WASHINGTON – As the Bush administration has dramatically accelerated the classification of information as “top secret” or “confidential,” one office is refusing to report on its annual activity in classifying documents: the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
A standing executive order, strengthened by President Bush in 2003, requires all agencies and “any other entity within the executive branch” to provide an annual accounting of their classification of documents. More than 80 agencies have collectively reported to the National Archives that they made 15.6 million decisions in 2004 to classify information, nearly double the number in 2001, but Cheney continues to insist he is exempt.
Explaining why the vice president has withheld even a tally of his office’s secrecy when such offices as the National Security Council routinely report theirs, a spokeswoman said Cheney is “not under any duty” to provide it.
That is only one way the Bush administration, from its opening weeks in 2001, has asserted control over information. By keeping secret so many directives and actions, the administration has precluded the public – and often members of Congress – from knowing about some of the most significant decisions and acts of the White House.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the administration has based much of its need for confidentiality on the imperative of protecting national security at a time of war.
Yet experts say Bush and his closest advisers demonstrated their proclivity for privacy well before Sept. 11.
Starting in the early weeks of his administration with a move to protect the papers of former presidents, Bush has clamped down on the release of government documents.
That includes tougher standards for what the public can obtain under the Freedom of Information Act and the creation of a broad new category of “sensitive but unclassified information.”
Not only has the administration reported a dramatic increase in the number of documents deemed “top secret,” “secret” or “confidential,” the president has authorized the reclassification of information that was public for years. An audit by a National Archives office recently found that the CIA acted in a “clearly inappropriate” way regarding about one-third of the documents it reclassified last year.
The White House has resisted efforts by Congress to gain information, starting with a White House energy task force headed by Cheney and continuing with the president’s secret authorization of warrantless surveillance of people inside the United States suspected of communicating with terrorists abroad. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., recently threatened to withhold funding for the surveillance program unless the White House starts providing information.
The administration has withheld the identities of, and accusations against, detainees held in its war on terror, and it censored the findings of a joint House-Senate committee that investigated the events leading to Sept. 11, including a 27-page blackout of Saudi Arabia’s alleged connections to the terrorists.
While maintaining a disciplined and virtually leakproof White House, senior members of the administration have been accused of leaking information to punish a critic of the war in Iraq. The grand jury testimony of a former White House aide reportedly asserts that Bush himself selectively authorized release of once-classified information to counter criticism.
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A tension has always existed between the presidency and the public, with concerns about security and confidentiality competing with the public’s right to know about its government. But the balance seems to be tipping toward secrecy in a more pronounced way than at any time in the past three decades.
“Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government,” Bush said in his executive order on classified information. “Nevertheless, throughout our history, the national defense has required certain information be maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens.”
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Bush and Cheney have made it clear they are intent on reclaiming presidential powers lost by Bush predecessors. That erosion of power started with Richard Nixon’s losing fight over the privacy of his papers after the Watergate scandal and continued through Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
“This is a presidency in which, from the start, there were important forces to accentuate the executive prerogative, and all of that became more important after 9/11,” said Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University and author of “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush.”
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White House spokeswoman Dana Perino maintains that the White House has “struck the right balance” between national security and openness.
“We need to ensure that national security information is properly classified and protected,” Perino said. “We endeavor to make as much information available to the public as possible. … We are accountable to the American people. The president doesn’t want it any other way.”
But to some, the administration’s penchant for secrecy has curtailed crucial public debate.
“It determines the character of our political system,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Is it a political process that is open to wide-ranging debate, or is it more like a closed circle of elite decision-makers? I think we’ve learned, often to our disappointment, that it’s the latter.”
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To others, the insistence that information considered important be kept confidential is part of the Bush White House’s insistence on discipline and order.
“I really think they think of it in terms of good governance,” said James Carafano, senior fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “It’s a very corporate style of leadership.”
Bush has a partner – some say mentor – in Cheney, who from the start resisted all efforts to disclose the inner workings of a task force devising the administration’s energy policy. He defeated an unprecedented lawsuit by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to unveil that task force and carried his fight successfully to the Supreme Court.
And as the administration has sealed an increasing number of documents as secret or sensitive, and cut the number of documents being declassified each year, the refusal of Cheney’s office to report on the number of its decisions stands out.
A directive from the National Archives, acting under the authority of the executive order bolstered by Bush in March 2003, requires all agencies and executive branch units to report annually on their classification and declassification of files.
Cheney’s office maintains that its dual executive and legislative duties make it unique, as the vice president also serves as president of the Senate.
“This matter has been carefully reviewed,” said spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride. “It has been determined that the reporting requirement does not apply to the office of the vice president.”
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To many, the administration’s acts are part of a broader campaign to boost the powers of the presidency.
“It’s pretty clear that there were certain players in the administration, including the vice president, who felt that the executive branch had not fully exerted all of its constitutional authorities,” said David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general.
Walker, as head of the GAO, filed that office’s only lawsuit against a government agency in April 2002 as it sought to open the records of Cheney’s energy task force. A federal judge dismissed the suit as a struggle between the executive and legislative branches that courts were not empowered to adjudicate.
The White House, in asserting a more powerful executive office, believed “that some of its authorities and privileges had eroded through the years and wanted to redraw that line,” Walker said. “We just happened to be one of many situations that they chose to try to test.”
Organizations including the Sierra Club also carried the fight to the Supreme Court, which in 2004 voted 7-2 to uphold “a paramount necessity of protecting the executive branch from vexatious litigation” and returned the case to an appeals court, which last year ruled in favor of the White House.
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The administration started asserting its power over paper soon after Bush’s inauguration by placing a hold on the release of the records of former presidents – beginning with the papers of Ronald Reagan’s presidency – and later issuing an executive order granting past presidents a veto over releases.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978, enacted in response to Watergate-era court battles over Nixon’s papers, had placed a hold on release of “confidential communications … between the president and his advisers” for 12 years after the conclusion of a presidency.
The order Bush issued in 2001 enabled former presidents, or their representatives if the president has died, to screen any request for records and withhold ones considered “privileged.” It gave the same authority to vice presidents.
Before the end of its first year, the administration also reversed a long-standing policy on how agencies respond to public requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act.
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Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, had insisted on “a presumption of disclosure.” But Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, arguing that “no leader can operate effectively without confidential advice and counsel,” implored all agencies to disclose information requested by the public “only after full and deliberate consideration … of the privacy interests that could be implicated.”
The administration’s policy, stated by Ashcroft in an Oct. 12, 2001, memo, had been in the drafting for months.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, and amid growing concern about information that terrorists might obtain from the government, then-Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card issued an order in March 2002 demanding that any “Sensitive but Unclassified Information” related to homeland security be released only after careful consideration “on a case-by-case basis.”
That has led to a proliferation of documents stamped “Sensitive but Unclassified” or simply “For Office Use Only,” according to experts who track government record-keeping.
The Bush administration is “objectively more secretive” than its recent predecessors, Aftergood said.
“Anyone who calls or writes a government agency for information encounters barriers that were just not there a decade ago,” he said. “The government is undergoing a mutation in which we are gradually shifting into another kind of government in which executive authority is supreme and significantly unchecked.”
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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