Backlash grows against White House secrecy

In Congress and the courts, challenges to Bush's tight control of information rise. Energy papers due out today.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From the very start, George W. Bush made it clear that his would be a leak-tight White House. In the past year, he has succeeded to a remarkable degree, and is even carrying that promise far beyond his relationship with the media.

In an attempt to reinforce the powers of the executive branch, the Bush administration has denied Congress access to information on the vice president's energy task force, restricted the handling of presidential records, and curtailed government responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The war on terrorism has, understandably, added to the aura of discreetness, with Vice President Cheney often working in undisclosed locations, for example.

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Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, sees this pattern of secrecy as a return to the imperial presidencies of Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy. Others argue it differs little from the self-preservation tactics of any Oval Office occupant. Yet many in Washington – including both Democrats and Republicans – are concerned about the shift and are fighting back.

Their weapons are the courts, political pressure, and even the power of the subpoena, which Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has raised as a threat to get Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to testify publicly before Congress.

The Bush clam-up "creates a reaction against the executive.... It creates distrust, animus," says Mr. Dallek, a biographer of President Lyndon Johnson who describes this administration as having an "authoritarian bent."

Documents to be released

Resistance from lawmakers and special-interest groups has begun to show some success. Today, the Department of Energy is expected to release thousands of pages of documents related to the energy task force as a result of a court order.

And last week, the Defense secretary announced that military tribunals for suspected terrorists, originally envisioned as secret under an executive order from the president, will actually be public – except for portions related to national security. This, like some other aspects of the newly announced tribunal procedures, appears to be a response to criticism of the president's order when it first came out last year.

The president's emphasis on confidentiality predates the war on terror, though. In his father's administration, the younger Bush took a special interest in helping with leak control. He had his own papers from his time as Texas governor archived in his father's presidential library, so that they would not be managed by the state of Texas – or subject to the state's open-records laws.

His disciplined, corporate style of management encourages debate behind closed doors, but once a decision is made, Bush brooks no disloyalty or dissent in public.

Mike Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, learned this the hard way. He lost his job as head of the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month after testifying before the Senate that Bush budget cuts would have a "negative impact" on the corps. He also said he didn't have any "warm and fuzzy feelings" toward the administration. Infuriated, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels reportedly sent the testimony to the White House, and Mr. Parker was given 30 minutes to be fired or resign.

It's a lesson not lost on others in the administration.

"We don't want to wind up like Mike Parker and others and take on OMB," one agency official recently commented when asked about that agency's budget.

Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, rejects the notion that the Bush administration is any more secretive than past administrations. "This is a traditional strain between the branches of government," he says, referring to the flap over whether Homeland Security adviser Ridge should testify publicly on the Hill.

Defending 'unfettered advice'

"What we're doing is protecting the president's ability to have unfettered advice and counsel," says Mr. Card. It is the same reason given for the vice president's refusal to hand over information on his energy task force to the nonpartisan General Accounting Office, which, for the first time, is suing the White House on behalf of Congress.

The White House argues that Ridge, as an adviser to the president (as opposed to a cabinet officer with operational responsibilities), is not required to appear before lawmakers. But members of both parties counter that he has a unique new position with influence over multiple departments whose budgets Congress must approve.

One conservative his fellow Republicans might not have expected to go after the administration is Larry Klayman, head of Judicial Watch. In the Clinton years he filed roughly 80 suits against the administration.

Mr. Klayman is again appealing to the courts, this time to force the administration to speed up his Freedom of Information Act requests on the energy task force.

"The general precept is that open government is honest government. That's the principle of democracy," says Mr. Klayman. "Bush-Cheney wants to return to government from the British monarchy."

That's nonsense, says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station. While he's not happy about some of the White House decisions, "it's a great exaggeration to say we've got an imperial presidency." Today's tussles, for example, don't compare to the all-out battles over access to information during Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, or the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Transparency helps to hold government accountable, Mr. Edwards says, but "anything that hampers the president getting the most candid views is bad."

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