Checks, balances and secrets

Monday, January 21, 2002

President Bush was looking his regular-guy best outside his Crawford, Texas, ranch last month, with his tanned face and Marlboro Man clothes.

He was leanin' against a lectern talkin' to reporters, droppin' enough "g's" to sow an acre of gerunds.

He was ticked off that someone in the government had leaked a draft of his "preliminary" ideas about structuring the secret military tribunals. He speculated that somebody leaked the information "to show off to his family or her family."

He shook his head in apparent confusion and exasperation. "I don't know why people do that," he said.

Uh, hel-looo. It's about the only way left to get information from an administration that imagines itself a federal chapter of the Skull and Bones - the elitist secret society of Yale University.

Writer Ruth Rosen revealed yet another example of the Bush administration's almost pathological zeal for secrecy the other day:

Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo on Oct. 12 urging federal agencies to reject Freedom of Information Act requests unless the legal arguments were irrefutable or if rejection of the request would jeopardize another agency's ability to protect important records.

This is a direct reversal of Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno's 1993 memo that encouraged agencies to resolve discretionary requests on the side of openness.

The Ashcroft memo slipped out virtually unnoticed, following a pattern that is quickly defining the Bush administration as an Imperialist Presidency, the weathered Tony Lamas and homey aphorisms notwithstanding. Bush's maneuvers on secrecy and civil liberties show a hostility to the ideal that people in a democratic society need to know what its elected officials are doing - and what they have done. If we cannot hold government accountable, we have no chance at all of keeping its exercise of power in check.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush has not made even a pretense of generating consensus for his decisions. He didn't seek approval from - or even consult - Congress when he curtailed attorney-client privilege for suspected terrorists.

Or when he ordered the detention of thousands of "witnesses" of Arab descent without due process.

Bush also unilaterally granted himself the power to try terrorist suspects in secret military tribunals rather than in open court. And, with no announcement, he signed Executive Order 13233, allowing him to override the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which requires a president's papers to be made publicly available 12 years after he leaves office.

So citizens now must file FOIA requests to view 68,000 pages of Ronald Reagan's correspondence, which should have been released in January. Oh, right. Ashcroft shut that door, too.

"I don't think the Ashcroft memo was caused by the events of Sept. 11," said Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C. "It was in the works already. Even more than a desire to close off information, there was a desire to get rid of any advances made by Janet Reno."

I asked Daugherty who else I should talk to about the importance of protecting the Freedom of Information Act. Professors of journalism? Advocacy groups? Civil liberties lawyers?

"Any American citizen," she replied.

I hope she's right.