In Mexican-American communities along the Texas Gulf Coast, there’s an old adage, or dicho: “El camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente”—the shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current.
When dealing with the Bush administration, not only should patriotic Americans keep our eyes open . . . we shouldn’t even blink. Behind their bellicose rhetoric about terrorists in our midst, behind their rapid-fire assaults on the environment, behind their Johnny-come-lately outcry about the corporate crime wave, behind all their public posturing that keeps us dashing from issue to issue—something fundamental and systemic is taking place: A deliberate surge toward an antidemocratic, closed, and repressive government.
Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, Karl Rove and Mitch Daniels are corporatists who have been demonstrating an alarming fondness for Big Brother, and their actions are a growing threat to our core sense of who we are.
There have been news stories about some of their particular secretive ways and autocratic maneuvers, but like a Pointillist painting, if you step back from focusing on this dot or that one, the big picture emerges—and in this case, it’s not a pretty sight. To get a sense of the dramatic whole, the Lowdown is devoting two issues to the Bush push for an authoritarian America. Next month, we’ll review the astonishing rise of police-state policies, from TIPS to Posse Comitatus, and this month we focus on the closing off of the government from public scrutiny.
Justice goes out of fashion
You had to know we were in serious trouble libertywise
when John Ashcroft put a blue drape over
Minnie Lou. She’s a 12-foot-high Art Deco statue
that has stood proudly in the ceremonial Great Hall of the Justice Department since it was built as a WPA project in the 1930s. She’s officially named the “Spirit of Justice,” but agency employees have long and fondly referred to her by her nickname.
In classic Deco style, Minnie Lou is draped in a toga with one breast bared. Through the Depression, a series of wars, droughts, plagues of locusts, McCarthyism, J. Edgar Hoover, and a long line of Attorneys General, her sculpted breast was simply there, not the focus of any fuss . . . until our present purse-lipped, blue-nosed, autocratic AG took notice.
It happened early this year, when Ashcroft held a press conference in the Great Hall to announce his terrorism offensive. The next morning, reviewing his clippings, he came across a photo that not only showed him, but also—looming right above his head—Minnie Lou’s breast.
Thus it was that we taxpayers, at a cost of $8,650, acquired a large blue curtain to assure that the apoplectic Ashcroft would never again be pictured with the offending mammary.Bush’s AG shrouding the Spirit of Justice is perfect symbolism for an administration that is rushing to become the most closed in our nation’s history. These guys go way beyond the usual presidential proclivity to play their cards close to the vest, going beyond even Nixon’s paranoia-driven obsession with leaks and “enemies.”
They come by their mania naturally, for they have spent their professional lives as corporatists, where secrecy is highly prized. From the top down, this administration hails from a tightly closed boardroom culture in which executive actions are delivered as fiats to be followed unquestioningly, and in which information is treated as a proprietary asset that must be carefully controlled, keeping as much as possible from employees, customers, investors, auditors, regulators, politicians, the media, the general public, and all other “outsiders.”Bush & Co. comes to government with no real appreciation of the need for public accountability and no real instinct for the art of democratic decision-making. They want to do what they want to do—and everyone else should just get the hell out of the way.
Hide and seek?
I don’t know if Daddy Bush ever told little George the “I cannot tell a lie” story of George Washington and the cherry tree, but W never seems to want to come clean about anything. In the presidential campaign, he deflected or outright rejected all inquiries into which drugs he snorted and how often, how he dodged the draft, how he miraculously made a fortune in business despite being a goofball, and how he enriched his corporate pals with public funds while he was governor of Texas. Hiding from inquiries is a tendency, skill, and modus operandi that he and his handlers have brought front and center to the Oval Office.
Start with official papers: Bush doesn’t want anyone seeing them. Period. For example, Texas governors routinely bequeath their official documents to the state archives or to a university where the public can readily get at them. After all, they are public papers, subject to Texas’s open-records law, which requires a 10-day turnaround on requests by the media, scholars, or Joe Blow to see any of them. In a sneaky move, however, George W. sent his gubernatorial paper to his father’s presidential library at Texas A&M—a place run by the feds, not subject to the state open-records act, and not able to respond to public-information requests.
