“It has to be said: there has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration’s obsession with secrecy….It’s an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption.” — Bill Moyers, December, 2005
As the Bush Administration threatens and bullies the media, it is also engaging in an unprecedented rollback of public access to information that is an affront to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law forty years ago.
Gary Bass, Director of OMB Watch – a government accountability watchdog group – notes that unclassified information has been sub-categorized into oblivion by the Bush administration. The ambiguous, unclassified-but-inaccessible designations include: “sensitive but unclassified”; “sensitive homeland security information”; “critical infrastructure information”… and approximately 50 other invented obfuscations. Furthermore, Pentagon officials acknowledge that the GAO has rightly criticized the Defense Department for mistakenly marking unclassified matieral as “confidential or secret.”
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, President Jimmy Carter warned that the impact of this culture of secrecy has “….put the United States behind much of the world in the right to information.”
“We are sliding from a right-to-know society towards one based on need-to-know,” Bass says. “It’s a dramatic shift in our democratic principles.”
One Congressional effort to fight the secrecy trend has produced some strange bedfellows – from Grover Norquist to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Barack Obama are co-sponsoring legislation that would create an online public database listing government contracts and grants. It is not so much a left-right alliance as a pro-democracy, pro-openness, and anti-special interest corruption movement.
Not surprisingly, the House version of the bill would reveal only grants on the database, not contracts. Why? Because contracts are awarded to businesses, while grants go primarily to non-profits. Republican Rep. Tom Davis, a sponsor of the House bill, danced around the issue in telling the New York Times: “Contracts are awarded in a much more competitive environment… That makes them more self-policing…. Grants are more susceptible to abuse.”