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Cheney and secrecy

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Summer 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. For the last 37 years, the…

From the Summer 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

For the last 37 years, the Reporters Committee has diligently worked to educate the press and public about the perils of excessive government secrecy. We frequently get requests from reporters working on government secrecy stories for examples of officials keeping secrets.

While I have my own “list” that I can rattle off at a moments notice, I was blown away in June by an astonishing series in The Washington Post outlining the frightening habits and policies of Vice President Dick Cheney. Eager to expand my personal list of excessive secrecy examples, I sat down with a printout of the four-story series, called “Angler” for Cheney’s Secret Service code name. Armed with a yellow highlighter, I began searching for examples of the secrecy policies perpetrated by one man. I ran out of ink.

The series starts out with a description of Cheney’s astonishing secret effort to draft the military order allowing indefinite confinement of terrorism suspects who would be tried, if at all, by secret “military commissions.” All of this was done without the knowledge of the secretary of state or national security adviser.

In his six years as vice president, Chency has shaped government and promoted secrecy to an unprecedented extent. The negative impact on democracy cannot be disputed.

Here’s a short list of just some of the actions taken by Cheney and his staff, culled from the Post series, which concludes that “stealth is among Cheney’s most effective tools”:

His offices have man-sized Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, to store the workaday papers of the vice president. The Post says that even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped “Treated As: Top Secret/SCI.” Cheney’s office seems to have created the designation, which gives the impression these are the most closely guarded government secrets. In fact, there is no such official government designation.

The names or even the size of his staff is secret. He releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel made the audacious claim that “the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch” and is exempt from rules governing either. When government officials, including the Information Security Oversight Office, objected and insisted on auditing his office’s handling of national security secrets, he proposed abolishing the office. In short, his office sucks in information, but almost nothing flows out.

After 9/11, Cheney and his closest advisers oversaw the core legal team that proposed the illegal interception without a warrant of communications to and from the United States. Such action had been illegal since 1978, and the Cheney team kept their proposal secret from government officials most likely to object.

Cheney is well known for leading a series of meetings of a secret energy task force. Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman told the Post she was shocked to sit in on the meetings and learn that the task force had an “unquestioned” belief that EPA regulations were primarily blamed for keeping companies from building new power plants. Her differences with the vice president led to her departure.

The list goes on and on. Perhaps the most shocking revelations from the series were not that the vice president was secretive but, rather, who he kept the secrets from. There were numerous examples of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice being kept out of the loop. (In fact, the Post story reports that Powell and Rice first learned of a memo approving certain torture techniques used by the CIA from reading about it in a 2004 Post story.)

If we as a free society survive this administration (and I think we will), I predict we will be learning lessons about the impact of secrecy on justice and democracy from Mr. Cheney for generations to come.

I’ve been traveling frequently over the summer, and I can report that the Post story caught the attention of Americans nationwide. Here’s what citizens are telling me: Aggressive reporting on the actions of government is crucial to the democratic process, even when our highest elected officials tell us to “trust” them and criticize the media for undermining their efforts to protect the national security by reporting on what they’re up to.