"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The G.W. Bush Administration and Secrecy

Even more dangerous for the republic than using the FBI for political purposes or the Interior Department manipulating situations to enrich a key Republican lobbyist is the persistent use of secrecy as a governing tactic. Combine secrecy with a politicized Justice Department, and one has the potential for all manner of abuses that may never come to light. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson said “This administration [ that of George W. Bush] is by far the most secretive administration I have had any experience with at all. They have no shame… in doing things in the dark….”

Few who read the papers carefully could state with some certainty why the United States invaded Iraq or the full reasoning process behind the energy policies adopted in 2005. Secrecy has extended from such large matters to any number of other matters. Judge Damon Keith wrote in 2002 that “democracies die behind closed doors,” and John Adams said, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” An essential requirement for democracy is assuring that the people have an opportunity to gain a full understanding of public matters. By avoiding presidential press conferences and indulging a mania for secrecy, the Bush administration reduced the degree of Democracy enjoyed by the American people. George W. Bush held fewer press conference than any president since FDR. At the fourteen he did hold up to June 2004, the president regularly refused to answer difficult questions.
To some extent, the belief in keeping the public in the dark and even lying to them can be seen as a carefully thought out approach to governance which has some support among philosophers and academicians. More than a few in the Bush administration had been influenced by the writings of Leo Strauss, who taught that “lies, far from being a regrettable necessity of political life, are instead virtuous and noble instruments of wise policy.” Whether Bush subscribed to the philosophy of the noble lie cannot be documented, but his conduct in leading the nation into invading Iraq could be the result of this outlook.

Even before entering the White House, George W. Bush demonstrated a devotion to secrecy in government. As soon as he learned that the Supreme Court had awarded him the presidency, he set out to circumvent a Texas law that required that gubernatorial papers be immediately indexed and made available to the public. He arranged to have his papers placed in his father’s library, which placed them under federal jurisdiction and met the Texas requirement that placement of papers be made in consultation with the head of the state library and archives commission by simply notifying the commission of his action. Some have suggested that his papers would reveal that he handled death row commutation matters too quickly and perfunctorily.
. The Bush administration’s policymaking process often seemed a closely-held secret, perhaps suggesting “a blithe sense of class entitlement” or the Neo Conservatives’ belief that the masses should be kept in the dark Policy making procedures developed over decades by previous administrations simply fell into disuse on many occasions.

The Bush White House adopted a policy of using e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee rather than those provided by the federal government. The National Journal reported that Karl Rove did 95% of his electronic communicating using the RNC account. There is something troubling about conducting government business on e-mail accounts provided by a partisan entity. The point of doing this was to circumvent the requirements of the Presidential Records act which requires that all such communications be preserved. By using partisan e-mail accounts to get around Congressional investigations, it is possible that White House aids are exposing sensitive data to hackers, assuming the commercial accounts are less secure than those provided by the US government.

From the outset, the Bush administration moved quickly to limit the flow of information about what went on in the executive branch. This administration became known for its culture of secrecy, and made itself far less accessible to Congress and the media than any previous government. For example it punished a DEA agent who helped the Times of London write about money laundering, and it tried to suppress information about mad cow disease in the United States. Democratic members of Congressional investigative committees were denied access to some administration briefings and papers from the executive branch. Congress was denied access to information on telephone calls advisor Cark Rove made to firms in which he held stock.

Consumers found new roadblocks to obtaining information about automobile safety. Even Republicans such as Representative Dan Burton and activist Phyllis Schlafley have complained about the administration’s penchant for operating in secrecy. Burton was angry when the Bush administration refused to release information on Clinton’s midnight pardons. Eventually it released only t hose papers that would put Clinton in a bad light. In many ways it demonstrated clear opposition to open government. The quest for secrecy even including the scrubbing of routinely produced scientific data of information that could be used to challenge administration policy. Scientific results that offended administration ideology were simply deleted or reversed.

In 2003, the administrations even withheld information on many consumer issues as well as tire and auto safety reports. In the same year, the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee found that the administration had scrubbed and manipulated data in 21 scientific areas that included stem-cell research and global warming.

