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The Know-nothing Presidency

There’s a Chill Over the Country

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI


We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle and knows

Robert Frost, "The Secret Sits"

Shhh. That’s the mantra of George W. Bush. He can pronounce it correctly, it keeps the citizenry from knowing things he thinks it has no need to know and what the citizenry doesn’t know, therefore, won’t play a part in what it thinks. Two examples of its operation were presented during the week of March 14, 2003. The first pertained to Medicare.

Applying shhh to the proposed law, the Bush administration deceived Congress by refusing to inform it about the actual cost of the new law. When Congress was considering the legislation, the administration knew that its cost would be $534 billion. It also knew that if members of Congress found out, passage of the law would be imperilled. The administration’s interest in enactment being greater than its interest in integrity, it kept that information from a Congress that had been told the new law would cost approximately $400 billion.

In June, 2003, prior to the law’s enactment, Mr. Foster received a request from a Republican for information and two requests from Democrats about the legislation. Before responding Mr. Foster sent an e-mail to Medicare Administrator Thomas A. Scully seeking permission to answer the questions that he described as questions that "strike me as straightforward requests for technical information that would be useful in assessing drug and competition provisions in the House reform packages." Jeffrey Flick, Mr. Scully’s assistant told Mr. Foster he could answer the Republican’s question but told him not to disclose answers to the questions posed by the Democrats "with anyone else until Tom Scully explicitly talks with you authorizing the release of the information." Lest there be any misunderstanding he added: "The consequences for insubordination are extremely severe." In his testimony before Congress on March 25 Mr. Foster testified that he had evidence Mr. Scully was following White House orders in refusing to disclose information.

Mr. Scully who is no longer with the agency and was never a constitutional scholar, justified his successful ploy at deceiving members of Congress by saying that he and Mr. Foster disagreed over how much help the executive branch needed to provide to Congress. He reportedly described it as a "separation of powers issue."

Deceiving Congress is not the only deception being practiced by the Bush administration. It also took steps to deceive the public. On March 18 it was disclosed that some National Park superintendents were being told to cut back on services but shhh. In February a memo was e-mailed to park superintendents in the Northeast from the Park Service’s Boston office. The memo made a number of suggestions about how the various parks could save money. Among the suggestions made were closing visitor centers on holidays, eliminating life guard services at some guarded beaches, eliminating guided ranger tours and closing parks on Sundays and Mondays.

The Boston office did not want to be perceived by the public as curmudgeonly. Accordingly, it not only suggested ways that parks could save money. It suggested ways the park service could avoid bad publicity. That could be done, the office suggested, by using discreet language in disclosing the cuts. Chrysandra Walter, the Park Service’s deputy director for the Northeast region, said in her e mail that:

"We will need to be sure that adjustments are taken from as many areas as is possible so that it won’t cause public or political controversy. If you think that some of your specific plans will cause a public or political controversy, Marie [Marie Rust, Park Service director for the Northeast region] and I need to know which ones are likely to end up in the media or result in a congressional inquiry. . . . Randy [Deputy Director Randy Jones] felt that the issuance of a press release was the most problematic. He suggested that if you feel you must inform the public through a press release . . . that you not . . . directly indicate that ‘this is a cut’ in comparison to last year’s operation. If you are personally pressed by the media . . . we all agreed to use the terminology of ‘service level adjustment’ due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking. . . . Please send . . . a bulleted list of ‘service level adjustments’ you plan to make . . . so Marie and I can review and send on to Washington those we feel will get media or congressional attention."

A former park superintendent Denny Huffman said: "Make no mistake about it. There is a chill over the National Park Service today." There’s a chill over the country. Secrecy and the threat to punish those who fail to honor its mandate have that effect.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu