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WHERE SECRECY BLOOMS, SO DOES TYRANNY

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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- This week is Sunshine Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to spotlight the importance of open government and freedom of information.
In a democracy, information is power. That's why some people in government go to great lengths to keep information locked up away from public view.
The shroud of secrecy that the Bush administration has quietly dropped over many of the federal government's operations since it took office is well known.
The number of documents classified by the Bush administration has more than doubled since 2001. It has actively discouraged the use of the federal Freedom of Information Act, encouraging government agencies to throw up as many roadblocks as possible. It has created new laws to hide information, and when all else fails, it invokes the so-called "war on terror" as justification for secrecy.
Congress supposed to have serve as a check against excessive executive power. But since it is under Republican control, it refuses to do so. Instead, it is the press that is doing the sort of oversight that Congress should be doing
Journalists exposed President Bush's illegal domestic spy program, revealed the secret prisons and the inhuman treatment of detainees, and detailed the assortment of lies that led this nation into an invasion of Iraq.
The press has done this all in the face of perhaps the most hostile administration in history when it comes to freedom of information.
So, naturally, the next step for the White House is to start jailing journalists.
The Associated Press reported late last week that as part of a Republican bill in the Senate that would expand the authority of the White House to engage in domestic spying, anyone who "intentionally discloses information identifying or describing" the Bush administration's so-called "terrorist surveillance program" or any other spy program, could be prosecuted and face up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $1 million.
The language of the bill, according to Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, is broader than any current law and does not specify that the information has to be classified or harmful to national security.
"This bill would make it a crime to tell the American people that the president is breaking the law, and the bill could make it a crime for the newspapers to publish that fact," Martin told the AP.
But what else would you expect from a White House that treats the press with utter contempt?
Another example of the Bush administration's attitude toward secrecy was revealed in a story that appeared in The New York Times last month. The Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency and other federal intelligence agencies are busy reclassifying historical documents that had been in the public domain for years.
Much of the 9,500 documents that have been reclassified contain material from the early years of the Cold War and the Korean War, material that does not merit classified status. Under existing rules -- rules now being ignored by federal intelligence agencies with the full blessing of the Bush administration -- government documents are supposed to declassified after 25 years unless there is a compelling reason to keep them secret.
The compelling reason being invoked by the intelligence agencies appears to be one of the oldest reasons in the book -- to cover up past mistakes and embarrassments.
The problem, however, is that much of what is being reclassified is already in the hands of historians and researchers. Technically, these people would be in violation of the federal Espionage Act for possessing the material, even though it was secret when they got it.
This nonsense, which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars, is only one part of the Bush administration's policy of making increasing amounts of information unavailable to citizens. The general attitude in Washington seems to be that as long as the so-called war on terror exists, there's no reason to pay attention to civil liberties or the Constitution. They think increased government secrecy is a good thing.
They 're wrong.
A properly functioning democracy depends on openness and respect for the Constitution. Without it, democracy dies.
The right to free speech and free expression is always under siege. The press in America isn't perfect. In too many cases, it is quick to defer to authority. The pressures of corporate and governmental power are a formidable obstacle to truth. But there still are enough honest, unafraid reporters out there to dig up the news and give us the information we need to govern ourselves.
As long as you, the news consumer, insist on truth and support the truthtellers, we can beat back the forces that have free speech and free expression is under siege. In doing so, we can maintain our democracy.

 

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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