George W Bush Presidency -

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An accounting of the George W Bush presidency from its beginning. Lest we forget.

Hiding the “October Surprise”? Declassification Slows to a Crawl

In a pronounced reversal of the Clinton Administration's unprecedented declassification of information, George W Bush has done the opposite. Whereas 204 pages were cleared for public access at the high point of 1997, under Bush/Cheney only 28 million pages saw daylight last year.
      President Bush has even signed during his first term an executive order that stalls by three years the release of 25-year-old documents. To venture a guess at why he did that, ask what happened 25 plus years ago, and you will come upon the “October surprise” of 1979 and the strong evidence that Reagan and Bush made an all-out effort to sabotage Jimmy Carter's efforts to win the release of the Iranian-held hostages before that November’s election.



Making it Harder to Find Out: Lockdown for the Freedom of Information Act

As we so often say, 9/11 changed everything. It fit well with Dick Cheney’s desire to change public access to government doings.
      Federal agencies were newly empowered to reject information requests. Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed his Justice Department to refuse Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests wherever possible. That 1966 act, vitally important to government transparency, was sharply curtailed. Passage of the Homeland Security Act in November 2002 placed several additional restrictions on FOIA.
      The new lid of secrecy imposed by George W Bush and his government has caused FOIA requests to triple in the last six years, creating backlogs of up to four years. The added information cordoned off by his administration’s rush to secrecy goes well beyond national security, as these mountainous statistics will tell you. The government is hiding whatever it chooses. Examples:

The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch — from both ends of the political spectrum — had to sue to learn who attended Dick Cheney's energy policy meetings.
The Associated Press had to sue the Pentagon in a still-rebuffed attempt to access George W Bush 's military service records.
A federal judge in New York has had to order the Pentagon and other agencies to produce a list of all documents about the treatment and deaths of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, sought in a FOIA request that is being stonewalled.

Court Backs Secret Government: Cheney Needn't Reveal Energy Group's Names          May. 11, '05

So said the Court of Appeals for D.C. Shortly after Bush's election in 2000, Cheney, the ex-chief of oil services company Halliburton, had gathered representatives of top energy companies such as Enron to hear their wish lists and decide the nation's energy policy, and then refused to divulge who was in the meetings. [more].

A Government Stamped "Classified" Sets a New Record

The Bush administration believes that government is none of our business. Under George W Bush, aided by his executive orders that have extended certain areas of classification, we have seen an explosion in the number of documents marked not just “Secret” or“Top Secret”, but a proliferation of new coinages, according to The New York Times, using vague words such as "sensitive".
     So many inconsequential documents are routinely classified that even the chief of Information Security Oversight, the office that oversees classification practices, describes the system as "a hodgepodge of laws, regulations and direction".

Bush Passes Out "Secret" Stamps

     A major cause is that President Bush bestowed the “Secret” stamp on new regions of government — Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the White House Office of Science and Technology — raising to over 4,000 the number of government positions with the power to hide information from the public.
      And hide it from Congress. An increasing number of Congress members on both sides of the aisle have protested that they cannot perform their mandated job of overseeing the executive branch. The problem even drove Trent Lott (R, Ms), hardly a Bush adversary, to pair with Roy Wyden (D, Or) in a New York Times op-ed piece to propose the establishment of a classification board “to bring some common sense to bear on the national security classification system".
     Co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean, said three quarters of the information they had seen should not have been classified in the first place. By the end of 2002, some 23 million had acquired these stamps. The number rose to 14.2 million “classification actions” for 2003 alone, a huge surge that was 60% more than 2001 and double the count of 10 years before.2004 set a new record with 15.6 documents hidden from view.

The Boys in the Bubble: Presidential Access Denied

John Dean, White House counsel under Nixon, says "Once ensconced in their offices at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they quietly closed their doors, pulled the shades, and began making themselves increasingly inaccessible to the media and Congress while demanding complete control over government information."
      New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller says, "The Reagan administration coddled us; this crowd has a wall up".
      Most attribute this disdain for public meddling to Cheney, who early on indoctrinated the normally gregarious but inexperienced Bush. Matt Davies    The Journal News    United Features Syndicate
In a January '04 New Yorker piece, Ken Auletta said Bush acknowledged that he doesn't read newspapers ("he skims"), except for the sports pages, nor watches much television. Nor did Nixon, who also had his view of the world filtered by the White House staff. Nor does Bush want that staff to interact with the press corps. A press secretary is meant to act as an intermediary between the President and the press corps, but a Bush loyalist was quoted as saying that this President "wants the press secretary to be an automaton", unfailingly "on message".
      Bush has held fewer press conferences than any predecessor. And it is no accident that this White House doesn't even leak (with one notorious exception).

Limiting contact to people that agree with them

      The result is a president who insulates himself from what the public is thinking, even to the point of screening those permitted to come into his presence. As the press reported, to gain entrance to a Bush campaign rally, devotees had to prove their fealty with a loyalty oath. In these Karl Rove productions, we thus saw on the nightly news only madly cheering audiences and never a discouraging word. Accommodating local police herded any protesters a mile or so away to wave their placards at no one, well out of ear shot of television microphones.
      Dick Cheney is even more agoraphobic, tending to speak not even to pre-screened hoi polloi, but folks who never change their mind, like the Heritage Foundation. Even then he permits no questions.

It Can Get Ugly

     One attendee at a Bush campaign rally in New Jersey wore a T-shirt with an anti-Bush message and was arrested, evoking images of jackboots and 1939.
     Worse was yet to come.
     A straight-A Yale student was arrested at the Republican Convention for getting too close to Cheney while shouting anti-war statements. Cheney was never in danger, but the student was charged with mis-demeanors that could bring one-year prison terms.
     A couple wearing T-shirts with a contrary message at a rally on public space, the steps of the capital building in Charleston W.VA, were told to "take the shirts off or get out" and were escorted away to the applause of the crowd.
     Sue Niederer, 55, wore a T-shirt reading "President Bush You Killed My Son" and dared to speak out at a Laura Bush rally, shouting, why weren't the Bush twins serving in Iraq "if it's such a justified war"?
      Here was a mother who had lost her son in this war, surrounded by Stepford security moms, whose sons were evidently safe in their beds, yelling "four more years" at her. She was handcuffed and arrested and now faces charges for saying she'd like to shoot Bush. She’s hardly alone.

The Energy Task Force Saga:

Dick Cheney Takes Secrecy All the Way to the Supremes

Shortly after inauguration in 2001 Vice President Dick Cheney convened the National Energy Policy Development Group to draft the energy policy of the United States. It was carte-blanche payback time for the energy companies that had so generously financed the Bush/Cheney campaign, so there was no point inviting those pesky environmental sorts. The suspicion is that the energy group consisted solely of representatives of the oil, gas, coal and even nuclear industries to carve out a policy that would relax environmental restrictions and include huge subsidies.

A Simple Request: Who Were the Members of the Group?

Representative Henry Waxman (D, Ca) wanted to find out in behalf of his state what lay behind California’s energy crisis. At his request, the General Accounting Office (GAO) tried five times to get the list of participants from Cheney. GAO comptroller general David Walker said that no prior administration had ever challenged the GAO's authority.
      The liberal Sierra Club joined the rightist Judicial Watch to sue for access to the names, citing the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which holds that, if advisors are private citizens, as opposed to federal employees, their identities must be revealed so that the public knows who is trying to influence the government. In response, in the words of right-wing New York Times columnist Bill Safire, "Cheney’s lawyers dumped 30,000 pieces of wastepaper on them from around the bureaucracy, but not one memo produced by Cheney’s group", which put forth the preposterous lie that the group consisted of nothing but federal employees.
      (Cheney himself would later admit that he and his aides met with Enron executives six times. One meeting with CEO Kenneth Lay took place the day before Cheney announced that the administration would not support price caps on the sale of wholesale electricity to California to rescue that state from its energy meltdown. It would later come to light that Enron had manipulated the market to hold back supplies so as to drive up energy prices. So compromised was the Bush administration that its officials held Enron stock, and even got Enron's blessing for the two Bush appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the markets in which Enron operates.)
      The trial court needed to know the members of the group in order to decide whether there had been a violation of the Act. It promised to keep the information confidential. Cheney refused nonetheless. He invoked executive privilege and the case escalated to the Supreme Court.

