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Reeling from Hurricane “W”

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4. At what point did it become…

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

At what point did it become clear just how far the Bush administration would go to extend its culture of government secrecy, and of animus toward the press?

When it decided to bypass judicial oversight and allow itself to secretly spy on Americans’ international phone conversations, perhaps. Or when the White House simply lost thousands of its own e-mail messages, and turned to GOP e-mail accounts to sidestep open-records requirements.

Or indeed, time and again when the government edged the public out of the legal process, in both civil and criminal cases, on the badly-overused pretext of national security concerns.

Clearly, and to a degree justifiably, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had the immediate effect of heightening the federal government’s sensitivity about classified information. But it was the prerogative of the Bush administration to seize on that moment politically and run with it, creating a Category 5 disaster for open government.

In this report, we take stock of the damage the administration has done these past eight years in several key areas of transparency: First, in the courtroom, where the government relied heavily on the national security trump card to avoid public scrutiny. Then in the White House itself, where the missing e-mail will leave historians with an incomplete record of some of the most turbulent years in modern American governance. From that into the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program; some journalists say they already detect a chill among their international sources.

The administration has been a driving force in the realm of indecency regulation, too, as the FCC moved to institute stiffer standards and make penalties for violating them more severe. And as all this unfolded, many reporters were hauled out from behind their roles as neutral, untouched observers, forced to face a growing number of subpoenas over their confidential sources.

Finally, in a look toward the states, it is clear the pressure of the federal government and the post-Sept. 11 political atmosphere prompted many local lawmakers to try to clamp down on government openness. But in a heartening trend that in some ways mirrors the courts’ eventual rollback of the Bush administration’s efforts to seal itself off from the public, it wasn’t long before the pendulum swung back and the states, for the most part, came to embrace the values of transparency again.

And so we start over with a new administration.