In 1999, 8 million documents were classified as confidential; that number jumped to 23 million by the end of 2002. The desire to cloak government actions in secrecy animates Bush administration efforts to shut down the Government Printing Office, though the proposal is claimed to be an economy move. Perhaps there were no sinister intentions for so much secrecy and the deletion of some scientific data. The administration was filled with conservative ideologues who placed theory and ideology above rational empiricism. It may not be a matter of spinning facts to their advantage; it is quite possible that these people simply find contradictory data irrelevant because they have such an unalterable faith in their policies and ideology. Sometimes, what others saw as secrecy many have just been adroit news management to the Bush administration. For example, it adhered strictly to the 1991 Pentagon rule against the photographing of body bags (“transfer tubes”), the arrival of soldiers’ bodies at Dover Air Force Base , or burials at Arlington on the grounds that the appearance of these pictures would upset the soldiers’ relatives and friends.
Before the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was busy expanding governmental secrecy. Vice President Cheney’s refusal to make public information about the composition of his energy task force was only a small part of this effort. In August 2002, Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum filed pleadings with a district court requesting that executive privilege be permanently extended to all matters involving pardons. It might be recalled that President George H.W. Bush pardoned the key figures involved in the Iran-Contra controversy as well as a Cuban exile who bombed an airliner carrying over 170 people. Mc Callum was a Skull and Bone’s classmate of the president’s. Under Bush, the government was much more reluctant to grant requests made by the media and others under the Freedom of Information Act. The administration charged very high fees to people and organizations seeking information under the act. When a small nonprofit agency asked the Department of Education for information on students barred from federal grants and loans due to drug convictions, it faced “much foot-dragging and finally ruinous” fees.
The president’s desire to operate in secrecy was also reflected in his signing of a measure that provided for fines and jail time for journalists who publish information related to security matters. It was essentially the official secrets measure that Bill Clinton had vetoed. Secrecy is employed to hide some activities and also to discipline reporters. Only those who are friendly to the administration are given access to some information. Knight-Ridder CEO and president of the Newspaper Association of America Tony Ridder told the National Press Club that there is “a blend of fear, frustration and anger on the part of many Washington journalists” and he reminded listeners that “access to information is essential to democracy” and that secrecy diminishes the freedoms of most citizens.

In dealing with Congress, the Bush administration has been worse than its predecessors in sharing information. To avoid confirmation hearings, it has resorted to a number of recess appointments. When it was clear there would be trouble confirming someone, as in the case of the nomination of John Bolton as UN ambassador, it abandoned the hearings route and made a recess appointment. Letters from Congressmen requesting information are treated in a cavalier manner, and those from Democrats are sometimes ignored. After a spate of mine disasters, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the problem. The top mine safety official, David G. Dye, testified and left, announcing that he had “pressing matters” to attend to. Those who testify are expected to remain in case matters come up that they can address. When Bush instructed the NSA to spy on private telephone conversations without warrants, the administration briefed only Congressional leaders, and the briefings were only fig-leaves. Yet Bush bragged about his openness in this matter. The Congressional Research Service noted that the law requires that whole committees be briefed and concluded that the administration may have broken the law.

Taking its cue from the administration, the Republican Congress has usually refused to investigate controversial matters; perhaps thinking party loyalty demanded this. Of course, observers with good memories know that Democratic Congresses did investigate Democratic presidents. Norman Ornstein has suggested that the subservience of Congress is part of a “battered Congress syndrome,” something akin to a battered spouse syndrome.
rmation Act, the Justice Department promulgated regulations that enabled agencies to keep secret any information they thought should not be available to the public. A very small case in point was the abuse of secrecy rules to make Bill Clinton look bad in his negotiations with Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barach. The transcripts of their telephone discussions were labeled top secret, and the Bush administration edited them to the disadvantage of its predecessor. There was also a massive increase in the number of classified documents, from 8 million in 1999 to 23 million in 2002. The administration appointed a new federal archivist who had been accused of violations of the code of the International Council of Archivists. It did not seem to be an administration committed to the public’s right to know what was transpiring.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in March 2001 ordered all agencies to develop guidelines to prevent disclosure of information they considered “sensitive but unclassified.” Bush’s EPA began making scholars register before they could use its Envirofacts database After September 11, the movement toward secrecy in government was intensified under the pretext that security made this necessary. In contrast, the Clinton administration had declassified millions of records and had supported passage of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act. In 2002, Mitch Daniels, head of the Office of Management and Budget proposed that departments and agencies print their own materials, perhaps using private printers. This would end the practice of sending materials to the Government Printing Office, which was then required to send copies of what it printed to library depositories throughout the country. Daniels insisted that his plan was designed only to save money, but its effect would be to greatly limit the flow of information to the public.

