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The Veil of Secrecy

The Bush Administration: a Closed Family System

by JENNIFER VAN BERGEN

Never has there been an administration like the one in power today–so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and, in defiance of the Constitution, from their representatives in Congress.

Bill Moyers, September 14, 2004

Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show it can bear discussion and publicity.

Lord Acton (1834-1902)

Democracy dies behind closed doors . . . The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully and accurately . . . When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.

Judge Keith, North Jersey Media Group v. Ashcroft, 308 F.3d 198 (3d Cir. 2002).

Secrecy is the watchword of the Bush Administration. The Administration has engaged in secret deportations of suspected alien terrorists, closed immigration hearings to the public, sealed federal court records and even kept them from being named on the docket, sequestered names of and information about Guantanamo detainees as well as thousands of immigrants purportedly detained under the PATRIOT Act, secretly gathered names under a new data-mining system called MATRIX, refused to turn over minutes of an Energy Task Force meeting held by Vice President Cheney in early 2001, refused to cooperate or turn over White House records relating to 9/11, and enabled the FBI to obtain information from "third party" business records holders about ordinary citizens, making it a crime for the holders to tell anyone those records were requested.

These are just a few of the new secrecy initiatives of this Administration. In December 2003, the U.S. News & World Report came out with an investigative report, Keeping Secrets, that found the following:

Important business and consumer information (such as auto and tire safety information) is increasingly being withheld from the public.

Critical healthy and safety information potentially affecting millions of Americans, such as data on quality and vulnerability of drinking-water supplies, potential chemical hazards in communities, and safety of airlines travel.

Invoked "state secrets" privilege on national security grounds (in one case alone, the government invoked it 245 times) and actually shut down several civil rights and discrimination suits by refusing to provide information crucial to plaintiff’s cases.

Doubled the amount of documents classified (44.5 million times in the first two years) and made it easier to reclassify previously declassified information.

Made exempt from public disclosure any voluntarily supplied "critical infrastructure information" supplied by private industry–such as transportation, communications, energy, and other systems that enable modern society to run.

Repudiated congressional statutory directives to provide notice to Congress before initiating certain sensitive defense programs.

Secretly awarded building contracts in Iraq to invited companies.

Limited Freedom of Information Act requests.

One that U.S. News did not mention: the Administration has repudiated domestic and international laws that require open proceedings and due process and ignored a Supreme Court mandate to provide such to Guantanamo and other detainees.

In a recent case, prosecutors demanded that documents in a case be sealed and kept secret, but that the entire case be wiped off the docket. It was as though the case never happened. Yet, a man was convicted and sent to jail in that case, and another man claims that the sealed information shows that prosecutors hid evidence of a government-led extortion scheme against him. The new practice of keeping an entire case secret is called "super-sealing," according the Miami Daily Business Review. It involves "the total eclipse of entire cases or individual pleadings by keeping everything about them–even case and docket numbers–secret."

The Administration, of course, claims that all this secrecy is necessary to protect us from terrorism. But, according to the U.S. News, "the initiative to wall off records and information previously in the public domain began from Day 1" of this Administration taking office. And in a December 2003 Democracy Now report, Veil of Secrecy, Bill Moyers said:

Everywhere you look today, or try to look, our right to know is under assault.

In the name of fighting terrorists, the government is pulling a veil of secrecy around itself. Information that used to be readily accessible is now kept out of sight. [A]lthough the government regularly cites 911 as the basis for secrecy, the true reasons, in many cases, have nothing to do with the War On Terror.

There is no doubt that the Bush Administration is a closed system. It resembles a closed family system and as such, reveals much about the short- and long-term consequences of its practices. Psychologists and sociologists have extensively studied family systems and found that abusive families are often rigid closed systems. In a family system that is closed, the adults believe that power and control are of primary importance. The outer boundaries may be sealed off, preventing an inflow of outside information that contradicts family rules and beliefs and allowing those with the most power to maintain that power within the family. Communication with the outside world, and even within the family itself, becomes closed or censored as those in control set rules about talking that will maintain the hierarchy. Relationships may be regulated in such families by force and fear or by punishment and shame–and the development of each person’s individuality and self-worth suffers in the process. Families that place priority on control in relationships focus on everyone being the same and on maintaining the status quo; they try to mold the members to fit the (only) acceptable rules and beliefs–which are determined by the family members who are in power. Closed families show rigid rules:

(1) Control is important–people are basically bad and must be continually controlled to be good.

(2) There is only one right way and the person with the most power has it. There is always someone who knows what is best for you.

(3) Change is frightening; safety depends on maintaining the system as it is.

Some (but not all) closed families become abusive families. The experience of a child born into a closed abusive family system is one of powerlessness and objectification. The child is a captive of the system. S/he is isolated in a rigidly structured, closed system, helpless to change the system or remove him/herself from it. S/he must accommodate the abusive system and assimilate it into his or her life. The mainstays of such abusive closed family systems are: secrecy, helplessness, entrapment, delayed disclosure, and retraction.

Secrecy: The worse the secret, the more reason to keep it. The family’s consistent and continued denial silences anyone who would speak out. Those who do speak out are punished severely or banished.

Helplessness: In an "authoritarian" (rigidly closed) family system, children may be required to be obedient and loving toward the adults, while the adults may ignore the needs of the children. The rules and beliefs never change, no matter what the individual does, no matter what new information is acquired, no matter what the consequences.

Entrapment: There is no way out of a closed family system. Leaving is not a choice. (Note that expulsion is not the same as voluntary leaving. Expulsion is carried out as revenge and at a time when the individual least expects it or is least prepared for it.)

Delayed disclosure and retraction: Those in closed systems may one day reveal what went on inside the system, but the delayed disclosure may be used to discredit the individual. The price may become too high and the individual may have to retract his or her disclosure.

Does any of this sound familiar to the reader? What are the consequences of such closed systems? The consequences are severe and often irreversible. When one projects this paradigm onto those who hold the reigns to executive governmental power, the picture is highly troubling. Trust is undermined; misdeeds are engaged in and the more they are engaged in, the more they are hidden from public view; the more misdeeds are engaged in, the more a common enemy must be found and punished; the more the system is challenged, the tighter those in power maintain control and the more control is extended; the worse we look to others, the more misdeeds we commit either to punish others for their views or to avenge our image by committing deeds that will break opposition or illustrate our power to all. Finally, anyone who challenges or questions us must be crushed.

The bond within a closed system is extremely strong. No one may leave or challenge it, no one gets inside who isn’t already in. Information that may help the system to adjust to changes cannot be allowed in. Finally, the system must destroy everything not within it or it must collapse.

As we look at four more years of the Bush Administration, we must retain objective ways of viewing and judging it. It is important that we do not get sucked into defining things the way the closed Bush system defines them. The family system paradigm is helpful in understanding the nature of the Bush system and the logical consequences of it. To the extent that the closed family system resembles the Bush Administration–and it clearly does on nearly every point–the consequences are dire. Knowledge is power. Pass it on.

JENNIFER VAN BERGEN, J.D., is the author of The Twilight of Democracy: The Bush Plan for America (Common Courage Press, 2004). She has written and spoken extensively on civil liberties, human rights, and international law. She may be contacted at jvbxyz@earthlink.net.