If It Quacks Like a Duck

With the Supreme Court about to hear the case, Justice Antonin Scalia climbed aboard Air Force Two to go duck hunting in Louisiana with Cheney, even accepting free travel for three. The Los Angeles Times discovered he had done much the same before, going pheasant hunting with the dean of the University of Kansas Law School just before he was to argue a case before the high court.
      Universally called upon to recuse himself for reasons too obvious to bother to state, Scalia refused, finding “no basis for recusal” and considering himself incorruptible. The Supreme Court, which passes judgment on everyone else, finds its own above reproach and leaves recusal up to the individual justice. “If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court justice can be bought so cheap, the nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined”, Scalia announced to a nation that thinks itself in deeper trouble than he imagines, given a court that routinely splits 4-4 on partisan lines, with only the 9th justice deciding cases on their merits, Sandra Day O'Connor.
      That is, except when it wants to duck (pun unavoidable) an issue altogether, which it did in the Cheney case, voting 7-2 to send the case back to a lower court, much as it had tiptoed past the disputed “under God” suffix tacked onto the Pledge of Allegiance.

Checks and Balances Be Damned

Cheney's refusal simply to admit whom he had met with and his taking the case to the top of the judicial pyramid represent a seriously troubling departure from the vitally important balance between the branches of the federal government. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman raised a troubling specter:

"We're at risk with our democracy. I think we're dealing with the most closed, imperialistic, nastiest administration in living memory". He sees in Cheney's example: “a doctrine that makes the United States a sort of elected dictatorship: a system in which the president [or vice president]…can do whatever he likes, and isn’t obliged to consult either Congress or the public.”

Bush Censors History, Moves Presidential Papers Out of Reach

In November 2001, George W Bush signed an executive order that extended by 3 years the 12-year span between a president's leaving office and the release of his papers. No reasons were given, but Reagan's papers were due for release. The action therefore sparked speculation that the papers might reveal that Bush's father, Reagan's vice president, who said he was "out of the loop", may have been involved in Iran-contra, and the son was covering Poppy’s tracks.

The President Legislates

Thus did Bush — who regularly fulminates about judges re-writing law — use an executive order to meddle with a law passed by Congress, the Presidential Records Act of 1978, whereby the National Archives had jurisdiction over White House documents; presidents did not control their ultimate release.
      And why should they? The President is a public servant whose salaried work product is paid for by taxes and should belong to the public and scholars, especially as the Act already makes provision for withholding highly sensitive documents. Yet Bush has taken still further license. His decree allows a sitting president to block the release of a predecessor’s documents — or his own papers, even after leaving office, and even after death, by appointing a trustee to perpetuate the censorship of history.
      George W Bush was a history major at Yale, where he said he “didn’t learn a damned thing”, according to the Yale Alumni Magazine. Evidently.
      The executive order, analogous to book burning, was titled “Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act”, in the administration’s passion for Orwellian styling. In the usual antipodal inversion, then-press secretary Ari Fleischer described it as a “more orderly process” that promised “more information will be forthcoming”.

Internet Shutdown: Bush Administration Blocking Congressional Oversight

The Bush government reacted to the 9/11 attacks by clamping a lid of secrecy on information that formerly had been freely available. Although decried by rights groups, some of these steps strike us as merely sane: for example, removing from web sites natural gas pipeline maps, or power plant layouts — ready-made blueprints for terrorists.
      But George W Bush, by executive order, John Ashcroft and his Justice Department, and Donald Rumsfeld and his Defense Department quietly introduced a host of sweeping restrictions going well beyond national security.