The Bush administration refused to release Reagan administration documents that federal law mandated be made public in January 2001. The Bush administration delayed the release of 60,000 pages for more than a year, despite the requirements of law. On March 15, 2002, all but 155 pages were released. Most of that material seems to relate to the process of nominating judges. Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, believes the administration does not want scholars to know how the Reagan administration stacked the judiciary with conservative judges. “What they did was brilliant, no question about it.” Some of the papers still withheld were those of then Vice President George H. W. Bush.

There are still millions of Reagan era papers to be processed before release can even be considered. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 required that the National Archives have ultimate control of presidential papers. In obedience to the law, the National Archives screened the Reagan papers for materials that related to national security and prepared about 68,000 that could be safely released in 2001 as the first installment of the Reagan papers. Alberto Gonzalez, White House Counsel, persuaded the Archives to accept three delays to give the White House time to deal with legal questions. After September 11, President Bush issued Executive Order 13233, asserting the right to decide what was released and when. The fact that the country was on a war footing was used to justify the order as well as executive privilege. The order, for the first time, extended executive privilege to cover vice-presidential papers.

Presumably, the reason for the concealment of these documents was that many former Reagan administration officials were serving in the second Bush administration. Concealment of these records and the refusal to obey the law was scarcely mentioned in most of the press. Bush attempted to resolve the matter with the executive order giving presidents, beginning with Reagan, the same power as sitting presidents to keep their papers private. The executive order reversed the Presidential Records Act. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said the action was justified because of the September 11 attack on America. Molly Ivins, one of the few to comment upon this usurpation of power thought it was because the papers could “contain information damaging to the reputation of Poppy Bush, who was then vice president, and/or the reputations of old Reaganites like Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.” The Executive Order is being challenged in the courts by Public Interest, but the political outlooks of the judges who hear the case could determine the outcome.

Bush had also moved to keep control of his gubernatorial papers by placing them in his father’s presidential library. Using the terrorist threat as an excuse, Attorney General John Ashcroft advised government agencies that he would support their efforts to withhold records requested under the Freedom of Information Act. A few newspapers noted that the Bush administration made haste to release the correspondence of Enron chairman Ken Lay with Clinton’s two Secretaries of the Treasury, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Lay offered Rubin a seat on the Enron board, which was declined. Summers was asked to resist a call to regulate derivatives. There was no evidence that the letters produced the desired results. On the other hand, Kenneth Lay had spent more than $600,000 to advance the political career of George W. Bush. During the campaign of 2000, Enron also loaned Bush a corporate jet for whistle-stopping. Lay had been appointed to the senior Bush’s Energy Council, and the Energy Policy Act, passed under the first Bush, forced utilities to permit energy traders like Enron to use their pipelines. By long delaying the seizure of Enron’s papers after it was clear that there had been widespread corporate wrong-doing, the Bush administration made it possible for extensive shredding of documents to occur.

In 2006, the Bush administration refused to release papers on its badly bungled handling of the hurricane Katrina, which did massive damage to the Gulf coast. After Katrina struck, Bush said he had no idea that New Orleans would be flooded or its levees would break, yet evidence turned up in February 2006 that he had been warned about those possibilities hours before the disaster occurred. The decision to stonewall on the FEMA papers issue and the refusal to permit top White House officials to testify before Congressional committees was clearly an attempt at damage control. In 2007, a federal judge commented on the “Kafkaesque” hurdles people had to jump in order to obtain FEMA assistance. FEMA legal service people were kept under a gag order so that the complete picture of the agency’s ineptitude or disinterest could not be revealed. It was also revealed that much FEMA food has simply gone to rot and that the agency had put out false figures about how many people it put into hotel rooms. While dealing with disastrous fires that year, the agency resorted to a faked press conference to burnish its image.

