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 V.13 No.27 | July 1 - 7, 2004 


Secrecy and the Bush Administration

In 1997, Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed a bill which allowed him to choose a different institution from the Texas State Archives to house his gubernatorial papers. The result: Bush deposited them in his father's Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M. This delayed the release of his documents for months due to confusion over whether they fell under FOIA timetables or quicker, in-state ones.

Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo to government agencies in October of 2001 urging that FOIA requests be rejected whenever possible, using the vaguest reasoning possible. Ashcroft then assured federal agencies that the Department of Justice "will defend your decisions."

In November 2001, President Bush effectively signed the 1978 Presidential Records Act out of existence. Executive Order 13233 granted former presidents, their heirs, and sitting presidents the right to veto the release of presidential documents to the public. In one fell stroke, Bush freed the supreme executive from public scrutiny of his records. (The 1978 law required their release after 12 years—a reaction to Nixon's secretiveness.)

Even information that was already released or slated for release fell prey to the federal government's hostility to disclosure. After September 11, hundreds of thousands of pages previously available online were removed from the sites of the EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which, for a time, was completely offline). Though somewhat justifiable for national security, the move cut off Americans from necessary information about airports, water and pipelines—information that had already been available to the public (including would-be terrorists).

Without offering an explanation, Bush delayed the declassification of millions of documents in March 2003 and gave FOIA officers greater freedom to reclassify information that had already been released.

Few government secrets have aroused as much suspicion as the records of Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force. Small, short-lived and dominated by corporate representatives, the task force recommended billions of dollars in tax cuts and subsidies for the coal, oil and nuclear industries. The administration has maintained a strict tight-lip policy on a list of these involved interests, prompting a dozen organizations and the General Accounting Office sue Cheney for the records.

As Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 has provoked questions of why the White House helped members of the bin Laden family flee the country in the days after September 11, the Bush administration has adamantly refused to disclose who arranged the flights, and how and when the planning took place. They have also blacked out portions of the 9-11 commission report connected to the Saudi government and business interests.

From the start the Bush administration opposed the formation of a 9-11 commission. Then refused to submit documents being requested by the commission, and finally negotiated to keep sections of the report classified—effectively concealing the findings from the media and public.

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