From the Start, Bush White House Kept Secrets

The secrecy that has become such a hallmark of the Bush administration did not begin with Sept. 11, as the White House often suggests. It began in the earliest days of January 2001, as the administration was taking shape.

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Revelations that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on domestic telephone calls and more recent reports that the NSA collected the phone records of tens of millions of Americans have focused attention on the clandestine side of the Bush administration.

The White House cites the 9/11 terror attacks to defend such behind-closed-doors operations, but advocates of more open government say that the Bush administration was restricting access to information well before the attacks of 2001.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

President Bush says there's always a balance to be struck between national security and the public's right to know what the government's doing. That theme was echoed this week by the man the President has nominated to run the CIA, General Michael Hayden, at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Gen. MICHAEL HAYDEN (CIA Director Nominee): I will draw a clear line between what we owe the American public by way of openness and what must remain secret in order for us to continue to do our job.

GONYEA: When conflicts arise over what should or should not be open, the administration does not hesitate to invoke the memory of 9/11. And while it's true that 9/11 changed the security landscape, it's also true that the administration was tightening the control of information much earlier, starting with President Bush's very first weeks in office.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists): There will telltale signs almost immediately that there was a new, more secretive sheriff in town.

GONYA: Steve Aftergood directs The Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

Mr. AFTERGOOD: There was a presidential order restricting public access to records of past presidents. There was the Vice President's Energy Task Force, which was strictly sealed against public oversight. There was even a refusal of a request from Congress to provide census data, which the administration claimed was deliberative, and members of Congress ended up going to court to try to get access.

GONYA: On the issue of the Vice President's Energy Task Force, the big question was the input and influence of oil industry executives. But the White House put the argument in a larger context, one of overall executive authority and the President's need for candid advice.

Here's President Bush at the time.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And in order for me to be able to get good sound opinions, those who offer me opinions or offer the Vice President opinions must know that every word they say is not going to be put into public record.

GONYEA: So far the White House has withstood legal challenges to its closed-door Energy Task Force.

Also in 2001 there was a change in how Freedom of Information Act requests were handled. The long-time presumption had been that government documents should be available, absent a compelling reason to keep them secret. When President Bush came to office, there was soon a Justice Department memo that in effect shifted the burden requiring those seeking documents to demonstrate a compelling reason for their release.

Andy Alexander is the Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers. He's worked on Freedom of Information Act issues for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But he stresses that this is not just an issue for journalists.

Mr. ANDY ALEXANDER (Cox Newspapers): This is a citizens issue.

GONYA: Alexander says the lack of openness on the part of the administration and its various departments was an issue before 9/11, and that 9/11 simply took it to another level. He cites the most recent figures from the year 2004.

Mr. ALEXANDER: In that year alone, there were 15.6 million classification decisions at the federal government alone. Now a classification decision can be a single piece of paper or it can be a roomful of documents, so we may be talking about 30 million pages, or whatever. That, to put some context to it, is an 81 percent increase since simply 2001.

GONYEA: This past week a new White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, faced his first questions about White House secrecy. He was asked about reports that the NSA has amassed a vast record of phone calls made by Americans who are suspected of no wrongdoing. He wouldn't confirm or deny that such a program exists.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): Let me remind you, it's a war on terror. The President is not talking about breaking the law, but al-Qaida doesn't believe in transparency. What al-Qaida believes in is mayhem.

GONYEA: Steve Aftergood says national security absolutely justifies keeping some things secret, but he says the administration has gone too far. He says there's another question that needs to be asked. What does it really mean to be a citizen in this country?

Mr. AFTERGOOD: Is a citizen basically a spectator who at most reads the newspaper in between elections? Or is the citizen an independent political actor who can actually exercise his own or her own abilities and bring them to bear on the political process? If it's the latter, if a citizen is a political actor, then he or she needs access to government information.

GONYEA: And, he says, what worries him is that citizens will start assuming things should be kept secret, undercutting the general expectation that government will be both open and accountable.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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