Babies and Bath Water

Agencies throughout the government erased probably tens of thousands of pages from web sites. The total is unknown – no inventory of what was removed was recorded – but as an indicator Rumsfeld in January 2003 chastised his staff for 1,500 items still available on the Internet after a purge of a likely much larger quantity the year before, and this only in the Defense Department. It is even more likely that government employees at all agencies would have applied a when in doubt, throw it out, rule rather than risk reprimand or dismissal, leading to an excess of erasure.
      Members of Congress complain that the shutdown impedes their role as overseers of the executive branch, which is no accident. Vice President Cheney has shown a history of not wanting the public or Congress to know about the workings of government. No surprise, then, that he induced Bush to confer on him the right to classify documents. According to John Dean, White House counsel under Nixon in his recent book, “Worse Than Watergate”, "Cheney's thinking was formed during his years in the White House as Ford's chief of staff in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, when Congress set about dismantling the imperial presidency." When in the House, during the Reagan years, he even spoke out against Congress' investigations of Iran-contra as an imposition on presidential authority.
      Whereas Cheney zealously wants to export democracy around the world, he wants to make certain that as little as possible is left behind.
      "This administration is the most secretive of our lifetime, even more secretive than the Nixon administration. They don't believe the American people or Congress have any right to information," in the view of Judicial Watch, a conservative group.
      Thus a society with the right to know is in danger of becoming a society having to prove a need to know, with that need adjudged by a government that does not find it in its interest that we be allowed to know.


Bush administration blocking congressional oversight
Highlights on the road to secrecy
Cheney takes secrecy to the Supreme Court

Highlights from a Campaign of Disinformation and Secrecy

Item: In October 2001, defense contractors are told by the Pentagon not to talk to the press about any contracts, on or off the record.
Item: At the end of October 2001, passage of the Patriot Act gives the government broad powers to invade public privacy and curtail civil rights (see Putting the Constitution on Hold, Civil Liberties: Going, Going..., Patriot Act Only Used Against Terrorists?, Patriot Act II). While the government votes itself the right to pry into the public’s privacy, it works to seal itself off from the public’s scrutiny.
Item: In the wake of 9/11 an unknown number of individuals are rounded up in sweeps and held in custody as “material witnesses”, without evidence of any crime and with even family denied explanation or access. An untold number of aliens are deported for untold reasons.
Item: A Bush executive order declares that beyond March 2003, any communications from foreign governments are automatically to be treated as secret.
Item: By presidential order, documents already declassified under Clinton’s program may be reclassified.
Item: George Tenet, CIA Director, attempts to hold secret the aggregate budgeted cost for the intelligence community, claiming that this number would cause “serious damage to the national security”.
Item: Just before proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” George W Bush asks that $2.5 billion be appropriated for Iraq reconstruction but consigned to the White House to be spent as it saw fit. By this step it could later invoke executive privilege should Congress ever ask for an accounting.
Item: With the threat of new terrorist attacks unabated, employees in the Federal Air Marshall agency tip off reporters that the Transportation Security Administration plans to slash the number of air marshals to save money. This triggers not reconsideration, but an investigation to punish the leakers.
Item: The word goes out from the Bush White House to stoutly resist turning over documents to the 9/11 Commission, which led the commission chairman to publicly complain that several government agencies were stonewalling [more]. The Justice Department tries to require that a department official accompany any staff member called for an interview, clearly meant to stifle candor. The White House itself refuses to de-classify an embarrassing August 2001 terrorist assessment at the Commission’s urging until it fears the cover-up has become more damaging than the document [more].
Item: The Bush administration insists that 28 pages of a 900-page congressional study of the causes of 9/11 be blacked out, because the pages speaks of senior officials of Saudi Arabia routing hundreds of millions of dollars to charities that may have served as conduits to the terrorists planning the attacks, 15 of whom were Saudis. The unavoidable implication is that George W Bush was obstructing the truth behind the worst single disaster on American soil to protect long-term Bush family friends among the ruling Saudi royals.