Viewpoint: Federal silence undercutting credibility

Viewpoint: Federal silence undercutting credibility

By Joe Baker

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

Washington, D.C. is in lockdown. Since 9/11, the flow of information from the government to the press and then to the public has been almost completely cut off. Bruce Shapiro, writing in The Nation, likens it to the “Cone of Silence” on the old Maxwell Smart TV show, Get Smart.

If you’re old enough to recall the program, you remember this big plastic cone would descend over Maxwell and Control whenever they had a highly classified conversation. (The

The most disturbing evidence of the new tenor of the Bush administration comes from John Ashcroft’s Justice Department. It still has in custody 150 of the 800 persons jailed in the wake of the attacks. One such person died while in custody in New Jersey.

So far, no charges have been filed, no hearings held. The names of most of these people are still classified, as well as the reasons for their detention. Lawyers who have obtained release of many of the original 800 report mistreatment of their clients—food withheld, attorneys kept from their clients.

Of the 150 still in custody, only four suspected al-Qaeda members have been publicly identified. The FBI has been frustrated in getting any information from this quartet. Agents are talking about using sodium pentothal, so-called “truth serum,” or turning the prisoners over to a country where torture is common practice.

We don’t know how far the government has gone in that direction because officials aren’t talking. The casual discussion of torture, even bringing the possibility up, is outrageous! What have we become?

Then there is the assault on the free flow of information. On Oct. 12, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo dealing with the Freedom of Information Act. In 1993, when Janet Reno was attorney general, she directed federal agencies to release any government information on request, unless it could readily be seen that disclosure would be harmful.

Ashcroft, however, has told government agencies to withhold information whenever the law allows. “You can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions,” he said. This move appears to be an effort to convert the Freedom of Information Act into an Official Secrets Act (like Britain’s) and thus prevent the American public from knowing what the government is doing.

As a result, federal agencies, one after another, are taking public information off their websites or limiting access to it. The Office of Management and Budget Watch and the Investigative Reporters and Editors have cited many egregious examples of items only remotely related to terrorism and more likely, simply CYA for some bureaucrats.

The Energy Department has pulled information off its website that could adversely affect public health or worker safety. The EPA has removed information about chemical accidents and how to prevent them, data that has no relation to terrorism. It appears the chemical industry has more clout than bin Laden. They were annoyed by the EPA website.

The FAA dropped publication on its website of lists of airports in the country that are under sanctions. That prevents reporters from evaluating how well the FAA enforces its own safety rules. Most glaring is the Pentagon. There, news of the “war on terrorism” is but a trickle; much less than we heard about Kosovo or the Gulf War and certainly far less than we learned about Vietnam. The censorship is so blatant and so widespread that the heads of 20 major journalists’ groups, on Oct. 13, declared: “these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy, prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need.” Remember, these are the corporate boys criticizing Bush, so we must really have a problem.

The most immediate impact of this muzzling showed at the Centers for Disease Control. Two postal workers who died of anthrax might be alive today had they received earlier treatment. But, with the CDC staff silenced, the public and postal workers as well were left with only politicians as the source of inaccurate and inadequate information about the anthrax risk.

There is legitimate concern as to what information released by the government might result in an additional attack and what to do about it. The WTC and Pentagon attacks, however, involved nothing more confidential than an airline schedule.

The Bush administration has decided to view all information and press access as suspect. That will subvert public confidence and hamper media scrutiny more than it will harm al-Qaeda. During Vietnam, the credibility gap was at the Pentagon as briefings and congressional testimony were in conflict with battlefield evidence. Now the administration is risking a credibility gap the size of the District of Columbia.

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