The Bush administration in 2002 stopped reporting information about factory closings, and acknowledged that it was doing so only in a footnote to a document released on Christmas Eve, 2002. In the environmental arena, there was an effort to tone down and/or delete scientific data from reports written by government environmental professionals that contradicted administration policy. Pollster Frank Luntz warned that the scientific debate about global warming “is closing against us but is not yet closed. There is still an opportunity to challenge the science.” This was essentially done by censorship and editing. By early 2004, the administration found the ultimate policy for dealing with scientific findings. It created a scientific review process under the Office of Management and Budget that could delay the implementation of environmental and health regulations until the scientific information underpinning them was approved by this new review process. Joan Claybrook remarked, “this is an attempt at paralysis by analysis.”

There seemed to be a distrust of government experts as though they were somehow uninformed obstructionists determined to get in the way of progress. This characterization was applied to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, economists, environmentalists, and the CIA. The latter was particularly distrusted because it often criticized estimates and claims made by the Neo Conservatives and their Iraqi exile clients. This deep distrust of experts is partly an outgrowth of the Republicans’ critique of the so-called New Class. Even the Bush administration’s assault on the findings of hard sciences, particularly in regard to global warming, is more than pandering to industrial donors. It is a manifestation of the ideologues hostility to experts and is rooted in their critique of the so-called New Class.

In 2006, Dr. James E. Hansen, head of Goddard Institute for Space Studies, complained that NASA has attempted to stop his frequent warnings about global warming. It ordered the public relations people to monitor future lectures, papers, and postings as well as requests from journalists for interviews. A public relations official relayed to him that NASA warned there would be “dire consequences” if he continued to speak in the same manner about global warming. A NASA official went on record as being unhappy that Hansen spoke on liberal NPR and stated that his job was “to make the president look good” and that Hansen was disloyal civil servant. For a time, his superiors assigned a “minder” to Hansen, but they it was learned that the young man who was to monitor Hansen’s behavior did not possess the degree he claimed to have. In 2006, Hansen compared Bush’s censorship of science with the way Stalin’s minions distorted it. It was reported that political appointees at NASA exerted heavy pressure during the 2004 election to prevent publication of information about glaciers melting, climate change, or global warming.

When government scientists produce facts that offend the Bush administration's corporate allies, the administration has moved to suppress the information. Dr. James Zahn was ordered by the Department of Agriculture not to publicize information about superbugs in huge hog farms due to pressure from the National Pork Producers Council. At the Department of Interior, the deletion and alteration of scientific information became a standard procedure. Scientists who were likely to find information that contradicted Bush policies or threatened corporate interests have been removed from federal panels. Tony Oppegard, a federal engineer heading a geodesic study of mountain top strip mining was fired as soon as Bush took office. The White House had little reason to share information with Congress or seek its imput. Republicans in the House and Senate are held in line by Teutonic discipline, and dutifully follow the White House line. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska complained that “You have an administration that does not reach out or see much value in consulting with Congress. They treat Congress as an appendage, a constitutional nuisance .

The George W. Bush administration has found another means to avoid vigorous enforcement of regulatory law by packing the top levels of the civil service with political appointees. Other administrations have done some of this, but Paul Light of the Brookings Institution considered the 12% increase of employees at this level “stunning. ” Appointments on Schedule C do not require Congressional approval. But the extent of these appointments suggests an intention to politicize the federal service and challenge the long-standing merit principle in civil service hiring. The plan for undoing much of the federal civil service system was laid out in January 2001 in the Heritage Foundation’s “Taking Charge of Federal Personnel.” The document called for appointments based on loyalty as the first criterion rather than expertise. It maintained that the professional civil service should be considered the enemy and called for the outsourcing of as much work as possible. In early, 2007 the Bush administration capped its battle against the professional civil service with an executive order that required any changes in federal regulations had to be approved by political appointees in the departments and agencies of government.

