@Info.Policy: A mania for secrecy, or situation normal?

A mania for secrecy, or situation normal?

Robert Gellman

Does the Bush administration have a mania about secrecy?

Item: The administration delayed release of Ronald Reagan's presidential records. Republican and Democratic members of Congress criticized Bush's executive order for elevating privilege over openness. It is unclear whether the order is an attempt to expand presidential secrecy or simply to protect White House prerogatives.

Item: In October, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo encouraging agencies to withhold records under the Freedom of Information Act. The Justice Department said it would defend the withholding unless the action was indefensible or would affect the department. Was this a sinister attack on disclosure or just an attempt by Justice's FOIA office to get some attention from a new attorney general?

Item: In December, the president invoked executive privilege to protect internal Justice documents on criminal prosecutions. Was this unprecedented or just another in a long series of department attempts to avoid being held accountable for exercising prosecutorial discretion?

Item: After Sept. 11, the administration removed or restricted access to previously available government information. Would other administrations have acted much differently under the circumstances?

I haven't exhausted the list of antidisclosure actions and comments from the Bush administration, but these examples are sufficient to establish a pattern not radically different from that of past presidents.

The FOIA memo may be the dumbest. Similar memos date back to the days of Jimmy Carter. Democratic administrations tell agencies to be circumspect in applying FOIA exemptions and to maximize disclosure. Republicans say the opposite.

Everything I see strikes me as unfortunately normal and depressingly average. Circumstances have given Bush more than the usual opportunities to take secrecy actions, but every administration favors secrecy as long as it is in office.

Newly elected and appointed officials don't like being criticized. This is why it is so important that we have openness laws in place. If nothing else, they force politicians to work hard to justify secrecy.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@cais.com.

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