By ROBYN BLUMNER
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES
President Bush has made it a point to bring as much opacity to his administration as possible. To Bush, the public has a right to know ... very little. His White House is downright allergic to open government.
We saw it with the John Bolton nomination. Bush claimed he wanted his nominee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to receive an up or down vote in the Senate, but not enough to turn over the State Department documents that would have brought light to some of Bolton's controversial actions. Had that material been released, the Democrats blocking Bolton's confirmation promised to let a vote go forward. But Bush would rather snub the Senate and appoint Bolton during a congressional recess than let the public see the truth of Bolton's record.
No matter where you look, secrecy is the impulse: from the decree by former Attorney General John Ashcroft encouraging denials of records under the Freedom of Information Act by promising that any defensible refusal would be supported by his office; to the president's executive order overriding parts of the Presidential Records Act, so that records from past administrations can be indefinitely hidden at the behest of past or current presidents and vice presidents.
To give you an idea of how resistant the administration is to open records, during Bill Clinton's presidency, documents were declassified at a significant clip: 204 million in fiscal year 1997 alone. In the 2003 fiscal year, the last year for which numbers are available, only 43 million documents were declassified.
Everything's a secret except, of course, the identity of a covert CIA operative whose husband went off script.
Keeping the public in the dark allows the advance of a political agenda without messy facts interfering with the administration's manipulated ones. When Richard Foster, a top government Medicare cost analyst, determined that adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would cost $551 billion over 10 years and not the $395 billion figure supplied to Congress, he was threatened with firing if he revealed the discrepancy. When, last month, an Environmental Protection Agency report on our poor national efforts at fuel economy would have brought inopportune news for the administration just before a vote on the energy bill in Congress, the report was simply pulled until after the vote.
This is all part of a pattern that is illustrative of Bush's view of the office he holds. Bush's arrogant swagger is more than a cowboy affectation; it is a state of mind. To Bush, being president is not an act of public service in which you are accountable to the press and the people and are limited by the power of two other governmental branches. It is the anointing of a regent for a four- or eight-year stint. That includes the ability to imprison people at will, to offer untruths without compunction as justifications for war and to spend the entire treasury (and more) without worrying about the consequences. In that now-famous press-conference question, Bush was unable to identify a single mistake he made as president, because monarchs don't err.
Currently, despite a court order to do so, the Defense Department is refusing to turn over 87 photographs and four videos taken at Abu Ghraib that depict additional acts of depravity against Iraqi detainees. A federal judge had ordered the department to make the pictures public with the identities of the subjects redacted. But the department let the deadline for release come and go, claiming that the photos are so incendiary that they could put lives in danger.
The photos could also provoke Congress to hold more hearings and add safeguards against abusive interrogation practices -- something Republican senator and former POW John McCain is attempting to do over the loud objections of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney -- or they could spur momentum for chartering an independent commission to investigate all abuse allegations. This is really what the administration is afraid of. Bush has promoted nearly everyone with fingerprints on the now-repudiated torture memos. He doesn't want new, horrific pictures to excite public interest in the issue.
The latest skirmish over transparency involves the work of Judge John Roberts Jr. when he was a deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush. Senate Democrats have asked for his work product on 16 key cases that would open a window into Roberts' legal philosophy at the time. He is, after all, under consideration for a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful posts in the country.
No go, says Bush.
No surprise, say I.