NEW YORK - To combat the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, U.S. citizens
have been forced to unearth new sources for information they once read in their
daily newspapers. But thanks to a few dedicated individuals and not-for-profit
groups and the Internet such material is easier to come by than ever before.
"The Bush administration has taken secrecy to a new level. They have greatly
increased the numbers and types of classified documents," says Steven Aftergood,
who conducts one of the most widely used "open government" programs
the Federation of American
Scientists (FAS) Project on Government Secrecy.
"They have made it far more difficult and time-consuming to obtain documents
under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA]. And they have imposed 'gag rules'
on an ever-widening group of government employees," Aftergood added in
"Open government" sites on the World Wide Web provide a wide variety of information.
For example, on the Internet pages of George
Washington University's National Security Archive, you can read Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) manuals from the 1960s and the 1980s specifying approved
methods of prisoner abuse as well as one of the last major pieces of the puzzle
explaining U.S. and UK roles in the August 1953 coup against Iranian Premier
Or, just posted, the telephone conversations of former U.S. Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger, berating high-level subordinates for their efforts in 1976
to restrain human rights abuses by military dictators in Chile and Argentina.
OpenTheGovernment.org is a
new coalition of 33 organizations dedicated to combating unwarranted government
secrecy and promoting freedom of information.
Among recent postings on that site: an evaluation by The Reporters Committee
for Freedom of the Press on "the likely impact of attorney general nominee
Alberto Gonzales on press freedoms and the public's right to know," based
on Reporters Committee research of Gonzales' performance as a judge on the Texas
Supreme Court from January 1999 to December 2000 and as White House counsel
since January 2001.
The FAS Project on Government Secrecy publishes Secrecy News, which
recently disclosed: "Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding
regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to
As an example, the Web site reports the effort of a former conservative member
of Congress to board a commercial airplane. "She was pulled aside by airline
personnel for additional screening, including a pat-down search for weapons
or unauthorized materials. She requested a copy of the regulation authorizing
such pat-downs, and was told that she couldn't see it."
Why? "Because we don't have to," said an official of the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA). "That is called 'sensitive security
information.' She's not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else," he added,
according to Secrecy News. "She refused to go through additional
screening [without seeing the regulation] and was not allowed to fly."
According to Aftergood, the "variety of Internet-based sources has increased
substantially during the Bush administration. Freedom of Information Act requests
are on the rise, passing three million for the first time last year."
"What is behind all of these phenomena is a growing public appetite for
official records," he argues. "That is a healthy impulse that in a
democracy should be respected and cultivated, not scorned."
Another site, BushSecrecy.org, sponsored
by the highly respected Public Citizen organization, chronicles and documents
the administration's obsession with secrecy, as well as steps being taken to
The Web site provides a variety of electronic links to up-to-date summaries
of each of the administration's major secrecy initiatives, with additional links
from those summaries to key documents, such as executive orders, congressional
materials, judicial decisions, and legal briefs filed by both sides in the court
battles raging over these issues.
The new Coalition of Journalists for Open Government
has been established "to provide timely information on freedom of information
issues and on what journalism organizations are doing to foster greater transparency
The coalition's Web site reports "the Department of Homeland Security
is requiring all of its 180,000 employees and others outside the federal government
to sign binding non-disclosure agreements covering unclassified information.
Breaking the agreement could mean loss of job, stiff fines, and imprisonment."
Like many "open government" Web sites, the coalition distributes
a free e-mail newsletter. Other sites charge for documents. One such is InsideDefense.com,
which provides primary source documents gathered by a team of Pentagon reporters,
and issues a free weekly publication, The Insider, to alert readers to
The FAS government secrecy project recently provided a sampling of other Internet
sources. A few examples:
- GlobalSecurity.org, which says
it provides "bottomless resources on all aspects of national security policy,
and then some;"
- The Resource Shelf offers news
on all aspects of government information policy and links to valuable source
- The Memory Hole collects and
publishes elusive records and documents that have been withdrawn from the public
- Cryptome promises a rich collection
of new official and unofficial documents on security policy;
- Project on Government Oversight performs
independent investigations to promote openness and government accountability;
- Electronic Privacy Information Center
offers declassified documents and insights on cryptography policy and privacy;
- Nautilus Institute's Global
Disclosure Project specializes in nuclear weapons policy and strategy.
Some "open government" Web sites are maintained by individuals, usually
associated with universities. For example, the Guide
to Declassified Documents and Archival Materials for U.S. Foreign Policy and
World Politics, a roadmap to declassified foreign policy records, is the
work of David N. Gibbs of the University of Arizona.
resources on national and foreign freedom of information law from Alasdair Roberts
of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
Has the proliferation of these Web sites had an impact on Bush administration
"Almost all of the recent statistical trends are negative, i.e., in the
direction of greater secrecy," says Aftergood. "So it would probably
be an exaggeration to say this work on challenging government secrecy has had
much of an impact on the government during the current administration."
"The real value of the work lies in the fact that it represents the creation
of alternate channels for public access to government information," he
"These efforts to provide new means of access are not exactly the solution
to government secrecy, but they are a constructive response that leaves the
public less vulnerable to official secrecy than it otherwise would be,"
according to Aftergood.
Most other observers interested in open government agree the Bush administration
is unlikely to change its attitude toward fuller disclosure, and they predict
the number of alternative sources will continue to grow.
But even the continuing proliferation of new information sources will not correct
some of the problems arising from excessive government secrecy.
For example, Timothy H. Edgar, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU) told IPS: "Basic information that is crucial to oversight
of the government's new spy powers under the PATRIOT Act such as how
it is using new powers to obtain personal records has been cloaked in
secrecy, making it impossible to judge the effectiveness of these powers or
their impact on civil liberties."
(Inter Press Service)