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Cheney won't tell how much he keeps secret
WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration has dramatically accelerated the classification of information as "top secret" or "confidential," one office is refusing to report on its annual activity in classifying documents: the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
A standing executive order, strengthened by President Bush in 2003, requires all agencies and "any other entity within the executive branch" to provide an annual accounting of their classification of documents. More than 80 agencies have collectively reported to the National Archives that they made 15.6 million decisions in 2004 to classify information, nearly double the number in 2001, but Cheney insists he is exempt.
Explaining why the vice president has withheld even a tally of his office's secrecy when offices such as the National Security Council routinely report theirs, a spokeswoman said Cheney is "not under any duty" to provide it.
That is only one way the Bush administration, from its opening weeks in 2001, has asserted control over information. By keeping secret so many directives and actions, the administration has precluded the public — and often Congress — from knowing about some of the most significant decisions and acts of the White House.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration has based much of its need for confidentiality on the imperative of protecting national security at a time of war. Yet experts say Bush and his closest advisers demonstrated their proclivity for privacy well before the attacks:
Starting in the early weeks of his administration with a move to protect the papers of former presidents, Bush has clamped down on the release of government documents. That includes tougher standards for what the public can obtain under the Freedom of Information Act and the creation of a broad new category of "sensitive but unclassified information."
Not only has the administration reported a dramatic increase in the number of documents deemed "top secret," "secret" or "confidential," the president has authorized the reclassification of information that was public for years. An audit by a National Archives office recently found that the CIA acted in a "clearly inappropriate" way regarding about one-third of the documents it reclassified last year.
The White House has resisted efforts by Congress to gain information, starting with a White House energy task force headed by Cheney and continuing with the president's secret authorization of warrantless surveillance of people inside the United States suspected of communicating with terrorists abroad. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., recently threatened to withhold funding for the surveillance program unless the White House starts providing information.
The administration has withheld the identities of, and accusations against, detainees held in its war on terror, and it censored the findings of a joint House-Senate committee that investigated the events leading to Sept. 11, including a 27-page blackout of Saudi Arabia's alleged connections to the terrorists.
While maintaining a disciplined and virtually leakproof White House, senior members of the administration have been accused of leaking information to punish a critic of the Iraq war. The grand-jury testimony of a former White House aide reportedly asserts that Bush himself selectively authorized release of once-classified information to counter criticism.
"This is a presidency in which, from the start, there were important forces to accentuate the executive prerogative, and all of that became more important after 9/11," said Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University and author of "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush."
To others, the insistence that information considered important be kept confidential is part of the Bush White House's insistence on discipline and order.
"I really think they think of it in terms of good governance," said James Carafano, senior fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It's a very corporate style of leadership."
Bush has a partner — some say mentor — in Cheney, who from the start resisted all efforts to disclose the inner workings of a task force devising energy policy. He defeated an unprecedented lawsuit by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to unveil that task force and carried his fight successfully to the Supreme Court.
And as the administration has sealed an increasing number of documents as secret or sensitive, and cut the number of documents being declassified each year, the refusal of Cheney's office to report on the number of its decisions stands out.
A directive from the National Archives, acting under the authority of the executive order bolstered by Bush in March 2003, requires all agencies and executive-branch units to report annually on classification and declassification of files.
Cheney's office maintains that its dual executive and legislative duties make it unique, as the vice president also serves as Senate president.
"This matter has been carefully reviewed," spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said. "It has been determined that the reporting requirement does not apply to the office of the vice president."
The administration started asserting its power over paper soon after Bush's inauguration by placing a hold on the release of the records of former presidents — beginning with the papers of Ronald Reagan's presidency — and later issuing an executive order granting past presidents, or their representatives if the president has died, a veto over releases. The order gave the same authority to vice presidents.
Before the end of its first year, the administration also reversed a long-standing policy on how agencies respond to public requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, had insisted on "a presumption of disclosure." But Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft, implored all agencies to disclose information requested by the public "only after full and deliberate consideration ... of the privacy interests that could be implicated."
Amid growing concern about information that terrorists might obtain from the government, then-chief of staff Andrew Card issued an order in March 2002 demanding that any "Sensitive but Unclassified Information" related to homeland security be released only after careful consideration "on a case-by-case basis."
That has led to a proliferation of documents stamped "Sensitive but Unclassified" or simply "For Office Use Only," according to experts who track government record-keeping.
The Bush administration is "objectively more secretive" than its recent predecessors, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
"Anyone who calls or writes a government agency for information encounters barriers that were just not there a decade ago," he said. "The government is undergoing a mutation in which we are gradually shifting into another kind of government in which executive authority is supreme and significantly unchecked."
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