Hide & seek

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

—James Madison

In war, the maxim goes, the first casualty is truth. The second and third, apparently, are civil rights and the rule of law.

Nine days after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush excoriated the murderers and their patrons in his speech to Congress and the nation. “They hate our freedoms,” he exclaimed.

Yet the record will reflect that the president is none too fond of them himself, if his recent actions are any indication. The litany grows more chilling each day.

His oxymoronic “USA Patriot Act” was rubber-stamped by Congress. It allows lawmen to search your home without your knowledge, peruse your e-mail and tap your phones with ease and, perhaps, charge you for unwittingly assisting organizations that turn out to be terror-friendly.

Meanwhile, one of the most tangible measures our government could take — beefing up airline security by replacing the minimum-wagers — will take a year to implement. This, after Bush and Congress handed the airlines a $10 billion bailout as punishment for their criminally slothful security efforts.

Bush the omnipotent has further decreed that anybody he “has reason to believe” is a terrorist will be tried by a military tribunal, a star chamber unburdened by the inconveniences of rules of evidence, public scrutiny or gradations of guilt required in our precious civilian judicial system — you know, the kind of stuff that makes us free. This is positively primeval, something we might expect of Khadafy and Saddam and Mullah Omar himself. This proclamation only bolsters the popular belief overseas that the United States has never met a standard it won’t double.

Federal authorities have now declared the right to eavesdrop on conversations between suspects and their attorneys. The feds still detain more than 1,000 people who have not been charged with any crime. The FBI announced last week that it intends to knock on the doors of thousands of men of Arabic descent — many of them call Michigan home — for “voluntary” questioning. As if this weren’t enough, Michigan legislators are plotting their own assaults on civil rights (See News Hits).

All these measures have triggered little more than tepid debate. Americans are so intent to see leering terrorists under every bush, they are oblivious to erosion of rights under President Bush. He is exploiting the fear with appalling chutzpah.

One executive order that has stirred little interest in the mainstream media is Bush’s fiat of Nov. 1 to overrule the Presidential Records Act. Inspired by Richard Nixon’s felonious secrecy, Congress in 1978 created the PRA to make a president’s papers the property of the people and ordered that they be opened for study 12 years after an administration leaves the White House.

Ronald Reagan was the first ex-prez who was supposed to be subject to the act. Exposure of his papers was imminent, and it is these documents that President Bush is intent on suppressing.

It’s no coincidence that the detritus of Iran Contra, arms-for-hostages and other unsavory shenanigans in Arab lands — including our succor of Osama bin Laden and the Afghan freedom fighters — are encompassed by this period. Neither is the fact that Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and, lest we forget, Bush The Elder, served in Reagan’s administration.

Archivists, historians and researchers — normally a taciturn lot — are apoplectic.

Steven Aftergood, who directs the American Federation of Scientists’ vigilant efforts to quell government secrecy, denounces an “epidemic of official secrecy” and “a resistance to disclosure that has characterized this administration,” even before the terror attacks.

Dubya’s executive order “seems to be clearly about protecting people in the administration now, and I think it’s a clear abuse of power,” says David Wallace, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

“It’s just the latest episode in the latest battle over the control of information,” says Wallace, who once worked at the National Security Archive and whose dissertation dissected a lawsuit over access to White House e-mails. The litigation lasted for 10 years.

Bush’s decree smacks not of mere revisionism but of historic obliteration. I cannot help but recall when we sneered at the dark Soviets for cleansing the brutal excesses of the Stalin era from their historical record.

Under the PRA, a former president had some discretion over what would be released. Bush’s order gives the sitting president the same authority, even if a former president wants the material unsealed.

Bush’s citation of national security is a red herring. The PRA already exempts materials that would compromise security.

In attempting to justify his boss’ abrogation of yet another law of the land, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had the temerity to suggest that the order would actually improve Americans’ access to the records they own.

“.…[T]hanks to the executive order that the President will soon issue, more information will be forthcoming,” Fleischer enthused.

Wallace calls that claim “Orwellian.”

Not everyone is slumbering through Bush’s bulldozing. The U.S. House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency held hearings on Bush’s order last week. Several brows were furrowed.

Yet Wallace is by no means convinced that the Bush administration will reconsider his executive order.

“If they get publicly embarrassed enough, maybe they’ll back away from it,” he says. “If they have thick skin, they’ll get away with it.”

Jeremy Voas is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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