The Bush administration is doing the public's business out of the public eye. Here's how--and why
New administration policies have thwarted the ability of Congress to exercise its constitutional authority to monitor the executive branch and, in some cases, even to obtain basic information about its actions. One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, became so frustrated with the White House's refusal to cooperate in an investigation that he exclaimed, during a hearing: "This is not a monarchy!" Some see a fundamental transformation in the past three years. "What has stunned us so much," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a public interest group in Washington that monitors government activities, "is how rapidly we've moved from a principle of `right to know' to one edging up to `need to know.' "
The White House declined repeated requests by U.S. News to discuss the new secrecy initiatives with the administration's top policy and legal officials. Two Bush officials who did comment defended the administration and rejected criticism of what many call its "penchant for secrecy." Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, says that besides the extraordinary steps the president has taken to protect the nation, Bush and other senior officials must keep private advice given in areas such as intelligence and policymaking, if that advice is to remain candid. Overall, Bartlett says, "the administration is open, and the process in which this administration conducts its business is as transparent as possible." There is, he says, "great respect for the law, and great respect for the American people knowing how their government is operating."
Bartlett says that some administration critics "such as environmentalists . . . want to use [secrecy] as a bogeyman." He adds: "For every series of examples you could find where you could make the claim of a `penchant for secrecy,' I could probably come up with several that demonstrate the transparency of our process." Asked for examples, the communications director offered none.
There are no precise statistics on how much government information is rendered secret. One measure, though, can be seen in a tally of how many times officials classify records. In the first two years of Bush's term, his administration classified records some 44.5 million times, or about the same number as in President Clinton's last four years, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration. But the picture is more complicated than that. In an executive order issued last March, Bush made it easier to reclassify information that had previously been declassified--allowing executive-branch agencies to drop a cloak of secrecy over reams of information, some of which had been made available to the public.
Bait and switch. In addition, under three other little-noticed executive orders, Bush increased the number of officials who can classify records to include the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of health and human services, and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, all three can label information at the "secret" level, rendering it unavailable for public review. Traditionally, classification authority has resided in federal agencies engaged in national security work. "We don't know yet how frequently the authority is being exercised," says Steven Aftergood, who publishes an authoritative newsletter in Washington on government secrecy. "But it is a sign of the times that these purely domestic agencies have been given national security classification authority. It is another indication of how our government is being transformed under pressure of the perceived terrorist threat." J. William Leonard, director of the information oversight office, estimates that up to half of what the government now classifies needn't be. "You can't have an effective secrecy process," he cautions, "unless you're discerning in how you use it."