Monday, July 11, 2005
Your right to know
It's gratifying to see those rare instances when liberals and conservatives unite for a common cause. It's also quite astounding when the larger principle is so profound that activists on the right are willing to take a stand against the president they so dearly love.
In this case, we're talking about the Bush administration's assault on the public's right to know how its government is conducting itself. You see, Bush and his cronies would prefer you not peer into the sausage-making process at the White House. Trust us, they say. We know what's best for you. More likely, the less you know, the more they can get away with.
Even conservatives say enough is enough and have stepped in with a bill before the Senate to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, which gives us Americans the right to request and view government records. Sponsor John Cornyn, R-Texas, is plenty conservative, yet as attorney general in Texas was very much a champion of that state's Open Records and Open Meetings acts (The Democratic co-sponsor by the way is Patrick Leahy of Vermont). In fact one of the bill's champions is the right-wing Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy. These guys understand that we the people should never have to ask permission to know what the White House is up to. And the current regime has fought the public every step of the way.
We saw the Bush administration's willingness to conduct itself openly and transparently when it refused to turn over records from its Energy Task Force. We essentially know that the task force was little more than a platform for oil industry insiders to air their views with Dick Cheney providing the rubber stamp. We certainly know that no other interested parties such as environmental or consumer groups were invited to participate in the proceedings. However, we'll never know the extent of this lopsided gathering of input, because the White House doesn't want us to know exactly who attended these meetings. Apparently their Nixonian executive-privilege argument worked. In spite of attempts by the conservative organization Judicial Watch (You probably remember them for suing the Clinton administration almost weekly) to learn who exactly was invited to the task force meetings, the Supreme Court overruled and allowed Bush and Cheney to keep their dirty secret. Once again, the public loses.
We saw the Bush administration's contempt for our right to know when, during the weeks after Sept. 11, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that henceforth, the FOIA burden of proof would be placed on the person filing the request. In other words, if you request a government document you must prove which specific act of Congress, presidential order, whatever, allows you access to that document. Can you cite the cite the specific law that allows you to know what kinds of substances are coming out of those smokestacks at the edge of your neighborhood? I can't either. Bush and his pals know this, and they know that therefore, you'll be too flummoxed to even bother to ask. Ashcroft's ruling reversed Janet Reno's 1993 directive placing the burden of proof on the government. In other words, before 2001 all you had to do was ask for the document, and the government could only deny its release if there was a specific mandate preventing it.
Bush himself thumbed his nose at future generations' right to pass historical judgment when he issued an executive order in 2001 that denies access to presidential papers. The order came just as the National Archives was preparing to release Reagan administration papers and effectively revised the 1978 Presidential Records Act, a post-Watergate reform. We saw this disdain for public disclosure when Congress passed a law in 2000 in the wake of the Firestone tread-separation scandal that mandated manufacturers to publish safety complaints and claims and the Bush administration a couple of years later ordered a FOIA amendment to classify that information. Under Bush, the FAA now keeps secret most airline safety records that previously were available online. The CIA used state secrecy as an excuse to have a discrimination case dropped against one of its officers. In fact, the number of classified documents has risen precipitously under Bush. These days if Bush doesn't want you to see it, his people simply classify it.
"The Bush administration is mounting the most sustained assault on open government since the early Reagan administration or perhaps even since President Gerald Ford vetoed the FOIA amendments in 1974," argues Tom Blanton, director of the nonpartisan National Security Archives at George Washington University, told the right-wing Insights on the News magazine.
But when confronted with this assault on the public domain, then-administration spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The press is asking a lot of questions that I suspect the American people would prefer not to be asked or answered." In other words, If you try to hold us accountable, you're a bad American.
We all know that a great deal of information must be kept secret for the sake of national security, and exceptions are always made for such things pending litigation, pending real estate transactions and personnel matters. However, these exceptions should always be few and far between. Knowing what our government is doing and how it conducts itself is an essential responsibility that comes with citizenship. Remember, it's your government, your tax dollars paid for those records, and you should see the documents that belong to all of us. If your government tries to keep you from knowing, you should ask, What are they trying to pull?
Secrecy is for losers, indeed.
Here are two excellent stories that encapsulate Bush's disdain for your right to know:
The FBI recently released reproductions of documents now available online. The documents come from the files of hundreds of people from celebrities like Elvis Presley to bad guys like Al Capone (2,400 pages on Capone alone!). They're fun to read, and you get details like, "(John) Lennon appears to radically oriented, however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics." Click below to waste a great deal of time:
"Bipartisanship is another form of date rape."
- conservative activist Grover Norquist
A North-Side Mouth