Backlash Grows against White House Secrecy ; in Congress and the Courts, Challenges to Bush's Tight Control of Information Rise. Energy Papers Due out Today

Article excerpt

From the very start, George W. Bush made it clear that his would be a leak-tight White House. In the past year, he has succeeded to a remarkable degree, and is even carrying that promise far beyond his relationship with the media.

In an attempt to reinforce the powers of the executive branch, the Bush administration has denied Congress access to information on the vice president's energy task force, restricted the handling of presidential records, and curtailed government responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The war on terrorism has, understandably, added to the aura of discreetness, with Vice President Cheney often working in undisclosed locations, for example.

Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, sees this pattern of secrecy as a return to the imperial presidencies of Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy. Others argue it differs little from the self- preservation tactics of any Oval Office occupant. Yet many in Washington - including both Democrats and Republicans - are concerned about the shift and are fighting back.

Their weapons are the courts, political pressure, and even the power of the subpoena, which Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has raised as a threat to get Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to testify publicly before Congress.

The Bush clam-up "creates a reaction against the executive.... It creates distrust, animus," says Mr. Dallek, a biographer of President Lyndon Johnson who describes this administration as having an "authoritarian bent."

Documents to be released

Resistance from lawmakers and special-interest groups has begun to show some success. Today, the Department of Energy is expected to release thousands of pages of documents related to the energy task force as a result of a court order.

And last week, the Defense secretary announced that military tribunals for suspected terrorists, originally envisioned as secret under an executive order from the president, will actually be public - except for portions related to national security. This, like some other aspects of the newly announced tribunal procedures, appears to be a response to criticism of the president's order when it first came out last year.

The president's emphasis on confidentiality predates the war on terror, though. In his father's administration, the younger Bush took a special interest in helping with leak control. He had his own papers from his time as Texas governor archived in his father's presidential library, so that they would not be managed by the state of Texas - or subject to the state's open-records laws.

His disciplined, corporate style of management encourages debate behind closed doors, but once a decision is made, Bush brooks no disloyalty or dissent in public.

Mike Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, learned this the hard way. …