanded the capacity of the government to operate in secret”, says the Waxman Report.
"Tightly controlling information, from the White House on down, has been the hallmark of this administration", says Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs for the conservative Cato Institute, a Washington, DC, think tank.
It’s not as though open government was a new idea in the US. Back in 1915, William Jennings Bryan observed: “The government being the people’s business, it necessarily follows that its operations should be at all times open to the public view. Publicity is therefore as essential to honest administration as freedom of speech is to representative government.” And in 1933, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Restricting access to information inevitably leads to an appearance of impropriety – the government must be doing something it doesn’t want the people to know about. It doesn’t matter whether the appearance is true or not; the perception becomes the reality.
With all the chatter about ‘values’ in the recent election, the President needs to remember that transparency and accountability are among the most cherished ones we have. They help to give us the moral authority we need to lead.
President Bush would do well to keep that in mind as he begins to think seriously about how history will remember him.