Bush, Secrecy & the Press

Three student readings describe the government's system of classifying documents and Bush's attitudes and policies toward the press and the flow of information.

To the Teacher:

Conflict between the president and the press go back to the earliest days of the United States. During the Bush administration, the conflict has often been over the president's decision to withhold information he says must remain secret for national security reasons. The Bush administration has classified many more government documents than previous administrations, claiming "executive privilege."

News-gathering agencies have challenged what they view as a pattern of government secrecy. Often, they charge, the secrecy appears to have more to do with protecting the administration from embarrassment than with national security.

The first student reading below is an introduction to the workings of the governmental classification system. The next two readings cover President Bush's attitude toward the press, his revision of legislation aimed at promoting the free flow of information, and specific cases in which the Bush administration's decisions have been challenged.


Student Reading One:

Introduction to government secrecy

Every presidential administration gathers a huge amount of information and is constantly gathering more. Some of it has to do with weapons programs, military plans, or sensitive relations with other nations. Such information is often kept secret to protect national security. The U.S. government has for many years classified documents.

There are three levels of classificationó"confidential" (release of this information would "damage national security"),"secret" (release would cause "serious damage"), and "top secret" (release would cause "exceptionally grave damage"). But President Bush's Executive Order 13292 of March 25, 2003, stated, "In no case shall information be classified in order to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency."

Access to classified documents is restricted to certain classes of government officials who have received background checks and security clearances. The Director of the Information Security Oversight Office supervises the classification system.

Officials who are responsible for classifying documents sometimes take the easy way out: By classifying information that should remain public, they can avoid being blamed later for the release of an embarrassing piece of information. Despite Executive Order 13292, some documents are classified because their release would reveal a misjudgment or mistake having nothing to do with national security.

Conversely, sometimes whistleblowers or others in an administration illegally leak classified information to reporters for political reasons. A special prosecutor is currently investigating one such leak: Top Bush officials outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, apparently to punish her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who had challenged the administration's rationale for invading Iraq.

Sometimes the classification of a document seems downright foolish. The government once classified a quote from a published novel by the mystery writer Eric Ambler. It classified this 1972 comment by President Nixon to Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato: "Perhaps lady chiefs of state are dangerous since both India and Israel have been led to war by women." It once classified the names of two countriesóItaly and Turkeyówhere the U.S. had missiles deployed.

President Bush's executive order amended and expanded earlier classification systems. One result was that in fiscal year 2004, the government classified 15.6 million new documents. This was an increase of 81% over the year before 9/11 (www.openthegovernment.org). Were all these documents classified because of terrorist threats? American citizens have no way of knowing. Nor can we know how well the government is policing its classification system.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in a First Amendment case (AP v. US) wrote, "The First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society."

James Madison wrote in No. 51 of The Federalist: "In framing a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about this reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why might the government classify a document detailing airport security measures?

3. Why do you suppose it classified the names of countries where the U.S. had missiles deployed?

4. Why is classifying documents, however necessary, a problem for a democratic country?

5. Justice Black wrote that "a free press is a condition of a few society." Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. James Madison points to two great difficulties for government: controlling the governed and controlling itself. What specific examples of these difficulties today can you name?


Student Reading 2:

The President and the Press, Part One

President Bush told reporters that he isn't much of a newspaper reader or TV news watcher. Asked by a reporter, "How do you then know what the public thinks?" the president replied, "You're making a huge assumptionóthat you represent what the public thinks."

In an interview with Fox TV's Brit Hume, the president said: "The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, expanded on these views: The media "don't represent the public any more than other people do," he said. "In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for electionÖ.I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."

Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the president "resents the press's 'exclusive' pipeline to the public," its "negativity" and "liberal bias."

The president's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, said that Bush "understands their [the media's] job is to do a job. And that's not necessarily to report the news. It's to get a headline or get a story that will make people pay attention to their magazine, newspaper, or television more." Rove said that Bush sees the press as "elitist" and thinks the socio-economic backgrounds of reporters have nothing in common with those of most Americans. (All of the above quotes were reported in Ken Auletta, "Fortress Bush," The New Yorker, 1/19/04.)

Bush's critics charge that the president is secretive. They cite the Bush administration's negative views and actions on three laws intended to promote the flow of information:

1. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966. FOIA established a broad right of citizens to have access to records held by any federal agency. Those who file an FOIA request do not have to give any reason for wanting the information. If the government agency in question does not provide the requested records within 20 days, a citizen may sue to challenge that failure. However, national defense or foreign policy records may be withheld.

On signing the FOIA, President Lyndon Johnson said, "This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest."

Soon after George W. Bush took office in 2001, his attorney-general appointee, John Ashcroft, moved quickly to limit information available to the public under FOIA. He instructed federal agencies to withhold information when in doubt, reversing the Clinton administration's directive to release information whenever possible.

2. The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972. FACA was intended to prevent federal committees from keeping secret the names of non-governmental advisors.

In 2001,Vice President Dick Cheney named an energy task force to advise him and the president on energy policy. Despite FACA, Cheney cited "executive privilege" as his reason for refusing to release the names of oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy executives who were on the task force. Nor would he provide any information about what they had advised him. Court cases on these actions to date have ruled for the vice president.

3. The Presidential Records Act of 1978. PRA was a response to the secrecy of President Richard Nixon and the fear that he would destroy presidential records. It stated that the records of a president relating to his official duties belong to the public and must be available no more than 12 years after a president leaves office.

