Beating Down Secrecy

By Dudley, Melinda | The Quill, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Beating Down Secrecy


Dudley, Melinda, The Quill


IN THE WAKE OF HIGHTENED GOVERNMENT SECRECY IN THE POST-9/11 ERA, ONE MEDIA OUTLET HAS RESPONDED BY MAKING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION NEWS COVERAGE A FULL-TIME JOB.

THE GOVERNMENT SECRECY BEAT AT COX NEWS SERVICE'S WASHINGTON BUREAU WAS THE BRAINCHILD OF BUREAU CHIEF ANDY ALEXANDER, WHO DREAMED UP THE POSITION IN RESPONSE TO THE HEIGHTENED LEVELS OF SECRECY - NOT JUST IN THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION BUT AT STATE AND LOCAL LEVELS.

"We saw what I think was an unmistakable pattern of growing secrecy that just seemed to be spreading across the country at all levels of government," Alexander said.

Under the Bush administration, "secrecy has been advanced in a myriad of ways, including excessive classification, brazen assertions of 'executive privilege' and 'state secrets,' new control markings to restrict 'sensitive but unclassified' information, and new limits on Freedom of Information Act requests," according to "Government Secrecy: Decisions Without Democracy," a recent report by OpenTheGovernment.org.

Alexander's interest was heightened because he had recently been asked to be chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee.

"We saw it as an important public policy debate that raises questions about both the limits of secrecy and of personal privacy," Alexander said, noting that the debate grew noticeably in the wake of 9/11.

Rebecca Carr has manned the government secrecy beat since January 2005. She previously covered terrorism and the attacks on Sept 11, 2001.

"I just started digging around, and what I found was information disappearing from government-run Web sites, documents once readily available being pulled off the shelves at the National Archives," Carr said. "I found a public that was desensitized after 9/11 in terms of what they should have access to."

In addition to covering the U.S. attorney firings and other ongoing scandals at the Department of Justice and in the executive branch, Carr's recent work includes tracking open government and freedom of information legislation, reporting on citizen- and government-initiated oversight efforts, and covering some of the many instances of questionable behavior in the current administration, as they relate to government secrecy.

"Covering secrecy is a critical issue," Carr said. "You're writing about everything from whistleblowers who are being ignored, to government programs no one knows about that violate civil liberties, to little communities in the post-9/11 era who have no idea that their water is being infected with chemicals."

Carr's work is distributed within the Cox family, which includes 17 daily newspapers, as well as on the New York Times' wire service.

"It probably is the most important beat that you can have right now, especially given this administration's propensity to secrecy," Carr said. "And you can't just lay the blame with the Bush administration; it's Congress, too."

Covering a secrecy beat presents its problems, many of which center on government secrecy itself.

Carr is subject to the very limitations on public information that she writes about. For instance, one public records request Carr made when she first started work on the beat more than 2Vi years ago is still pending at the Justice Department.

"One of the administration's favorite games now is to delay, and delay, and delay," she said.

Carr said the current era of secrecy is unparalleled in American history, and the public's right to know is in peril.

"This is an administration that wouldn't even let the mothers and fathers of slain soldiers in Iraq view the flag-draped coffins of their children coming home, or take pictures of them," Carr said. "What does that say?"

Alexander freely acknowledges that news about the freedom of information probably is not at the top of the average news consumer's agenda. …

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