In addition to hiding his own records in Daddy’s library, W last November did Daddy a favor by issuing an executive order that restricts the release of presidential documents from previous administrations, even though the law clearly says the documents should be publicly available. George’s decree could shield Daddy’s (and Dick Cheney’s) Iran-contra escapades from public scrutiny.
Speaking of things to hide, Bush is clinging ferociously to a claim of executive privilege to keep We the People from knowing exactly who met with V.P. Cheney and team to draw up the administration’s oil-soaked, nuke-hugging, pollution-spewing energy policy. Their “national energy policy development group” was a public body that met in secret, excluded everyone except industry big shots, and produced an energy plan that only Bush-Cheney campaign contributors could love, much less stomach.
It’s obvious that polluter interests wrote the damned thing, but a petulant Bush created a constitutional confrontation with Congress to try to keep the corporate names secret. This is one that’s already cost him politically and that he’s losing legally—a federal judge has just ordered the White House to turn over the documents within 30 days.
Likewise, Bush and Cheney have been mulish about handing over to the Senate thousands of pages of documents detailing the administration’s contacts with Enron executives—and even when subpoenaed, Bush’s top lawyer dragged his feet and demanded that a Republican senator be allowed to veto any public release of their Enron contacts.
Then there’s the scarlet “H” adorning the chests of both Bush and Cheney—one for “Harken” and the other for “Halliburton.” As has been reported, George—who’s lately been masquerading as a corporate reformer—pulled off his own slimy insider stock sale in 1990 when he was on the board of Harken Energy, waltzing away with $848,000 just before the stock price plummeted. Bush now asserts that the SEC “thoroughly” investigated the deal at the time and exonerated him—a claim the media mostly swallowed whole.
But it’s a lie. The investigation was cursory at best; George was not even interviewed, for example. Maybe the kid-glove treatment came because Poppa Bush was president, a longtime personal friend of Poppy’s was head of the SEC, and W’s personal lawyer was the SEC general counsel who oversaw the case. Despite these advantages, Bush was still found in violation of the law. He was spared because the agency said it didn’t have enough evidence to convict him.
Those who’d like to review that evidence today, however, are out of luck, because George refuses to let the SEC release the investigative file. Harvey Pitt, Bush’s hand-picked SEC chief, says he’ll make the file public only if the president asks him to, but George says he won’t because “there’s no case.” In other words, trust me . . . and go away.
Cheney’s scarlet “H” stands for the company that put more than $50 million in his pocket during his five-year tenure as its CEO. On his watch, Halliburton’s global exploits included a construction deal with Iraq and opening a corporate office in Iran. Wait . . . aren’t those two on our government’s official “enemies” list? ndeed, the Trading With the Enemy Act specifically bars U.S. corporations from doing business with Iraq and Iran. The White House, however, refuses to say whether Cheney’s company is a violator—and when a lawsuit recently forced the release of violators, only a partial list of 86 corporations was made public, minus any mention of Halliburton. The administration regally says that the names of other violators will be disclosed “later.”
Lowering the veil
Bush’s constant claim of executive privilege to shut off public scrutiny caused one observer to declare ruefully: “An iron veil is descending over the executive branch.” This was not the comment of the ACLU or some Democratic antagonist, but of Rep. Dan Burton, the diehard Republican from Indiana who was the bane of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Like Burton, many ideological conservatives who fear big and intrusive government are aghast that a so-called conservative White House is so hostile to open government.
The alarm in Congress and elsewhere about the Bushites’ unprecedented push for secrecy is fueled by such actions as:
• The startling revelation in March that a Bunker Government had been clandestinely created by the White House, with Cheney supposedly shuttling back and forth between two fortified, underground bunkers along the East Coast, overseeing some 150 top-level officials from every cabinet department. Known internally as COG (Continuity of Government), it’s too silly to be real, like some bad script from the X-Files . . . yet there it is.
No one voted to create this “second government” and Congress wasn’t even notified of its existence, but, despite public ridicule, it’s still down there, doing whatever it does in the dark.
• The attempt, still ongoing, to allow the massive new Homeland Security Department to operate in secret. When Tom Ridge was first installed by Bush as our “Homeland Czar,” the White House would not allow him to testify before Congress, claiming that his agency’s work was too sensitive to bear scrutiny.
