Another blow to freedom

As his second term winds down, President Bush naturally begins to contemplate how history will judge him and now perhaps realizes that history will give him low marks for his administration’s almost obsessive culture of secrecy.

This week he issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to streamline their procedures for releasing records under the Freedom of Information Act and to appoint chief FOIA officers to see that the changes are carried out.

The order is fated to be ineffective. It would have served the public and the cause of open government better if he had instructed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to rescind a memorandum to the agencies from his predecessor, John Ashcroft.

That memo still defines the Bush administration’s approach to FOIA. When in doubt, the agencies were told, they should err on the side of secrecy, the opposite of the law’s intent. And records were to be released to the public “only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interest that could be implicated by disclosure of the information.” In other words, the agencies were to aggressively seek out reasons not to disclose information.

Two other developments conspired to make Bush’s executive order look like public relations rather than policy. A small provision that seems to have emanated from the administration, tucked into a big defense bill, would exempt the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency from the Freedom of Information Act altogether.

Since 1816, the U.S. government has annually published the name, workplace and salary for each of its civilian employees, who currently number 2.7 million. There are some exemptions _ certain law enforcement officers, for example _ but they are few. But quietly, without notice or explanation, the Bush administration began withholding 900,000 names. In other words, it’s none of the public’s business who works for it and where.

This secrecy _ over the energy bill, prewar intelligence on WMD, the cost of the prescription drug bill, the impact of his tax cuts on the deficit, the treatment of detainees _ has cost the president with the Congress, including his own Republicans, and the public. When he speaks, he no longer gets the benefit of the doubt, and in Washington, that’s no secret.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)