WASHINGTON — It is time for Congress or the courts to blow the whistle on the Bush administration's excessive secrecy. The secrecy is especially pernicious when set in the context of the administration's proclivity to spin. "Spin" is the fashionable word. "Twist," "distort," "deceive," or "cover up" would be more forthright.
Consider these examples:
• The White House tried to obstruct the appointment of an independent commission to investigate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, implying it doesn't want Congress to know what it knows. Contrast President Truman's cooperation when Congress appointed a joint committee to investigate the attack on Pearl Harbor.
• Attorney General Ashcroft insists on closing court proceedings that are ordinarily open, including some the Constitution requires to be open. He's done this under the flimsiest of excuses: The release of names of arrestees would give away to Al Qaeda bosses who has been arrested. Or that release of names would violate the arrestees' right of privacy.
• The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services have been given the authority to classify documents as "secret." Wielding a SECRET stamp gives bureaucrats a particular sense of exhilaration; and we can be sure that if a bureaucrat has this power, he or she will use it.
• Vice President Cheney argues that the administration came to the government determined to restore the powers of the president to what they were before the congressional onslaught during the Vietnam War and Watergate. Since the Washington administration, the powers of the president and Congress have moved against each other like a seesaw. They may be expected to continue to do this, but not at such an abrupt pace.
What particularly upset Mr. Cheney was the request by the General Accounting Office, on behalf of Congress, for the names of those in his office who participated in discussions of oil policy at the start of the administration. He argued vigorously that presidents (as well as vice presidents and Cabinet members) need and deserve frank advice that they cannot get if the advisers think it may be made public. Nobody disputes this, but only counsel from staff and personal advisers enjoys such protection.
• Perhaps most egregious of all, Mr. Bush has signed an executive order which gives the sitting president the right to control the release of the papers of any past president. That is, if Bush were so inclined, he could bar the release of the papers of George Washington. His White House counsel, in fact, did order the National Archives not to release 68,000 pages from Ronald Reagan's administration. These included papers from George H. W. Bush's vice presidency.
Later the current Bush permitted the release of almost all of the Reagan pages in question. In the meantime, however, the White House has issued another order permitting former presidents, vice presidents, their representatives, or surviving relatives to bar release of documents for a variety of reasons: "military, diplomatic, or national security secrets, presidential communications, legal advice, legal work, or the deliberative processes of the president and the president's advisers." This is an arrogant assertion of presidential power when applied to past presidents. It allows the president to determine what the people may know - or don't know - about what their own government does.
It is highly questionable whether any president has ever had the power to control presidential papers contrary to the will of Congress, as this executive order would permit. It raises a serious question of whether the motive of the current president is to cover up his father's actions in the Iran-contra arms scandal. Under the law, such affairs are supposed to be regulated by the National Security Council (NSC). At the time of Iran-contra, the NSC consisted of Mr. Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Afterward they declared their positions as follows: Reagan and Mr. Bush said they didn't know about it; Mr. Shultz and Mr. Weinberger said they opposed it. That's two abstentions and two against. How, then, could the scandal have happened? And is it any wonder the controlling, abstaining participants would want to cover their part?
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.