November 21, 2003

Bush's secrecy blocks view of White House actions

It's an oft-cited fact that Bush has held fewer press conferences than any contemporary president except Nixon in his second term—a paltry 9 besides Clinton's 33 and Bush Sr.'s 61 at the same point in their terms. Now, as of last Wednesday, the Bush administration has effectively cut off financial questions from Congress as well, by mandating that Congress's inquiries must be directed to the chairman of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. The chairman, a Republican, is now empowered to limit spending inquiries as he pleases, nay-saying thornier questions in favor of those the President's inclined to answer. (If only I could do this in my classes.) The passive dodging of questions, however, is minor compared to the fervidity with which this administration has actively withheld valuable information from the public. To put it more plainly: mic-shyness may be excusable, actively covering the President's hide isn't, especially when individuals' lives are at stake.

When Bush gutted this summer's congressional report on (in Bill Maher's words) "a country that rhymes with Baudi Barabia," the issue was such an open secret that his action served only as a gesture, a reminder of the administration's ease with the thick black marker. In other avenues, however, Bush's censorship has wreaked damage for those not in the know. Post-9/11, thousands of New Yorkers exposed themselves to dangerous levels of air pollution when, under pressure from the Bush administration, the EPA downplayed indoor air risks. The information was apparently unfavorable to G.O.P. allies who wanted to cut relief aid to New York. Likewise, the administration has stonewalled the independent commission assigned to investigate September 11, incurring the anger of both parties in the Senate. On this front, at least, Bush has been a uniting force.

Beyond such independent incidents, however, this administration has dedicated itself to clouding government transparency. Shortly after assuming office, Bush issued an executive order gutting the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which required a president to release his or her records within 12 years after exiting the White House. Bush removed the required time limit, effectively pulling the Act's only teeth. Likewise, Ashcroft dismembered the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) via Exemption 2, which allows federal officials to deny FOIA requests "whether there is any public interest in disclosure" or not. Thus, even the barest requests, such as the ACLU's petition for stats on the use of the Patriot Act, are denied with impunity. In 1966, when the FOIA was passed, young congressman Donald Rumsfeld offered the hopes that "the courts interpret this legislation broadly, as a disclosure statute and not as an excuse to withhold information from the public." Today, hobbled by Exemption 2, it's become exactly that.

Is this simply an administration that values privacy to a fault? If it were, the gay community, at least, would have cause to celebrate. However, the actions of the White House confirm that privacy, in the Bush lexicon, is shorthand for executive privilege. Consider the politicized outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the expanded government powers of the Patriot Act, or the more overtly Orwellian of the administration's thwarted designs, such as Total Information Awareness. Privacy, in the White House, is a deeply held value until it's applied to somebody else.