WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has put a much tighter lid than recent presidents on government proceedings and the public release of information, exhibiting a penchant for secrecy that has been striking to historians, legal experts and lawmakers of both parties.
Some of the Bush policies, like closing previously public court proceedings, were triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and are part of the administration's drive for greater homeland security. Others, like Vice President Dick Cheney's battle to keep records of his energy task force secret, reflect an administration that arrived in Washington determined to strengthen the authority of the executive branch, senior administration officials say.
One argument underlies many of the administration's steps — that presidents need confidential and frank advice and that they cannot get it if the advice becomes public, cited by Cheney in reference to the task force.
Some administration arguments are more closely focused on security. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said that releasing the names of people held for immigration offenses could give al-Qaida "a roadmap" showing which agents had been arrested.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said before troops at the Army's Special Operation Command on Nov. 21, 2001, "I don't think the American people do want to know anything that's going to cause the death of any one of these enormously talented and dedicated and courageous people that are here today."
Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan argues that secrecy does more harm than good. The CIA's exaggerated estimates of Soviet economic strength, for example, would have stopped influencing U.S. policy, he said, if they had been published and any correspondent in Moscow could have laughed at them.
Mary Graham, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said: "What are often being couched as temporary emergency orders are in fact what we are going to live with for 20 years, just as we lived with the Cold War restrictions for years after it was over. We make policy by crisis, and we particularly make secrecy policy by crisis."
Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, contends that there is no secrecy problem. "I make the case that we are more accessible and open than many previous administrations — given how many times (Secretary of State Colin L.) Powell, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have briefed," Fleischer said.