The Pennsylvania Department of Health claims it has a plan to deal with a potential outbreak of H5N1, a lethal strain of the Avian influenza. But it’s a secret plan. So secret that local and county health departments don’t know what it is. Nor do physicians and hospital staffs.
“[W]e have to be very careful with how this information is released,” a state official told the Harrisburg Patriot-News, but assured the public that they “can be confident that preparations that we’ve made can be implemented to the fullest without any difficulties caused by information getting into the wrong hands.”
In translation, what Troy Thompson said was that the department was worried terrorists could get the plan, and so the public should just trust government.
Had George Wisner, editor of the New York Sun, trusted government in 1834, thousands might have died from cholera, which had a mortality rate at the time similar to H5N1. Wisner had heard rumors of a death from cholera. The cause could have been in the city’s water supply or in tainted food sold in groceries or in restaurants. But, the health department said there was no occurrence. After persistent badgering, Wisner got the health officials to admit there “may” have been a problem. But they said the people would panic and needlessly tie up doctors and hospitals if the Sun published the story. The other, more “responsible,” newspapers knew about the potential epidemic, said the officials, and had kept quiet because it was “in the public’s best interest.”
The public’s best interest is to know the truth, said Wisner who published the story and suggested the health department was negligent in detecting the disease in the first place. The establishment newspapers, as expected, attacked him for being irresponsible. The public, armed with the truth, neither panicked nor tied up medical resources. An epidemic was averted because the people had the facts.
Claiming the need for secrecy to “protect” America from is why the federal government has classified the number of rolls of toilet paper it has in stock, a satiric plot against Santa Claus, and what cocktails former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet preferred. About 4,000 federal officials have the authority to classify documents. For every dollar spent declassifying documents, executive branch agencies spend about $120 to create and keep documents secret, according to an investigation by OpentheGovernment.org, a coalition of 33 national journalism and consumer organizations. Last year, the federal government classified 15.6 million documents, about 10 percent more than the previous year, and 4.3 times the number classified in 1995, according to the National Archives.
The Bush administration, charged former Vice President Al Gore November 2003, has used “unprecedented secrecy and deception in order to avoid accountability to the Congress, the courts, the press and the people. . . . Rather than accepting our traditions of openness and accountability, this Administration has opted to rule by secrecy and unquestioned authority.”
The Bush Administration “reveals a pattern of secrecy and dishonesty in the service of secrecy,” wrote Walter Cronkite in his syndicated newspaper column in April 2004. Cronkite, a World War II combat correspondent, and former CBS-TV anchor who covered 11 presidential administrations, and was once known as the “most trusted man in America,” was unrelenting: “[T]his administration believes that how it runs the government is its business and no one else’s. It is certainly not the business of Congress. And if it’s not the business of the people’s representatives, it’s certainly no business of yours or mine.” Cronkite concluded, “The tight control of information, as well as the dissemination of misleading information and outright falsehoods, conjures up a disturbing image of a very different kind of society. Democracies are not well-run nor long-preserved with secrecy and lies.
The “zeal for secrecy adds up to a victory for the terrorists,” said Bill Moyers, former press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, publisher of Newsday, and winner of more than 30 Emmys for television news and documentaries. “Never has there been an administration like the one in power today, so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lock-step in keeping the information from the people at large and in defiance of the Constitution from their representatives in Congress,” said Moyers in September 2004.
Even John Dean, White House legal counsel for Richard Nixon, whose penchant for secrecy was a defining part of his administration, finds government secrecy under the current administration to be excessive. In Worse Than Watergate (2004), Dean wrote that “George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have created the most secretive presidency in my lifetime. . . .Not only does this secrecy far exceed anything at the Nixon White House, but much of the BushCheney secrecy deals with activities similar to Nixon’s. [It was] a time of unaccountable and imperial presidency.”
“Patriotism means . . . not trying to hide from accountability through excessive secrecy and privacy,” said Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme commander, in January 2004.
Folded within the Administration’s penchant for secrecy are lengthy delays and the highest number of denials in history for release of non-classified public documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
If the secrecy imposed by the White House upon the public’s right to know applied only to federal documents, it would be bad enough, but the Bush Administrations beliefs and attitudes have flooded all state and local governments. It shouldn’t take an epidemic, fueled by public ignorance, to prove that secrecy is not what the Founding Fathers demanded of government.
WALTER BRASCH, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, is an award-winning syndicated columnist and the author of 15 books, most of them about social issues, the First Amendment, and the media. His forthcoming book is America’s Unpatriotic Acts; The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Liberties (Peter Lang Publishing.) You may contact Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.walterbrasch.com