Bush's War on the Press | The Nation


Bush's War on the Press

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Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.


About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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All Presidents try to keep secrets; it comes with the job description. Following 9/11, the need for secrecy increased significantly. Bush, however, has taken advantage of this new environment to shut down the natural flow of information between the governing and the governed in ways that have little or nothing to do with the terrorist threat. As Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity points out, "The country has seen a historic, regressive shift in public accountability. Open-records laws nationwide have been rolled back more than 300 times--all in the name of national security." Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood adds, "Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent.... His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004."

Some of these efforts may be justified as prudent preparation in the face of genuine threats, but this is hard to credit, given the contempt the Administration has demonstrated for the public's right to information in non-security-related matters. Upon entering office, Bush attempted to shield his Texas gubernatorial records by shuttling them into his father's presidential library. That was followed by an executive fiat designed to hide his father's presidential records, as well as those of the Reagan/Bush Administration, by blocking the scheduled release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and issuing a replacement presidential order that allowed not only Presidents but also their wives and children to keep their records secret. (The records had already been scrubbed for national security implications.)

In the aftermath of 9/11, Administration efforts to prevent accountability accelerated to warp speed. Attorney General Ashcroft reversed a Clinton Administration-issued policy governing FOIA requests that allowed documents to be withheld only when "foreseeable harm" would likely result, to one in which merely a "sound legal basis" could be found. And that was just the beginning. Even when documents were not withheld de jure, Administration officials often withheld them de facto. When People for the American Way sought documents on prisoners' cases being litigated in secret, the Justice Department required it to pay $373,000 in search fees before officials would even look. "It's become much, much harder to get responses to FOIA requests, and it's taking much, much longer," David Schulz, the attorney who helps the Associated Press with FOIA requests, explained to a reporter. "Agencies seem to view their role as coming up with techniques to keep information secret rather than the other way around. That's completely contrary to the goal of the act."

In addition, as Aftergood notes, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." These sources were once freely available but are now being withdrawn from view under the classification "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." They include: the Pentagon telephone directory, the Los Alamos technical report library, historical records at the National Archives and the Energy Department intelligence budget, among many others. Even more alarming is the web of secrecy surrounding the operations of what has become the equivalent of a police state at Guantánamo Bay and other military prisons around the world, where the accused are routinely denied due process and traditional rules of evidence are deemed irrelevant. Exactly two members of Congress, both sworn to secrecy, are being briefed by the CIA on these programs. The rest of Congress, the media and the public are given no information to judge the legality, morality or effectiveness of these extralegal machinations, some of which have already resulted in officially sanctioned torture and possibly even murder.

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