What You Don’t Know  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   April/May 2006

What You Don’t Know   

The Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


It's been awhile since Dave, Jay and Jon were harvesting laughs at the expense of Vice President Dick Cheney and his luckless quail-hunting companion. But it was quite a run while it lasted, in part because Harry Whittington had the good fortune to come through the ordeal with his life, and his sense of humor, intact.

You didn't have to be a hunter to appreciate how the accident happened. Nor did it take much imagination to understand how the vice president must have felt, almost literally paralyzed by a combination of shock and mortification. Given his emotional state, and given that in the initial hours after the accident Whittington's medical prognosis was uncertain, one can see why at the Texas ranch that evening prompt and full disclosure was not the first thing on anyone's mind.

That impulse was a mistake, of course. After all, by now "Veep Shoots Friend" has pretty much replaced "Man Bites Dog" as shorthand for what constitutes news. But as I say, in human terms the reticence might be understandable.

What's disturbing about the episode, though, is that emotional dislocation was not the real reason for the delay. Basically, the vice president's people sat on the story because they thought they could.

Audacious and arrogant as that may seem in retrospect, it is consistent with an administration that has crafted a culture of secrecy unseen since Richard Nixon was in the White House and Ron Ziegler was drafting the rope-a-dope playbook that Scott McClellan knows by heart.

By "culture of secrecy" I don't mean only the secret prisons and the secret protocols for torture and the secret legal findings that somehow levitated the United States above the Geneva Conventions. As an American I find all these developments deeply troubling, but I also recognize that in wartime — which is where we are, after all — unsavory steps are sometimes necessary for the nation's self-defense. Commanders in chief must have wide, albeit closely scrutinized, latitude here.

But what I'm talking about is a more primal aversion to sharing information that was present in this White House from the outset, and which 9/11 only enabled. It's the attitude that has become as familiar as the vice president's snarl: Trust us, we know what's best for you, too much information might give you a tummy ache.

More than the exigencies of fighting terrorism, that attitude explains the questionable National Security Agency intercepts of domestic communications. (I can only imagine how frustrating it is for our intelligence services to operate within the nearly 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in this age of disposable cell phones and Internet communications, but it's still the law. If you don't like FISA, change it, don't ignore it.)

That attitude explains Bush's desperate desire to continue the Patriot Act, which even with its emendations still bruises civil liberties. It explains a Nixonian dragnet of various national security precincts for the sources of high-profile leaks to journalists, accompanied by reckless talk of prosecuting reporters for espionage. And it explains why this administration is quietly reclassifying government documents that already had been made public — nearly 10,000 so far, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

As bad policy often does, the culture of secrecy is circling back on Bush himself. For my money, the most devastating aspect of the Dubai ports controversy was the fact that neither President Bush nor Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff even knew about the proposal until it was being beaten like a piñata in the papers and on the talk shows. Whether the ports decision was a bonehead gaffe or an innocent expression of economic globalism, the fact that no one in the administration thought it warranted a public airing belies a tone-deafness that is breathtaking.

The press, to its credit, has surfaced the foregoing examples of government secrecy. Yet such examples only make one wonder what else we don't know about.

Several years ago this magazine documented the mainstream media's diminishing commitment to covering the federal government — referring not to the White House and congressional press scrums but coverage of key agencies and departments, where policies get made and secrets can hide. It's probably time to update those statistics, but I'm confident if we did we would see an even further erosion of Washington coverage, as budget pressures and consolidation chip away at bureau after bureau, and broad-based "theme" assignments supplant old-fashioned, shoe-leather beats.

With midterm elections around the corner and a politically weak president, Congress is finally starting to take back some of the power it had ceded to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. This is a healthy sign.

The news media need to follow suit. Journalistic boldness is not slapping around poor Scott McClellan, who scarcely needs our help to look silly. It's getting back into the Dilbert-like cubicles and corridors of federal Washington, finding the civil service lifers who abhor the culture of secrecy as much as we do. I bet they're out there.

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