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Political Animal

We'll Never Know

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/26/2008

If you think about it, it's amazing how completely and thoroughly information has been "managed" over the last seven years of the Bush administration. E-mails have been mishandled and then lost, information that regularly was disseminated to Americans about the workings of their government has been cut off, questions that normally were answered have simply been ignored, and no effort is made to ever find out those answers.

By itself, this is a mildly impressive feat, until you realize that to accomplish this it required an almost top-to-bottom infestation of political will in the entire system--to manage every bit of federal apparatus to make sure that the president and his accomplices would never look bad, no matter how small the news or how astonishing the effort made to conceal it.

It is also becoming clear that the Bushies made an effort right at the start to make sure that information would never see the light of day. As soon as they took office, they scrapped the Clinton administration's custom-made computer archiving system that, according to news reports, was installed after a court order. It would be one thing if the system was replaced by something newer or better, yet the one the Bush people put in could hardly be called an archive, as it simply recorded over previously recorded information that was supposed to be preserved as part of the Presidential Records Act.

At every juncture, when administration officials are questioned about the apparent losses, they respond first with delays, then denials, and then excuses.

In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft created a new standard for dealing with requests under the Freedom of Information Act that told government agencies that if there was any way possible to deny FOIA requests, the agency should do so, and the Justice Department would back the agency if it was called on it in court. Of course, the administration publicly would say the exact opposite. At the time, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The bottom line remains the president is dedicated to an open government, a responsive government, while he fully exercises the authority of the executive branch."

In 2003, the administration tried to create a gigantic computer system called "Total Information Awareness," under the aegis of the Pentagon, that would track people's movements, purchases, medical records, and nearly any other aspect where a person might come into contact with a computer system. In the end, Congress banned any funds from going to the project, and it presumably died on the vine, although even now the fight over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program still is choking its way through the court system.

Terrorist "watch" lists have been created, and nobody knows who is on them, and once you're on them, it's impossible to find out whom to talk to to get off. Even Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of the most instantly recognizable faces in American politics over the last half-century, complained in a Senate hearing that he was stopped in an airport and told he couldn't get on his flight because his name was on a no-fly list. Nobody could tell him how he landed on it, and we never found out how he got off, aside from the general bad publicity that it caused.

Despite the banality of the no-fly shenanigans, a case for the Bush stranglehold on information continued. Lawsuits by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington forced the disclosure of a letter from a lawyer for Vice President Dick Cheney that instructed the Secret Service to destroy any evidence of lists of people who visited Cheney at his residence next to the Naval Observatory. At the same time, reporters who attempted to find out when and how many times now-convicted felon Jack Abramoff visited the White House were stonewalled with vague and general answers, first denying the lobbyist visited, then claiming he was just one of many people the president saw, and then maintaining a concerted effort to hide any photographic evidence that the president ever met with the influence peddler. By the time photographs leaked out, the news media's attention had since moved on to other things, and the outrage that might have come out of it was muted.

The Bushies again unveiled this tactic, to gum a story to death, last week, after a federal judge gave the administration three days to produce evidence about what happened to millions of e-mails that were supposed to have been archived 2003 to 2005, during the start of the war in Iraq all the way through the response to Hurricane Katrina. Last Friday, the administration, in a sworn declaration, said that old hard drives are thrown away, and that some but not all of the information on them is moved over to new computer storage.

When the final book is written on the Bush administration, its policy on information could be summed up like this: They hid it, they denied it, and then they threw it away.

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

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