Viewers of the old spy spoof Get Smart will remember the Cone of Silence–that giant plastic hair-salon dryer that descended over Maxwell Smart and Control when they held a sensitive conversation. Today, a Cone of Silence has descended over all of Washington: From four-star generals to lowly webmasters, the town is in information lockdown. Never in the nation’s history has the flow of information from government to press and public been shut off so comprehensively and quickly as in the weeks following September 11. Much of the shutdown seems to have little to do with preventing future terrorism and everything to do with the Administration’s laying down a new across-the-board standard for centralized control of the public’s right to know.
The most alarming evidence of the new climate emanates from the Justice Department. Investigators still hold in custody 150 of the 800 people rounded up in the aftermath of the attacks. (One detainee died in custody in New Jersey.) No charges have been filed, no hearings convened. The names of nearly all those still held remain classified, as do the reasons for their incarceration. Lawyers for some of the hundreds cleared and released have told reporters of questionable treatment of their clients–food withheld, attorneys blocked from access. Of the 150 who remain detained, only four presumed Al Qaeda suspects have been publicly named. FBI agents frustrated at the lack of progress in their interrogations of those four now mutter in the Washington Post about using sodium pentothal, or turning the suspects over to a country where beatings or other torture is used. The government’s stranglehold on information about other arrests makes it impossible to know just how far agents have already gone down that road, or whether the dragnet was mainly a public-relations exercise.
Just as damaging as these detentions is an October 12 memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft reversing longstanding Freedom of Information Act policies. In 1993 then-Attorney General Janet Reno directed agencies to disclose any government information upon request unless it was “reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful.” Ashcroft reverses this presumption, instead calling on agencies to withhold information whenever the law permits: “You can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions,” he writes. Ashcroft is in effect creating a “born secret” standard; in the words of the Federation of American Scientists, the order “appears to exploit the current circumstances” to turn FOIA into an Official Secrets Act.
One after another, federal agencies are removing public data from their websites or restricting access to their public reading rooms. Caution is understandable, but OMB Watch and Investigative Reporters and Editors have both documented egregious examples that seem at best tangentially related to terrorism and more likely designed as butt-coverage for mid-level bureaucrats. The Energy Department has removed information from its web-posted Occurrence Reporting Program, which provides news of events that could adversely affect public health or worker safety. The EPA removed information from its site about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, information the FBI says carries no threat of terrorism. More relevant than Al Qaeda, it appears, was hard lobbying by the chemical industry, which found the site an annoyance. The FAA pulled the plug on long-available lists of its security sanctions against airports around the country–depriving reporters of their only tool for evaluating the agency’s considerable failures to enforce its own public safety findings. At the Pentagon, news has been reduced to a trickle far more constricted than anything during Kosovo, which in turn was more restrictive than during the Gulf War. So comprehensive is the shutdown that on October 13, presidents of twenty major journalists’ organizations declared in a joint statement that “these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need.”
In the short run, the Cone of Silence did most damage at the Centers for Disease Control. Could the two (at this writing) Washington, DC, postal workers who died of inhalation anthrax have been protected by earlier treatment? Did any of the CDC’s doctors or scientists recommend a course of antibiotics for postal workers along the trajectory of anthrax-laden letters? Who knows? With the CDC’s staff muzzled, the public and postal workers alike were left with politicians as the conduits for contradictory and inadequate information about the risk.
The uncertain dimensions of the Al Qaeda threat make equally uncertain which information the government publishes might contribute to another attack and what to do about it. But it should be noted that the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks apparently involved data no more confidential than an airline schedule. The Administration’s response has been to treat all information and press access as suspect–an approach that will subvert public confidence and undercut legitimate media scrutiny more than it will damage Al Qaeda. During Vietnam, the famous credibility gap resided at the Pentagon, with briefings and Congressional testimony at odds with battlefield evidence. Just weeks into this war, the Bush Administration is risking a new credibility gap roughly the size of the District of Columbia.