Now that it’s being established as a cabinet department, amassing more armed officers with arrest authority than any other department, Bush wants the HSD to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and the Whistleblower Act. Also, instead of an independent inspector general (an internal ombudsman that all agencies have), George would give the head of HSD veto power over any audit or investigation by the agency’s inspector general.
• The desperate effort by Bush and Cheney to prevent any independent or Congressional investigation into their handling of affairs leading up to the September 11th attacks. In particular, they adamantly refuse to let Congress see an intelligence memorandum given to Bush on August 6 that warned about terrorists hijacking our airplanes. Even though a bill authorizing such an investigation is likely to pass, Bush plans to veto it.
It is preposterous that the first attack on the U.S. mainland since the War of 1812 goes uninvestigated because Bush & Co. want to keep all the files in a lock box.
• The unlimited and ever-expanding war on terrorism, specifically including plans for a “regime change” in both Iraq and Iran—a massive, bloody, exorbitant, and totally destabilizing military push that is being prepared with no congressional declaration of war and virtually no consultation with the legislative branch of government.
• The revelation this spring that the Pentagon was creating a new multimillion-dollar propaganda office with specific authority to lie to the American public. Called the Office of Strategic Influence and headed by a brigadier general, it was killed—at least it won’t operate publicly—by a crush of popular outrage, but the very idea that such an upfront office of lies could get off the ground spoke volumes about the new climate in Washington and the administration’s disdain for democracy.
• John Ashcroft’s gut job on the Freedom of Information Act. The law says that government must make information public unless its release would cause some demonstrable harm. Ashcroft, however, has willy-nilly directed all agencies to withhold as much information as possible, even if the information is harmless. His executive decree was issued in the name of battling terrorism, but it covers all government information, whether or not it’s connected to national security. Already, chemical plants, oil refineries, and other polluters are claiming that this exempts them from the right-to-know laws that force them to reveal what toxins they release into our neighborhoods.
• The abrupt decision by Rumsfeld to stop disclosing the results of the Star Wars missile-defense tests. Since these tests have been embarrassing failures, and since Bush is determined to keep funneling billions into this boondoggle whether it works or not, they simply decided to shroud the tests in secrecy, requiring us and Congress to take their word that Star Wars is a great success.
Of course, Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and TRW will know all about it, since they’re pocketing the next $10 billion of our tax money going to this dog, which will do absolutely nothing to protect us from terrorists.
• The use of cooked books, statistical hocus-pocus, and outright lies to push their corporate agenda—from fast-track legislation to Social Security privitization, from tax cuts to the militarization of the budget (see last month’s Lowdown).
For example, Bush’s fiscally and socially corrupt tax cut was a big lie from the start. His henchmen slickly titled it the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act of 2001, and Bush himself fronted the fraud, claiming that it was merely a $1.3 trillion cut over 10 years, would not affect our budget surplus, and was not a rich man’s giveaway. To “prove” the last point, he went around holding photo ops to dispense oversized, made-for-TV $300 checks to groups of “regular Americans.”
First, the giveaway of our public funds is triple what Bush said it would be, and those $300 checks are all many Americans will get from the $4 trillion payout. The real gravy is in a hidden Phase II of Bush’s treasury raid, which will go almost entirely to the richest 1% of Americans, who’ll average a bonanza of some $34,000 a year from the U.S. Treasury.
This giveaway has put a devastating whammy on our national budget, dropping us from a nice surplus to a deficit, diverting trillions that we could have invested in such crying needs as health care for all. Yet, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman reports, George’s pencil-pushers flatly asserted in a July press release that his tax handout to the rich has produced only 15% of our national budget’s dive into Deficit Land. In fact, it accounts for 40%.
Caught, the Bushites lashed out out at Krugman, asserting that they had not lied, but rather misspoken, and that they had “retracted” the 15% figure. In fact, in classic Orwellian fashion, they simply erased it, going back to their website and doctoring the old July press release to put in the correct figure, as though the self-serving lie had never been told. Krugman writes that he knows of no other U.S. presidency that “has been this brazen about rewriting history to make itself look good.”