A wakeup call for non-violent
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THIS PRESIDENT THINKS OUR IGNORANCE IS BLISS
By Richard Reeves
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government, through Solicitor General Theodore Olson, officially announced last week that when the government chooses to lie, the public's business is none of the public's business.
That was last Monday. The setting was the Supreme Court, and Olson put it this way: "It is easy to imagine an infinite number of situations ... where government officials might quite legitimately have reasons to give false information out."
The case being argued had to do with the widow, an American citizen, of a Guatemalan guerrilla leader killed during the bloody civil war there. She claimed that her husband might have been saved if the State Department had not lied to her about whether officials knew of his whereabouts.
I certainly agree with Olson that officials have their reasons -- good or bad. But his candor about lying to the American people could be taken as the clearest signal yet that the Bush administration not only has a growing credibility gap, but also that Bush officials are darned proud of it.
A couple of days before that, there was another of the regular meetings between Pentagon officials and Washington news bureau chiefs about covering the war in Afghanistan. Basically, the military chiefs said they would continue to do that coverage themselves and the press should get out of the way -- and that has been enforced by officers threatening to shoot reporters. Owen Ullman, the Washington editor of USA Today, came out to say: "Being able to sort out the truth has been extremely difficult. ... To me it feels like stonewalling."
"It's a healthy tension," said Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. It may seem that way now to the military and to the White House, but history should tell them that there are great dangers in war, and one of them is losing public support by lying or covering up mistakes.
"They seem not to know the term 'credibility gap,'" Chuck Lewis, Hearst's Washington bureau chief, told The Boston Globe. Clarke responded to that by saying: "Everything you hear and see and read out there says the American people have an extraordinary understanding of this ... very unconventional war."
"Extraordinary," however, may not mean accurate, and it may not hold up over time. That is what other modern presidents have learned to their regret. What the people don't know can hurt them -- and eventually hurt their leaders.
For better or worse, and it will almost certainly turn out for the worst, the Bush administration is at war not only with terrorists but also with the public's right to know. It is not just what the public has the right to know about this unconventional war that is at issue; it is the public's right to know much of anything these days.
Among other things, Attorney General John Ashcroft is doing his best to shut down the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to file requests for government documents, new and old. When Bush became president, FOIA requests were to be honored, under a ruling by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, unless a federal agency could show "foreseeable harm" if a document was made public. The new test, ordered by Ashcroft, changed the wording to say that documents should be withheld if there is "any sound legal basis" to keep them secret.
All of that goes back to the writings of earlier government officials, whose credibility might be thought a bit higher than that of Bush and Ashcroft. In the Declaration of Independence, the fourth article of complaint against King George was that he made it difficult for Americans to gain access to "the depository of their public records."
Then in 1822, James Madison wrote this:
"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
Are these the things that changed forever last Sept. 11? In a report called "Homefront Confidential," a white paper just issued by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the group's executive director, Lucy Dalglish, concluded: "No one has demonstrated that an ignorant society is a safe society."