Bush administration political appointees have a proven track record of meddling in the work of the government’s career appointees, suppressing findings that conflict with GOP dogma and rewriting reports that might upset the party’s socially conservative base.

They seem to have surpassed themselves over at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which does the laudable work of researching ways to keep Americans from getting killed in their cars.

However, according to The New York Times’ “Wheels” blog, NHTSA administrator Nicole R. Nason has muzzled an entire agency. According to blogger Christopher Jensen, “Without special permission, officials there are no longer allowed to provide information to reporters except on a background basis, which means it cannot be attributed to a spokesman.” Under the rules of most news organizations, that makes the information useless.

The information can be put on the record later, but only, it seems, after clearance with the NHTSA’s public-relations staff.

This is not the CIA or the Pentagon or the Justice Department, where information may have sensitive nuances. This is an agency that deals with automotive safety, for crying out loud.

The explanations for the new secrecy and lack of transparency given to Jensen make no sense except in the context of political appointees anxious that the agency stay “on message” and to build up the one person authorized to speak on the record, administrator Nason.

The people behind the clumsy attempt at image control probably didn’t think of it this way, but the taxpayers who pay for NHTSA to gather data and also pay for the experts to analyze it deserve unfettered access to both.

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