Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

One group’s attempt to quantify Bush’s impact on government

Posted by David Kassel on July 18, 2007

George W. Bush is widely known to be concerned about his legacy, and he may indeed be doing all he can to cement a future historical judgment of him.  Only it looks as though it may just turn out to be as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

It may not even be Iraq that ultimately brings that judgment down upon him.  It may be the concerted effort he (or Dick Cheney) appears to have made to dismantle our constitutional system of democratic checks and balances and to turn the country in the direction of a police state.

Can we quantify the constitutional damage Bush and Cheney have done?  One recent attempt to do so is contained in a new report  issued by the nonprofit OpenTheGovernment.org  and the People for the American Way Foundation.

If anyone in the House of Reps is looking to compile a Bill of Particulars against the Bush administration for its assorted high crimes and misdemeanors, they might well begin with this report, which is a compendium of the myriad actions the administration has taken in the wake of 9/11 not only to make government more secretive, but to deceive Congress and the public on issues ranging from Iraq to Medicare to the environment.

Quite a bit of what  the Bushies have done (that we know of) to thwart the Constitution and our democratic process is at least mentioned here.  The report lays it out in a dispassionate yet easily understandable manner that only now and then conveys the chilling nature of those actions, such as the White House instructions to the EPA after 9/11 to tell the public that the air around Ground Zero was “safe,” even though the EPA had not conducted full testing. Now we know of course that the air wasn’t safe and that scores of police and firefighters later died of cancer resulting from toxins in the air.

The report focuses on the concerted effort by the Bush administration since 9/11 to make government operate under a thicker and thicker cloak of secrecy, and suggests that things have indeed gotten worse than they’ve ever been before.  Among the topics covered are the administration’s efforts to weaken the 40-year-old Freedom of Information Act, its consistent use of executive privilege, its growing practice of classifying public records, its use of “covert propaganda” in both the foreign and domestic media, its secret court proceedings that include detentions of people on immigration-related and terrorism charges, and its increasing efforts to gag and punish whistleblowers and investigate leaks of secret and potentially illegal activities.

As the report’s Foreword states:

Most Americans recognize the need to safeguard national security information from improper public disclosures that would damage the national interest. But national security has become a blanket excuse to withhold information from the public as well as from Congress, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Interestingly, in what might not even have been a conscious intention of the author, the report highlights the general ineffectiveness of Congress thus far in thwarting these attacks on the Constitution.  In case after case, the report mentions legislation that has been proposed to rectify the damage in specific areas, and notes that the legislation has yet to be enacted.

Take the FOIA, for instance.  The report states that “the chilling of FOIA in the Bush Administration began nearly from its outset.” In October 2001, then Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo on FOIA that substantially undermined the law’s presumption of openness. The memo encouraged agencies to limit disclosure of information and ordered them to “carefully consider” such interests as national security, business information, and personal privacy before allowing the release of any information.

In the meantime, backlogs in responding to FOIA requests have been increasing.  In some cases, requestors can wait years for the information that they requested.  So, what has been done about this?  The report states that In March 2007, the House passed the “Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007” (H.R. 1309), while the “Open Government Act” (S. 849) was awaiting floor time in the Senate for debate and a vote.

The WatchdogBlog.org, by the way, reported early this month that S. 849 was being held up by Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona on behalf of current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.  According to WatchdogBlog, the bill would:

  • Restore meaningful deadlines for agency action under FOIA;
  • Impose real consequences on federal agencies for missing statutory deadlines;
  • Clarify that FOIA applies to agency records held by outside private contractors;
  • Establish a FOIA hotline service for all federal agencies; and
  • Create a FOIA Ombudsman as an alternative to litigation.

Regarding classifications of documents, the OpentheGovernment.org report notes that on an average day of the year, nearly 40,000 items, such as documents, files, or videos, are classified by government officials and private contractors.  This number has been increasing for the last ten years and has substantially increased in the last six years.  In 2003, President Bush issued an executive order which “significantly changed the presumptions about classification. It removed the requirement that, if there were a significant doubt about classification, it should not be classified,” the report notes.

The report also describes the practice by the administration of “selective declassification (of records) for political means,” such as the decision by President Bush to secretly declassify sections of a National Intelligence Estimate that supported claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These were leaked to reporters by the Office of the Vice-President, the report points out.

And there is the increasing use of the claim that information is privileged as involving state secrets or that information is “sensitive.”  Some of the recent uses of sensitive information that the report cites include:

  • The DC government was not allowed to see information on trains that are allowed to travel through the District carrying hazardous cargoes.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission attempted to suppress a report by the National Academy of Sciences that it did not agree with.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission  refused to share information about the safety of a proposed Liquid Natural Gas plan with the Connecticut Attorney General because it was Sensitive Energy Information.
  • The Department of Homeland Security refused to name the new DHS ombudsman.

Then there’s executive privilege.  The report notes that starting in 2001, the administration began using expansive claims of executive privilege to resist Congressional inquiries into a variety of areas.  It cites numerous cases in which executive privilege has been cited, including the Boston FBI’s misconduct in the 1960s that resulted in an innocent man being imprisoned for 30 years, Justice Department memos on campaign finance prosecutions, copies of the President’s Daily Brief relating to perceived terror threats prior to 9/11, the activities of then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales when he was nominated for Attorney General, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts’ activities in the Justice Department, and public access to the historical records of past presidents.

The WH is of course claiming executive privilege in withholding information from Congress on its warrantless wiretapping surveillance program. 

The report also presents dozens of examples of orders and attempts by the administration to gag public officials, particularly scientists, such as this gem about the U.S. Geological Survey, which required scientists to obtain “pre-approval” of all presentations, reports or other public releases of any material that has “findings or data that may be especially newsworthy, have an impact on government policy, or contradict previous public understanding.”  One can be pretty sure where the Bush administration would have come down in the 17th Century controversy over Galileo’s claim that the earth revolves around the sun.

The report further details the ineffectiveness of the Office of Special Counsel in protecting whistleblowers in the administration and notes that threats have increased against whistleblowers who reveal information on mismanagement of agencies such as the NSA and FBI and abuses by military contractors. The report adds that the House passed the “Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2007 (H.R. 985) and that the bill was referred to the Senate (S. 274) where it was awaiting a floor vote.

Read it, it’s worth it.

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