Secrecy central

Thomas R. Temin

Since the Bush administration took office, federal agencies have become less willing to reveal the most mundane information. Officials hide more behind public affairs flacks, information disappears from Web sites and routine facts about programs are difficult to pry out.

This has nothing to do with Sept. 11, even if the ensuing war on terrorism gave the reticence a fresh push. For example, one politically appointed CIO flew into a rage when asked the name of a system'as if its name could reveal information useful to hackers. He accused a reporter of trying to interfere with national defense. A silly response, perhaps, but it exemplified what we hear a lot.

The administration set the tone early on when it yanked the Clinton Web site and threw up a lame, quickie replacement at www.whitehouse.gov. I can understand and even sympathize with the desire to de-Clintonize the site, yet lots of basic, nonpartisan material disappeared, too.

The site has improved since but not the pattern of heightened strictures on information. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press documented that pattern in an online white paper, www.rcfp.org/homefrontconfidential.

Early on, the administration let it be known it would run a tight ship with respect to who said what and what the party line would be. Although the reality is messier than President Bush probably hoped, the bureaucracy has transmogrified the approach into one of secrecy by default.

My concern here isn't the press. Like other groups such as trade associations, lobbyists and large companies, we have resources'and above-average incentive'for obtaining the information we need. But what about a citizen or a government employee?

At many agencies'the FBI, IRS and Immigration and Naturalization Service, to name a few'the brass for various reasons face embarrassing scrutiny. Their default to tight-lipped 'no comment' responses at least has a discernible, if unjustified, basis.

But Web site scrubbing and general ducking by officials is widespread. It starts at the top, and many career managers'whose instincts tell them better'freely admit it. In the final analysis, a circle-the-wagons mentality is at odds with the administration's stated goal of a citizen-centric, e-government.

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