In 2001, President Bush issued Executive Order 13233, which blocked the release of the records of President Reagan and of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. The order gave a sitting president authority to prevent the release of some past presidential and vice presidential records and the president's and children's recordsóeven after all the documents related to national security had been classified. This meant, for example, that historians researching the Vietnam War might not have access to President Johnson's decision-making process. The order also blocked release of records having to do with any involvement of then-Vice President H.W. Bush in the Iran-Contra affair. A suit by historians and others to reverse this reversal of the PRA failed on technical grounds.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about this reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider comments about the press by President Bush and his aides. Do you think the press represent "what the public thinks"? If not, what is its function?

3. Does the press suffer from "negativity" and "liberal bias"? Why or why not? Is it "elitist"? How would you decide?

4. Discuss reaction of Bush and Cheney to FOIA, FACA, and PRA. What do you think of these reactions and why? Do you need more information to evaluate these views? Where might you get it?


Student Reading 3:

The President and the Press, Part Two

Is President Bush overly secretive? His critics say so, and cite these examples.

1. The Iraq War

During the months before the Iraq invasion, the president and other administration leaders repeatedly warned of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. But they did not report information in their possession to Congress, the press, and the public that ran counter to their warnings. Two examples:

  • The Bush administration learned that General Hussein Kamal, Saddam Hussein's defector son-in-law, told the UN: "I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weaponsóbiological, chemical, missile, nuclearówere destroyed." (quoted in Thomas Powers, "The Biggest Secret," The New York Review of Books, 2/3/06) This report was not included in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate given to Congress to support the administration's case for war on Iraq and thus not available to the press or the public before the war began.
  • Three times before the war, the CIA asked French intelligence for its evaluation of reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium ore for a nuclear program from Niger. The French were in the best position to know because French companies mined all uranium ore in Niger. Alain Chouet, the French intelligence head, answered each time that the answer was "No." This information was not provided to Congress, the press, or the public before the Iraq invasion. (Los Angeles Times, 12/11/05)

2. Treatment of Prisoners

The president and his top aides have insisted repeatedly that the U.S. does not torture prisoners, but have refused to provide government documents on their treatment. The American Civil Liberties Union sued successfully under FOIA to force the administration to release this information. The documents the ACLU eventually retrieved reveal many examples of what organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International call torture. But the Bush administration continues to keep from the press and public much additional information about the treatment of prisoners, including prisoners it has "rendered" to other countries and treatment of alleged "enemy combatants" at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

3. Eavesdropping on American Citizens

Soon after 9/11, according to the New York Times, President Bush "secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials." The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 required these warrants.

This information was leaked to the New York Times by unnamed current and former officials. The Times reported that the officials went to the newspaper with the information "because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight." (New York Times, 12/16/06) Congressional investigations of this eavesdropping are underway.

4. Coal Mine Safety

Under Bush, the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration stopped disclosing information to the press and the public about the results of mine safety inspections. This action became widely known only after two recent coal mine disasters in West Virginia.

5. Auto and Tire Safety

After faulty Firestone tires on Ford SUVs caused hundreds of deaths and accidents, Congress enacted a new auto and tire safety law. It included a requirement that manufacturers submit safety data to the government. Nevertheless, auto and tire manufacturers lobbied the Bush administration successfully to keep this information secret.

6. Global Warming

In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency deleted from a report a lengthy section on the risks of global warming, which cited industries emitting greenhouse gases. The top climate scientist at NASA, James Hanson, said the Bush administration tried to stop him from speaking publicly because of his earlier statement calling for a prompt reduction in greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming. The president opposes requiring industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

7. Medicare Prescription Drug Program

In 2004, the Bush administration withheld from Congress and the press accurate cost estimates of the new Medicare drug program. These estimates were $150 billion higher than what legislators and reporters had been told. Congress might not have approved this Bush program had the true cost been known.

8. Hurricane Katrina Disaster

The White House refused to provide to a House of Representatives committee copies of correspondence by senior advisers to the president about its response to Hurricane Katrina. The House committee has criticized the White House severely.

9. The Cheney Shooting Accident

While quail hunting at a Texas ranch on February 11, 2006, Vice President Cheney accidentally peppered a hunting companion with bird shot. Neither the vice president nor the White House reported this episode to the press until the next day. Though the event may be viewed as relatively unimportant, critics saw it as typical of an administration that does not report unfavorable news until it is forced to.

10. Widening the Power to Classify

Such cabinet members as the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State have direct responsibility for national security and can classify documents. President Bush has added the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to those who are authorized to use the "secret" label.

Rebutting the Critics

Responding to criticisms of excessive Bush administration secrecy, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said, "For every series of examples you could find where you could make the claim of a 'penchant for secrecy,' I could probably come up with several that demonstrate the transparency of our process." Asked for examples, Bartlett offered none. (U.S. News & World Report, 12/22/03)
Mark Tapscott, a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said, "Bush's critics forget that with Big Government always comes Big Secrecy. Ö.Critics also forget that America is at war. Our enemies are determined to kill millions of us." Tapscott supports the view that national security requires a significant degree of secrecy. President Bush would agree. (www.openthegovernment.org)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about this reading? How might they be answered?

2. Divide the class into small groups. Ask each group to evaluate one of the cases of presidential secretiveness that critics think is damaging to the public interest. Have them discuss such questions as: How legitimate is the criticism? Why? Does the group think it needs more information to evaluate the criticism fairly? If so, how would the group find this information?


For inquiry

See other readings on this website for additional inquiry into the secrecy question: "Was the U.S. Misled into the War on Iraq?" "The K Street Strategy" (prescription drug program), "The Unpleasant News About Global Warming," "Torture and War Crimes: The U.S. Record in Documents," and "The Libby Case."

For writing

Write a well-developed essay expressing your views and the reasons for them of a quotation from one of the following in the readings: Justice Black, James Madison, President Bush, Karl Rove, Mark Tapscott.


This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.