Now that we know that Al Gore not only beat George Bush by roughly 537,000 votes nationally, but also handily defeated him among legally cast votes in Florida, I suppose we can expect accelerated efforts on the part of the President to try to counter his proven political illegitimacy. This is actually a pretty frightening notion. Well before we received the much-misreported results of the Florida recount, the Administration gave every indication of being so addicted to secrecy that it would happily stretch the bounds of democratic accountability beyond their breaking point.
This tendency was evident even pre-9/11–for instance, when Dick Cheney refused repeated Congressional demands that he identify the lobbyists crafting the Administration's multibillion-dollar giveaway to the oil and gas industry. (Oddly, the journalistic holy warriors who demanded that Hillary Clinton do just that during the crafting of her ill-fated healthcare plan have remained remarkably understanding this time around.) Osama bin Laden's terrorism has now given Bush & Co. an excuse to try to close off virtually every possible avenue of inquiry from those who seek to question their policies.
Among the highlights so far are: a decision to jail more than 1,000 people, without charge and without explanation; an executive order allowing secret military tribunals for immigrants accused of involvement in the still-undefined crime of terrorism; an attempt by John Ashcroft to emasculate the Freedom of Information Act; and an order to clamp down on information available from military contractors, from government websites and even information given to Congress.
While some new security measures are obviously necessary, the Bush people's zeal to shut down the free flow of information goes well beyond any legitimate need. Consider November's Executive Order 13233, which eviscerates the nation's access to its own history, effectively overturning the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 by fiat.
Current law insists that all presidential papers be declassified within twelve years, with an exception made for those whose publication could demonstrably affect our national security. Bush now wants to allow Presidents to refuse to declassify the decision-making process virtually forever. And he wants to do this regardless of whether the ex-President in question wants his papers released. This is a catastrophe not only for historians but also for history. The secrecy it enshrines can only invite future Watergate- or Iran/contra-style abuses.
The obvious target of the new law is the Reagan papers. For the past nine months, Reagan's people have refused–with the Bush Administration's backing–to release more than 68,000 pages they owe the nation under the 1978 law. The Bush Administration is filled with Reagan-era retreads whose questionable actions might leave them vulnerable to criticism and/or ridicule. Among these are Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, Otto Reich as well as Colin Powell, budget director Mitch Daniels Jr. and Chief of Staff Andrew Card. And then there's the matter of Reagan's Vice President, who, like Abrams et al., lied about his awareness of the commission of Iran/contra crimes.