The ups and downs of covering the homefront

Commentary
Page Number: 
3

From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3.

As this issue of The News Media and The Law goes to press, we are waiting for war.

It seems futile to hope military action in Iraq will be avoided. The question for those of us who work with government information policy is this: When it's over, will the American people know what happened?

We have never had high expectations regarding information policy from this administration. When faced with the option, the administration of President George W. Bush almost always chose secrecy over openness:

• Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum directing executive branch agencies to take a more conservative approach toward interpreting the federal Freedom of Information Act. Justice Department officials recently have acknowledged that this has led to the release of less government information.

• The Homeland Security Act passed in November criminalizes leaks of unclassified critical infrastructure information provided to the government by businesses that, in turn, are promised secrecy and immunity from prosecution if they share what they know.

• The Immigration and Naturalization Service continues to hold secret hearings in cases of "special interest" in which Arab, Muslim men accused of visa violations are secretly jailed and deported.

• A former analyst for the Drug Enforcement Administration was sentenced in January to one year in jail for giving unclassified information to a British newspaper.

There have been pleasant surprises.

Secretary of State Colin Powell released an unprecedented amount of classified information in his Feb. 5 speech to the United Nations Security Council. Perhaps the administration finally has learned the value of trusting the public with information. While Powell's remarks were meant for a worldwide audience, the release of the information undoubtedly helped him make a case for war with many Americans who were on the fence.

And we're told by the Defense Department that it recognizes it is in the military's interest to allow the media to cover action in Iraq. Defense officials claim that hundreds of journalists will be "embedded" with troops on the front lines. Call us skeptical, but our friend Freedom Forum Ombudsman Paul McMasters conjured up an amusing but realistic image recently. McMasters said Pentagon promises about improved war coverage are like "Charlie Brown and the football." Just when we start to believe they really mean it when they say access to troops will be better this time, they yank away the football.

To keep an eye on the developing policies and practices at the new Department of Homeland Security, the Reporters Committee in January launched "Behind the Homefront," a daily chronicle of stories related to the public's right to know what's going on in the war on terrorism. We hope this "Weblog" will be a resource to journalists and others keeping track of government secrecy.

"Behind the Homefront," which can be found at www.rcfp.org/behindthehomefront was funded by a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation. We hope readers will forward stories they come across to the "blog."

A special focus of the Weblog will be the development of information policy in the new Department of Homeland Security. As our cover story on Secretary Tom Ridge notes, the newest cabinet member has a mixed record on freedom of information issues. Although he professed support for strengthening Pennsylvania's open records laws while he was governor, his office was not shy about denying media requests for information.

But as some Pennsylvania journalists pointed out about Ridge's appointment: It could have been a lot worse.

We'd like to think that someday soon, it will be a lot better.

-- Lucy Dalglish