Bush and the FOIA, Cheney and secrecy

Why we might never find out who won
By Carla Binion


December 5, 2000 | A Bush presidency might pose a threat to the free flow of information. Bush and Company are long time champions of government secrecy and foes of the public's right to know. Once Bush is in office, we might never have the chance to count questionable Florida ballots, for the reasons that follow:

 (1) Democrats have pinned their hopes on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.) They say if George W. Bush becomes president, some day the ballots will be obtained through FOIA and fairly counted.

However, The Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress in 1966, requires that government officials make their files available to the public, unless revealing those files conflicts with national security interests. Here is the clincher: The FOIA leaves it to individual presidents to determine what constitutes a threat to "national security." Recent Republican administrations have worked to severely limit FOIA, hiding their personal wrongdoing behind a cloak of national security.

President Ronald Reagan, who hid his Iran-contra misdeeds behind the national security banner, said the government should withhold information from any FOIA requester whenever there was a "substanial legal basis" for withholding. (A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People's Right to Know, Athan G. Theoharis, University Press of Kansas, 1998.)

The George H. W. Bush administration argued in court that judicial review for the Freedom of Information Act was severely limited and that courts could not second-guess national security classifications, a decision writer Jon Wiener says "can be an invitation to a police state." (A Culture of Secrecy, Theoharis.)

 (2) Bush's choice for Vice President, Dick Cheney, has publicly argued for tight government secrecy. For example, he has said that Congress should have little or no oversight regarding clandestine CIA activities. Cheney once attempted to retaliate against journalist Seymour Hersh for his investigation into intelligence agency deeds.

As Gerald Ford's deputy chief of staff, Cheney outlined options for punishing journalist Seymour Hersh after Hersh investigated the intelligence community. Among the options were ordering an FBI investigation of Hersh and the New York Times and getting a search warrant to rummage through Hersh's private papers in his apartment. (Challenging the Secret Government, Katherine S. Olmsted, University of North Carolina Press, 1996.)

The White House rejected the idea, in part for fear such tactics would call unwanted attention to the importance of Hersh's story. Dick Cheney asked in his notes on conversations about Hersh whether the White House could take advantage of the story to help limit the scope of a Senate investigation into other intelligence activities. (Challenging the Secret Government, Olmsted.)

Recent Democratic administrations have made some effort toward government openness rather than secrecy. For example, Bill Clinton rescinded Reagan's 1981 policy. Clinton said information should be withheld from citizens "only when an agency reasonably forsees that disclosure would be harmful." (A Culture of Secrecy, Theoharis.)

Clinton's Department of Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary, began an "Openness Initiative," publishing secrets about goverment radiation experiments done on American citizens. Clinton's Advisory Committe on Human Radiation Experiments showed that the Veterans Administration knew as early as 1947 that American veterans might have valid claims regarding veterans' exposure to radiation during the cold war. (A Culture of Secrecy, Theoharis, The Human Radiation Experiments: Final Report of the President's Advisory Committee, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.)

Hazel O'Leary said that in the long run revealing government secrets would "restore the confidence of the American people in the integrity of their government." Under Clinton, O'Leary tried to enlist the input of public interest groups and worked to speed up the declassifcation of government secrets. (A Culture of Secrecy, Theoharis.)

Another Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, issued an executive order allowing classified information to be made public if public interest outweighed potential national security concerns. (A Culture of Secrecy, Theoharis, Executive Order No. 12065, 3 C.F.R., 190, 1979).

By contrast, Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush preferred hiding shady activities. In addition to his 1981 FOIA restrictions, Reagan said in 1983, that the FBI could keep from the public any documents "which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security." The public interest was not factored in to Reagan's policy as it was in both Carter's and Clinton's. (A Culture of Secrecy, Theoharis).

When people say there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans, consider the difference between recent administrations' approaches to government secrecy. A vote for Bush/Cheney was a vote against the public's right to know.

Once a Bush/Cheney adminstration gets its paws on the reins, any remaining Florida ballots might be "classified" for reasons of "national security." Anyone who protests may have his private papers rummaged.

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