The penchant for secrecy also involves an effort to control the flow of information about foreign policy. Just as William Casey, CIA director under Ronald Reagan, purged dissidents in the agency, Porter Goss, George W. Bush’s appointee, has made it clear that information coming out of the agency must fit the administration’s policy line. He has refused to release to Congress an assessment of how much damage was done by the outing of covert agent Valerie Plame. Goss and his aides have expressed displeasure with the results of a study by former deputy director Richard Kerr that detailed intelligence failures prior to the invasion of Iraq. He has delayed publication of the issue of Studies in Intelligence that referenced the report, erected new barriers to what can be printed there, and provoked the resignation of the editor and chairman of the editorial board. Career officers have vacated 20 top positions and 90 senior officials have resigned. A purge also occurred in Condi Rice’s Department of State, but it was more gentle. Officials who disagreed verbally or in their reports with the Bush Cheney NeoCons have had their security clearances pulled and they have been reassigned to less important tasks. Some had dealt with the Middle East, Iran, international law, the environment, non-proliferation, Latin America, and Africa.

Perhaps the administration’s penchant for secrecy is simply a reflection of the mindset of corporate CEO, who are impatient with public discussion and the squabbling of politicians. Bush and Cheney were both corporate CEOs and promised to use their executive skills to solve national problems. After the disclosure of many CEO-induced scandals, they said no more about the advantages of putting CEOs in office but their governing style did not change. It was marked by impatience with discussion, contempt for compromise, ruthlessness with opponents, chumminess with business cronies, secretiveness, and hierarchal outlook. Whether several of these traits represented a disdain for some aspects of democracy remains to be seen.

The Bush energy plan was developed in secret by Vice President Cheney and passed in 2005 in proceedings often clouded in secrecy. There were efforts to open the task force records, but they were successfully blocked in the courts. The Bush administration acknowledged that Vice President met with Enron executives six times about the proceedings of his energy task force. More complete information about its proceedings has not yet become available. It is known, however, that representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and as well as Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club, were given an audience with the vice president only after the details of the energy plan had been made public. The deliberations of the energy task force resulted in quick approval for controversial of the pebble-bed nuclear reactor of Exelon Corporation. The firm, which has made large contributions to the Republican Party, insists that the design will provide safer cheap power in abundance, but environmentalists dispute these claims.

A successful effort to cloak critical information in secrecy was accompanied by a very skillful effort to manipulate the press and manage the news. By the end of George W. Bush’s third year in the White House, Harpers’ Magazine publisher Rick MacArthur told a radio interviewer that the “White House press corps...has now turned into ...[a] full time press agency for the President of the United States.” Later in the interview he added that the public should “assume that the press is now part of the government.” On reflection, Mac Arthur would certainly back off from full meaning of these assessments, but he was correct in noting that the national press had lost its ability to critically cover this GOP administration. British journalist Greg Palast has referred to the mainstream American press as the dependent press because information is so tightly controlled that it must cater to the Bush administration in order to be rewarded with even small pieces of information. Richard L. Ehrlich, Jr., Maryland’s Republican governor, formalized this way of dealing with the press in November 2004 when he signed a written order forbidding employees to talk to two reporters for the Baltimore Sun. Two federal courts subsequently upheld the legality of that order.

It insists upon enforcing the Pentagon’s 1991 ban on taking photographs of coffins carrying the bodies of American soldiers at Dover Air Force Base. When the President held a huge rally for troops at Fort Carson, the press was ordered not to talk to any soldiers before, during, or after the rally. They obeyed, and only the Rocky Mountain News reported on the orders given to the press. The skill of the Bush administration in manipulating the press was demonstrated in 2004, when the Social Security Administration ran many advertisements clearly touting the advantages of Bush’s prescription care plan. Few noticed that the advertisements could have a political effect. Later that year, the Department of Education, paid $700,000 to an agency to advertise Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, a major Bush bragging point. The department also paid TV talk show host Armstrong Williams $240,000 to talk up the program in the black community. When the payment came to light, there was little discussion about blurring the lines between a journalist and an paid advocate.

The federal government paid Maggie Gallagher $21,500 to promote the Bush approach to marriage, and another conservative columnist was paid $10,000 to do the same. The use of taxpayer money for political purposes was nearly a non-issue in the public and political forums. In a related matter, private corporations began to provide local television stations with video news releases, which the stations presented as ordinary news. Sometimes the releases had political content and other times they were more commercial in nature.

Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum

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Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!