Stonewalling, secrecy, and limiting press access are never good tactics to ensure a free and open government. Yet they are increasingly being used by some of our top political leaders to avoid public debate on issues that concern us all. While it may be a natural survival instinct to “head for the cave” when danger threatens, given the complexities of the problems facing our society on both a national and state level, now is a particularly bad time for our leaders to slip into the bunker mentality.
Big time bunkering for Bush and Cheney began with attempts to conceal the extent to which large energy companies influenced the development of the National Energy Plan. Deep in denial that undue influence was exerted by corporate heavies, the Bush/Cheney team has steadfastly claimed “executive privilege” as their excuse to not release information on these meetings. So far, the administration has set a landmark level of resistance, requiring even the General Accounting Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, to take them to court in an attempt to get information for our elected representatives in Congress. The Enron collapse brought further investigations and once again the Bush/Cheney team chose to withhold information. Through the subpoena power of Congress, however, bit-by-bit, the ugly realities are surfacing.
Recent memos detail the tactics used to “game the system” during California’s energy crisis which made millions, perhaps billions, for Enron and other energy traders as the Bush administration refused to cap runaway prices. The result? California’s citizens and businesses got raked over the coals for billions, the state budget suffered immensely, and the impacts spread throughout the regional energy market. Even in energy-rich states like Montana, outrageous electricity price spikes shut down businesses and threw workers out of their jobs.
Forty-one days after a court-ordered deadline, the Natural Resources Defense Council finally received administration documents detailing energy giant Chevron’s influence. It should come as no surprise that the company’s recommendations to “eliminate federal barriers to increased energy supply” were adopted by the Bush administration. NRDC’s lead attorney said the administration has “unlawfully delayed the release of some of the most embarrassing evidence of industry involvement in the Bush energy plan.” The key word here is “delayed,” since the group is already back in court seeking other documents. Sooner or later, the truth will come out—or most of it anyway.
September 11 gave the administration all the political cover it needed to withhold information and clampdown on public scrutiny as never before. Yet, nearly every day new developments come to light that bring the actions of federal agencies, the Bush administration, and the war on terror under further scrutiny. In a recent BBC interview, veteran CBS News Anchor Dan Rather said he regretted that a feeling of patriotism kept him from asking the hard questions about the war in Afghanistan. “There has never been an American war, small or large, in which access has been so limited as this one,” said Rather. “Limiting access, limiting information to cover the backsides of those who are in charge of the war, is extremely dangerous and cannot and should not be accepted. And I am sorry to say that, up to and including the moment of this interview, that overwhelmingly it has been accepted by the American people. And the current administration revels in that, they relish that, and they take refuge in that.”
Bit by bit, information is also surfacing in response to congressional inquiries regarding events prior to Sept. 11. A letter to the director of the FBI from a 21-year veteran agent bluntly claims that supervisors “thwarted” efforts by the Minnesota FBI office to investigate flight schools. The agent, Colleen Rowley, wrote “[I]t’s at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to Sept. 11, just as Moussaoui was discovered, after making contact with his flight instructors.”
Sooner or later, the truth comes out.
Closer to home, our own inimitable Gov. Martz recently claimed that media coverage has been slanted and said she would no longer grant live interviews to certain state reporters. Instead, she will only take written questions and will send the answers out to all the media, not just to the reporter who submitted them. This “selective press” policy completely destroys the in-depth discussion of a live interview and eliminates the ability of a reporter to produce an exclusive story. Perhaps this bunker mentality will serve Martz well, but don’t count on it. There’s an oft-used saying for politicians who take on or blame the press for their woes: “Don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
That the executive branch of both the federal and state governments have decided to bunker up is not reassuring. Stonewalling and secrecy serve none of us well. Closed government muzzles public debate, obscures the truth, and will ultimately cripple or destroy our democracy.
In these precarious times, we need every good brain and all the experience we have in both political parties and the populace at large. Huge policy questions are at stake, with enormous, long-term consequences. Our future will be best served by open, informed, and lively debate on the myriad issues ranging from national and fiscal security to the very liberties upon which our nation was founded. To make those choices, we need open access to information and open communication with the press, since they provide the eyes, ears, and questions on which hour citizens rely.
In closing his BBC interview, 70-year-old Dan Rather put it bluntly: “It’s unpatriotic not to stand up, look them in the eye, and ask the questions they don’t want to hear—they being those who have the responsibility, the ultimate responsibility-—of sending our sons and daughters, our husbands, wives, our blood, to face death.”
Now, more than ever, we desperately need state and national leaders who will stand up, not bunker up.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.