What Is The Bush Administration Hiding?

21 November 2002

By Stentor Danielson

There's a cliche that says, "knowledge is power." It's one that the Bush administration seems to have taken to heart, to the detriment of the country. America's founders and reformers knew that democracy requires spreading power to as many people as possible, and that this also requires spreading information as widely as possible.

If knowledge is power, people who wish to be powerful ought to do two things. They should try to accumulate as much knowledge as possible for themselves, and they should do their best to prevent others from gaining access to knowledge. Bush and his supporters have pursued both strategies aggressively.

As soon as he entered the White House, Bush began taking steps to keep the administration's doings under wraps. He issued an executive order barring anyone from obtaining records of the Reagan administration, even though those records should be made public under federal law. Considering how many members of the administration are Reagan retreads, one wonders just what Bush is trying to hide about his inner circle. The administration further asked federal agencies to reinterpret the Freedom of Information Act in such a way that the burden of proof would rest on the citizen requesting information, not the agency wishing to keep it secret. The administration received a great deal of bad press two summers ago by denying Congressional access to information about Vice President Dick Cheney's secret meetings with oil magnates to write the nation's energy policy.

September 11 provided Bush with a justification for stepping up the government's monopolization of information. The American public proved all too willing to exchange its privacy for the illusion of security.

The most obvious example of information control in the name of terror prevention is the USA Patriot Act -- an ironic name to those of us who love America because of the principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights. This act gave the government sweeping powers of surveillance -- such as wiretapping phones -- that have drawn outrage from civil libertarians. These new powers were upheld by an appeals court ruling on Monday. Recently, the Pentagon's Office of Information Awareness (whose ominous logo depicts an eye-on-a-pyramid, like the one on the back of a one-dollar bill, watching the globe) has announced plans to create a centralized database of all of the information the government has about each citizen -- financial records, purchasing history, criminal record, etc.

In another well-known case, the government has refused to identify the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, expecting the public to trust that only real terrorists have been apprehended.

Public understanding of the threats posed by al-Qaida and Iraq has been hampered by the administration?s information policies (perhaps "the danger you do know is not as bad as the danger you don't know" is another cliche that Bush likes, since a fearful public is more likely to favor measures proposed in the name of security). Bush fought long and hard against a probe into possible government failures leading up to September 11, though strong congressional support forced the president to agree on Monday to an independent commission. This suggests that the real story is not one that would cast a favorable light on him (a suspicion corroborated by what facts the press has managed to dig up).

The administration has frequently cited protection of intelligence sources as an excuse for not revealing the supposed ironclad information it has about the country's enemies. This secrecy extends right to the borders of Bush's inner circle -- Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) told reporters that the top-secret briefings held for congressional leaders were no more informative than the popular press.

The press has come under fire from the administration and its supporters for fulfilling its role of informing the public about the issues facing it. For example, a recent issue of National Geographic magazine featured a story on nuclear energy, which prompted a deluge of letters from people accusing the magazine of making information (all of which was, incidentally, already in the public domain) available to terrorists. The government pressured the U.S. media to restrict its broadcasts of tapes of Osama bin Laden?s speeches. The military has imposed strict limits on reporters operating in war zones such as Afghanistan, threatening them with expulsion if they go looking for information that might expose alternatives to the military's official line.

The U.S. hasn't quite hit the Orwellian stage just yet. There are limits to how much the public is willing to accept so far, as evidenced by the outcry this summer over the Office of Strategic Influence. This was to be an organization that would spread disinformation abroad to mislead America's enemies. The administration backed down from this proposal after its brazenness was widely condemned (though it's possible that backing down is a piece of misinformation).

There is one instance of information manipulation by the Bush administration that is likely to prove beneficial to the cause of democracy -- and in so doing, highlight the problems with the rest of the administration's policies. The administration has been working on plans to establish a TV and radio network to spread pro-Western messages to the Arab world. In most Arab countries, the government is able to exercise a control over the flow of information that would make Karl Rove turn green with envy. These rulers stoke anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment with a mixture of truths, half-truths, and lies, while keeping their widespread corruption and administrative failures under wraps. Much like past programs such as Radio Free Europe, the proposed broadcasts are meant to undermine this despotism by giving more information to the citizens -- exactly the opposite of Bush?s domestic policies.

Many Americans rely on foreign sources of news such as the BBC to get away from the influence of the American government on domestic information flow (personally, I'm a fan of the Sydney Morning Herald). If the Bush administration keeps to its present course, we could soon see the need for the British Commonwealth to launch a Radio Free America.

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