U.S. More Tightlipped Since Sept. 11

By: Deb Riechmann, Associated Press Writer

(AP) The Bush administration, tightlipped before the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, has clammed up even more as it goes about hunting down those who would do America more harm.

In the process, advocates of government openness and civil liberties say the public’s right to information and the freedoms of innocent people are being jeopardized.

Case in point: On Tuesday, Bush signed an order to allow trials by military tribunals for noncitizens accused of terrorism. The reasoning was that cases can be handled with greater speed and secrecy there than in civilian courts.

“This is the manner the president thought would be the best way to bring justice to those people who are combatants,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. “These are not American citizens. They are combatants.”

Past administrations also have worked to keep their business private, especially during wartime. Bush has said repeatedly that the United States is waging a war against international terror.

Civil liberties advocates say using military courts to try suspected terrorists, last seen in World War II, is further evidence that this administration is unwilling to abide by checks and balances central to American democracy.

No one wants to give terrorists an edge, said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. Even Aftergood, who directs the group’s efforts against government secrecy, deleted floor plans of nuclear weapons storage sites from his group’s Web site after the attacks.

Still, he sees an “epidemic of official secrecy.” No White House can arbitrarily withhold information and expect to maintain public confidence, he says. “There’s just a resistance to disclosure that has characterized this administration,” even before Sept. 11, Aftergood said.

Historians, researchers, and human and civil rights groups say there are many examples of government secrecy, some having broader implications for civil liberties:

* The Justice Department won’t disclose the identities or status of more than 1,100 people arrested or detained in the weeks since Sept. 11 and now says it no longer will release a running tally of those held.

Attorney General John Ashcroft defends the arrest-and-detention campaign.

“The Justice Department of Robert F. Kennedy, it was said, would arrest a mobster for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the fight against organized crime,” he says. “In the war on terror, it is the policy of this Department of Justice to be equally aggressive.”

Opponents of the policy have filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the government to reveal information about those being detained. “The curtain of official silence prevents any democratic oversight of the government’s response to the attacks,” the request says.

* The Justice Department is letting investigators eavesdrop on phone calls and read mail between some terrorist suspects and their defense lawyers. A rule introduced last month allows monitoring to take place when Ashcroft concludes there is “reasonable suspicion” that the communications are related to future terrorist acts.

Lawyers stress the necessity to preserve the secrecy of conversations with clients. “This proposal is a terrifying nightmare for innocent people who are under suspicion by the attorney general,” said Laura Murphy, director of the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has questioned the legality of trying alleged terrorists in military tribunals, thinks White House decision-makers are bypassing Congress. He says there is a “rising concern in Congress about this administration’s preference for unilateralism” as it promotes policy changes ranging from eavesdropping on detainees’ conversations with their attorneys to the latest order on military tribunals.

* The Pentagon has told defense contractors not to talk publicly about military business and prohibited Defense Department acquisition officials from speaking with the press. “Even innocuous industrial information can reveal much … to the trained intelligence collector,” a Pentagon memo to contractors said.

* The White House, angry over leaks to the media, wanted to shrink the pool of lawmakers privy to classified briefings, but backed down in the face of an outcry from Congress.

* Government Web sites have been cleansed of sensitive military information about the whereabouts of aircraft carriers, Army chemical weapons stockpiles, and nuclear power plants. Government maps of the nation’s gas and oil pipelines have been removed.

So have data on the types of chemicals used in American communities — information families should be able to see, said Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, an organization supporting greater access to government information. “I think what we need to do, post-Sept. 11, is find some commonsense balance that ensures security and at the same time doesn’t undermine those democratic values we cherish,” Bass said.

Finding the proper balance between national security and openness is tough, he said. “But when it is hard to do, the public’s right to know must prevail. We have gone the other way.”

Even before troops left for Afghanistan, the Bush administration was keeping the government’s business close to the vest.

* Historians are criticizing a Bush executive order, in the works before Sept. 11, which they say could hold up the release of presidential papers from Ronald Reagan on.

* The White House refused to identify industry executives who met with Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential aides when they were drafting an energy plan.

Not every minute of Bush’s and Cheney’s days is a matter of “public purview,” Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said.

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