THE CREATURES OF THE NIGHT
While America sleeps, the creatures of the night are doing their work. The mice and roaches are spilling the garbage, nibbling away at our liberties and leaving behind the foul droppings of their policies. In the dim corners of the White House and in the crawl-spaces of the Pentagon, politicians and their appointees are eating at the foundations of democracy while the rest of America dreams vain dreams of an open society and a transparent political system.
The Bush Administration prefers to work under cover of darkness. They dont want you to see what they are doing. American history is full of presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican, that hid their machinations behind the curtain of executive privilege and so-called national security. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon jump immediately to mind. But when it comes to concealing what it does, the administration of George W. Bush beats them all. Like insects and rodents, the Bushes and Cheneys, the Ashcrofts and Rumsfelds scuttle across their marble floors, squeaking the magic words national security! as they run, and then hide behind their office doors to do their business, away from the light of public attention. When, occasionally, someone does turn the light on them--a congressional committee, for example, or a member of the press, or a court--they quiver and quail and sputter until they can again find safety in their cellars and dens.
This past week gave us three examples of the Bush administrations verminous fear of the light.
First, on Tuesday, July 8, the federal commission investigating the September 11 terror attacks--a bipartisan commission headed by a Republican, let it be noted--announced that the Pentagon and Justice Departments were 1) failing to provide necessary documents and testimony to allow the commission to do its job and 2) requiring that witnesses to the commission be accompanied by government minders who were monitoring and, in the commissions words, intimidating those witness--in almost exactly the same way that Saddam Hussein used minders to intimidate his scientists being interviewed by U.N. weapons inspectors last winter. Bush had tried to quash the 9/11 commission altogether when it was first proposed. He doesnt want anyone finding out about intelligence and policy failures in his administration that perhaps allowed 9/11 to happen. Now he and his minions are trying to neuter the commission by cutting off its sources of information.
Second, the Bush administration last week continued to fight in court to keep secret any information about the Cheney energy task force which, four months after Bush took office, created the nations energy plan. On July 8 a federal appeals court ruled against Bush and Cheneys stonewalling; it supported a lower-court ruling that required disclosure of who was on the task force and what they advised the vice-president. (Let it be noted once again that the suit asking for disclosure was brought by a coalition of both liberal and conservative groups.) We already know that many members of the energy task force were old Bush/Cheney cronies and Republican donors from the oil industry, some of them since implicated in the scandals at Enron and elsewhere. We can suspect that the nations energy plan was thus weighted heavily in favor of big-time Republican contributors in the energy industry, and against environmental interests. But if it is up to the photophobic creatures in the Bush White House, the true nature of the task force will never come to light.
Third, and finally, the Bush administration once again asserted before the federal courts that the president has the right to declare anyone--anyone--an enemy combatant, without offering any evidence to support the claim, even to a judge in private session, and that the president can then incarcerate that person without allowing him access to a lawyer or the media. The suspect may not know the charges or the evidence against him. He may not have access to witnesses. The public may not know his name or the date of his trial. In other words, the Bush administration wants to create--has created--a separate-but-unequal judicial system that operates entirely in the dark under the unquestioned rule of one man. When Kafka wrote The Trial, he had no idea that what he was describing was America under George W. Bush.
The entire history of the Bush administration has been a tale of growing darkness in America. In 2001, in one of his first acts as president, George W. announced that he was unilaterally amending the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which was supposed to make presidential papers available to the public 12 years after a president leaves office. Instead, Bush declared that former presidents must approve the publication of their papers. Thus he has kept hidden from the public all the records of the Reagan administration, during which his father, George the Elder, was vice-president. And thus he has, among other things, kept the light of public knowledge from shining on his fathers role in the Iran-Contra affair.
Later in 2001, Bushs Attorney General, John Ashcroft, a man who hates the light, issued a memo that essentially gutted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA was passed in 1966. It said that all government records, except those directly dealing with current national security or industrial secrets, were to be made available to the public. Thanks to the act, journalists and private citizens over the decades had gained access to government information that had had a profound affect on our democracy, from Richard Nixons enemies list, to reports about U.S. soldiers exposure to radiation during nuclear testing in the 1950s, to the FBIs investigations of Martin Luther King and other private citizens during the Cold War. The FOIA was a landmark in transparent government and open democracy.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration weakened the FOIA, allowing the government to withhold more and more information from its citizens. Under Reagan, FOIA requests were routinely stalled or outright refused under the flimsiest pretexts.
After Bill Clinton became president, however, his attorney general, Janet Reno, in October 1993 issued a memo ordering government agencies once again fully and quickly to comply with all FOIA requests from citizens and the media, with few exceptions. There should, she said, be a presumption of disclosure. In other words, the peoples right to know should come first.
Ashcrofts October 12, 2001 memo, sent to the heads of all federal departments and agencies, says just the opposite. It says the governments need for secrecy supersedes the peoples right to know. It encourages federal agencies to take as long as they can and to look for any legal basis for withholding information when faced with an FOIA request: Any discretionary decision by your agency to disclose information protected under the FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests that could be implicated by disclosure of the information, says the Ashcroft memo. It insists that agencies consult the Justice Departments Office of Information and Privacy before honoring a Freedom of Information request--in other words, let John Ashcroft decide what the people should know. Ashcrofts memo specifically mentions Renos open-government memo of 1993 and says that it no longer applies.
This is America under George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. They dont want you to know what your government--no, it is now their government--is doing. They dont want to share what they know or how they make their decisions. They want to keep you in the dark. They want you to sleep deeply, deeply while at night they run their empire of rats and roaches in the dim kitchen of what was once our democracy.