The Bush administration is doing the public's business out of the public eye. Here's how--and why
Air and water. Some of the Bush administration's initiatives have been well chronicled. Its secret deportation of immigrants suspected as terrorists, its refusal to name detainees at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the new surveillance powers granted under the post-9/11 U.S.A. Patriot Act have all been debated at length by the administration and its critics. The clandestine workings of an energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney have also been the subject of litigation, now before the Supreme Court.
But the administration's efforts to shield the actions of, and the information obtained by, the executive branch are far more extensive than has been previously documented. A five-month investigation by U.S. News detailed a series of initiatives by administration officials to effectively place large amounts of information out of the reach of ordinary citizens. The magazine's inquiry is based on a detailed review of government reports and regulations, federal agency Web sites, and legislation pressed by the White House. U.S. News also analyzed information from public interest groups and others that monitor the administration's activities, and interviewed more than 100 people, including many familiar with the new secrecy initiatives. That information was supplemented by a review of materials provided in response to more than 200 Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the magazine seeking details of federal agencies' practices in providing public access to government information.
The principal findings:
Important business and consumer information is increasingly being withheld from the public. The Bush administration is denying access to auto and tire safety information, for instance, that manufacturers are required to provide under a new "early-warning" system created following the Ford-Firestone tire scandal four years ago. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, meanwhile, is more frequently withholding information that would allow the public to scrutinize its product safety findings and product recall actions.
New administration initiatives have effectively placed off limits critical health and safety information potentially affecting millions of Americans. The information includes data on quality and vulnerability of drinking-water supplies, potential chemical hazards in communities, and safety of airline travel and other forms of transportation. In Aberdeen, Md., families who live near an Army weapons base are suing the Army for details of toxic pollution fouling the town's drinking-water supplies. Citing security, the Army has refused to provide information that could help residents locate and track the pollution.
Beyond the well-publicized cases involving terrorism suspects, the administration is aggressively pursuing secrecy claims in the federal courts in ways little understood--even by some in the legal system. The administration is increasingly invoking a "state secrets" privilege (box, Page 24) that allows government lawyers to request that civil and criminal cases be effectively closed by asserting that national security would be compromised if they proceed. It is impossible to say how often government lawyers have invoked the privilege. But William Weaver, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, who recently completed a study of the historical use of the privilege, says the Bush administration is asserting it "with offhanded abandon." In one case, Weaver says, the government invoked the privilege 245 times. In another, involving allegations of racial discrimination, the Central Intelligence Agency demanded, and won, return of information it had provided to a former employee's attorneys--only to later disclose the very information that it claimed would jeopardize national security.