Shhh ... someone might hear you

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During Attorney General John Ashcroft’s tenure, the Bush administration has established a record of secrecy that supporters of openness in government say represents a disavowal of fundamental American principles but that the administration defends as proper protection of executive prerogative.

“There has been a rather profound reorientation of government information policy in the direction of greater secrecy, and one finds it on every level,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, said in an interview. “... By every measure, this administration, led by the Justice Department, has been less forthcoming than any of its predecessors.”

Ashcroft took special aim at the Freedom of Information Act, the 1966 law, commonly known as FOIA, that is supposed to guarantee public access to government paperwork.

In October 2001, he issued a memo urging all federal agencies to give added weight to “safeguarding our national security, enhancing the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies, protecting sensitive business information and, not least, preserving personal privacy” in handling requests for documents under the act. The memo included a notation that it specifically superseded guidelines issued in 1993 that said agencies should operate with a “presumption of disclosure.”

Press releases made secret
The change of policy made it much harder for Americans to compile public records, which by definition are supposed to be open to all. By 2003, the last year for which full data are available, the federal government was rejecting half of the 3.2 million requests for records it received under FOIA. Following are some of the more notable cases:

  • In July, the Justice Department — which had already turned down requests under FOIA for a list of indictments related to terrorism investigations — cited invasion of privacy for rejecting requests for copies of the press releases it had issued on those indictments.
  • In May, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited privacy concerns in rejecting a request by the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News for biographical information on David Dye, a newly appointed deputy assistant secretary of labor.

Mine operators, moreover, complain that they can no longer get information from the agency through FOIA, according to Ellen Smith, the publication’s editor.

  • The Justice Department rejected a request by Cox Newspapers for a database of foreign-born felons who had been released into the general public because the Immigration and Naturalization Service failed to deport them. Officials justified the ruling by saying the public had “no substantial interest” in the information, which furthermore would be “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

According to Andrew Alexander, Cox’s Washington bureau chief, the Justice Department acknowledged that all of the data were publicly available in courts across the country, “but even though they had all this information at their fingertips on a single database, they refused to make it available.”

  • In March 2002, The Washington Post reported that the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys had adopted a policy of delaying action on FOIA requests in order, according to an agency official, not to “jeopardize the [Justice Department’s] counter-terrorism efforts or threaten national security.”
  • After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the White House urged federal agencies to purge potentially sensitive data from their Web sites, removing hundreds of thousands of pages of information that had been available to any American. For a short time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s entire Web site was closed.
  • In March 2003, Bush granted FOIA officers the latitude to reclassify information that had already been declassified. His order eliminated a provision that instructed them not to classify information if there was “significant doubt” about the need.

It all adds up to “a philosophical conception of government which is committed to a strong executive and a belief that oversight and public accountability weakened the authority of the executive,” Aftergood said.

‘The Justice Department is a good place to work’
When the government does release politically sensitive documents, it liberally edits them to hide potentially embarrassing information.

Perhaps the most notorious use of what is called “redaction” — the blacking out of lines or paragraphs when a document is released — occurred a year ago, when a 16-month-old report on workplace diversity in Ashcroft’s Justice Department was finally released.

Huge chunks were deleted from the document — adding up to about half its content — even though it had nothing to do with national security. Because of an error in coding the electronic version of the study, however, the deleted passages were easily recoverable by anyone using Adobe’s common Acrobat software. The can be read at the Memory Hole, a Web site devoted to preserving otherwise unavailable government documents.

According to the Justice Department, these facts were too sensitive for Americans to read about:

  • “Attorneys across demographic groups believe that the Justice Department is a good place to work.”
  • “The Department does face significant diversity issues.”
  • “The Department suffers from an inadequate human resources management infrastructure.”
  • “Section Chiefs are an extremely critical element of the Department’s diversity climate. They have significant authority in recruitment, hiring, promotion, performance appraisal, case assignment and career development.”
  • “Minorities are significantly under-represented in management ranks.”

All of the report’s recommendations were also deleted. These were among the ideas the Justice Department thought the American public should not see:

  • “Create a diversity measurement plan which assesses key elements of diversity by component.”
  • “Implement a career development process.”
  • “Promulgate consistent standards and policies for employee performance and HR administration.”
  • “Statistically model the relationship between survey results and poor staff performance and attrition.”
  • “Circulate vacancy announcements more widely.”

Speaking for embarrassed Justice Department officials, a spokesman said: “There is nothing we can do. And there is nothing we’re going to do. It’s out there.”

But he was wrong. Even though all of the hidden information was widely reported, the Justice Department responded to the error by pulling the report from its Web site — and replacing it with a better-prepared version of the same heavily edited document.