If you want to know if any toxic wastes dumps are near where you might soon buy a home, you can no longer find out. If you want to know just what is really being done to keep nuclear power plants safe, you can no longer find out. If you are interested in the design and construction of dams, you probably will not be able to get any information about them from the government any more. If you want to visit the reading rooms provided by many government agencies, such as the IRS, you now must make an appointment, and you will be chaperoned.
"Taken individually, each of the new national security policies adopted by the Bush Administration in recent weeks has its pros and cons, its potential excesses and mitigating factors," observes the Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists.
"Not since Richard Nixon went to work in the Oval Office has there been so concentrated an effort to keep the real work of a president hidden, revealing to the public only a scripted leader," observes former White House Counsel John W. Dean, whose testimony to Congress helped blow the lid off the Watergate scandal. "Such secrecy invites us to wonder what is being hidden, and why. I know from first-hand experience that a president acting secretly usually does not have the best interests of Americans in mind. Rather, it is his own personal interests that are at stake."
Congress is on the verge of passing a new law (H.R. 3160) that would block public access to information about the US biological defense program under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Secrecy will do little to protect public safety, since extensive information has already been widely published about bioweapons agents, most of which are naturally-occurring. The Sunshine Project explains the public relations agenda behind the drive for secrecy, which may have more to do with protecting corporate reputations than public safety.
A number of organizations concerned with maintaining the integrity of journalism have established web pages that monitor current efforts to limit government freedom of information as part of the war on terrorism. They include the following:
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has issued a new statement of policy that encourages federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The new statement supersedes a 1993 memorandum from Attorney General Janet Reno which promoted disclosure of government information through the FOIA unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful." The Ashcroft policy rejects this "foreseeable harm" standard and instructs agencies to withhold information whenever there is a "sound legal basis" for doing so.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has shut down its website. The state of Pennsylvania has decided to remove environmental information from its website. Risk management plans, which provide information about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, have been removed from the web site of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
USA Today has joined a number of other news media outlets in criticizing Bush Administration restrictions on public access to information. "Americans are being asked to give up their rights to information, with no evidence that it presents any real risk," the editorial states. "Today, the Bush administration is packaging its attempts to restrict information as a way to protect the war effort -- when in fact they could do the opposite. The moves violate the very spirit of freedom that America is fighting for. ... Americans overwhelmingly support the war on terrorism.
According to the Dow Jones Newswire, the U.S. military has paid an undisclosed amount of money for the exclusive rights to commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan and all time that the satellite is over areas involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. The contract with Denver-based Space Imaging Inc., which began Oct. 7, is believed to be in the multi-million dollar range. It prevents anyone from taking pictures of the war zone. By buying the exclusive rights, the U.S.
If the United States is embarking on the first war of the 21st century, and one that the president has said may be "secret even in success," then the damming up of information out of Washington is part of the strategy. Although the administration says it is not engaged in censorship, officials throughout the government readily say they have been ordered to be circumspect about their remarks. The caution extends even to the sanitizing of government Web sites -- including large-scale digital maps and a report on the poor security at some chemical plants.