The Bush administration is doing the public's business out of the public eye. Here's how--and why
"Democracies die behind closed doors."
--U.S. APPEALS COURT JUDGE DAMON J. KEITH
At 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2001, as a bone-chilling rain fell on Washington, George W. Bush took the oath of office as the nation's 43rd president. Later that afternoon, the business of governance officially began. Like other chief executives before him, Bush moved to unravel the efforts of his predecessor. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, directed federal agencies to freeze more than 300 pending regulations issued by the administration of President Bill Clinton. The regulations affected areas ranging from health and safety to the environment and industry. The delay, Card said, would "ensure that the president's appointees have the opportunity to review any new or pending regulations." The process, as it turned out, expressly precluded input from average citizens. Inviting such comments, agency officials concluded, would be "contrary to the public interest."
Ten months later, a former U.S. Army Ranger named Joseph McCormick found out just how hard it was to get information from the new administration. A resident of Floyd County, Va., in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, McCormick discovered that two big energy companies planned to run a high-volume natural gas pipeline through the center of his community. He wanted to help organize citizens by identifying residents through whose property the 30-inch pipeline would run. McCormick turned to Washington, seeking a project map from federal regulators. The answer? A pointed "no." Although such information was "previously public," officials of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told McCormick, disclosing the route of the new pipeline could provide a road map for terrorists. McCormick was nonplused. Once construction began, he says, the pipeline's location would be obvious to anyone. "I understand about security," the rangy, soft-spoken former business executive says. "But there certainly is a balance--it's about people's right to use the information of an open society to protect their rights."
For the past three years, the Bush 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 while making increasing amounts of information unavailable to the taxpayers who pay for its collection and analysis. Bush administration officials often cite the September 11 attacks as the reason for the enhanced secrecy. But as the Inauguration Day directive from Card indicates, the initiative to wall off records and information previously in the public domain began from Day 1. Steven Garfinkel, a retired government lawyer and expert on classified information, puts it this way: "I think they have an overreliance on the utility of secrecy. They don't seem to realize secrecy is a two-edge sword that cuts you as well as protects you." Even supporters of the administration, many of whom agree that security needed to be bolstered after the attacks, say Bush and his inner circle have been unusually assertive in their commitment to increased government secrecy. "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 Cato Institute.