January 17, 2002
For all his success during his first year in office, President Bush has shown an unfortunate obsession with secrets.
National security concerns were good reason to keep some government
information under wraps
in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and this page supported him on those counts. But the
Bush administration has been clamping down on other information for reasons that appear to have
more to do with politics and paranoia than with reasonable discretion.
In the last few months:
- Vice President Dick Cheney has refused to disclose Enron Corp.'s role
in a task force that developed
Bush's energy policy, a short-sighted decision that threatens only to keep the administration mired in the
scandal surrounding the Houston company as long as he remains quiet.
- Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft issued a directive to federal agencies that
gives them far more leeway to
deny public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act, a crucial tool for citizens,
journalists and watchdog groups who keep tabs on the government.
- Bush rejected congressional subpoenas for prosecution documents about
a mob corruption case in Boston
and a fundraising investigation during the Clinton presidency. In invoking executive privilege, the president
explained that releasing the documents would allow Congress to second-guess federal prosecutors and
would be "contrary to the national interest." But Bush's actions infuriated Congressmen on both sides of
the aisle. "This is not a monarchy," said Republican Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government
- Bush signed an executive order that gives him and former presidents
unprecedented powers to keep presidential
papers secret. The order undermines a Watergate-era reform that made White House papers public property.
- Instead of sending his gubernatorial papers to the state archives
or a state university, as most governors do,
Bush instead sent his papers from his five years as Texas governor to his father's George Bush Presidential Library.
That private museum is not subject to the state's public records laws.
President Bush isn't the first politician to withhold information from
the public on dubious grounds.
Here in Chicago, City Hall routinely sits on requests for public information that might lead to unflattering
news stories. Local school boards are infamous for ironing out their differences in executive session
so they can present a harmonious front to the public.
But Bush's policies have even more far-reaching impact, closing the
door to journalists and members
of Congress who seek information on the workings of the executive branch, and thwarting historians'
efforts to write accurate portrayals of past presidents.
Bush's penchant for secrets shows a troubling disregard for accountability
in government, a bedrock principle of
this democracy. "It's kind of a contempt or disrespect for the concept of public access," said Michael Tankersley,
an attorney for Washington-based Public Citizen, an organization that advocates for open government.
"It's just the concept that we are the officials in charge of the federal government and you should trust us
and we shouldn't be held accountable."
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunshine is
said to be the best of disinfectants."
The Bush administration should open the curtains at the White House.
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune