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What We Don't Know...

by Wendy Kaminer

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.

Some atheists regard religious belief as the primary bar to rational decision-making, but I suspect that a dearth of information about worldly activities threatens rationalism more than a surfeit of belief about otherworldly beings. Without facts, we can only act on instinct or emotion, and our thinking is merely wishful. So, irritated as I am by the Bush administration's presumption that religious belief is essential to virtue, I'm more troubled by its notorious penchant for secrecy. Of course, this administration, like any other, is bound to classify some information in the name of national security, and during a war on terrorism the president has a particularly persuasive excuse for conducting at least some affairs of state in secret. But it's becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration often keeps secrets not to protect us from terrorists but to protect itself from us.

The war against terrorism wasn't served by Vice President Cheney's refusal to reveal the identities of people who attended his energy policy meetings. Cheney's secrecy about the meetings was an effort to shield the administration from criticism of its ties with big business in general, and Enron in particular. The war against terrorism wasn't served by the Justice Department's initial refusal to comply with congressional requests for documents concerning the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) murderous thirty-year collaboration with Boston-area gangsters. But the FBI was spared another serious blow to its already shaky reputation. The war on terrorism wasn't advanced by the president's executive order delaying the legally mandated release of papers from previous administrations. But the first President Bush and members of each Bush administration may have been protected from the release of embarrassing or even incriminating information. (We can only speculate about what we're not allowed to know.)
When people keep secrets, you can't help but wonder about what they have to hide. Why did the second President Bush choose to evade the requirements of Texas's Public Information Act by sequestering his gubernatorial records in his father's presidential library? Why has Attorney General Ashcroft encouraged federal agencies to deny routine Freedom of Information Act requests? In the Clinton administration, agencies were encouraged to release information unless "disclosure would be harmful." In the Bush administration, agencies are encouraged to withhold information, so long as they have a "sound legal basis" for doing so, which may effectively include any arguable legal basis at all.

Maybe there are relatively innocent reasons for withholding so much information from the public. Maybe Ashcroft's order, for example, was issued in the name of privacy or efficiency. Maybe the administration's habitual, reflexive withholding of information simply reflects a dominant character trait of the president. He has long been a fan of secrecy, as his membership in Yale's secret society, Skull & Bones, attests. Still, you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that what we don't know will hurt us and help the president.

His approval ratings might suffer if his administration's actions were well publicized. Would Americans feel protected by the summary detention of some 1,200 immigrants in the wake of September 11 if they were told that most of the detainees had no apparent connection to terrorism? Would they continue to believe that the detentions were justified if they knew that many detainees who posed no threat to our security were held illegally, without being notified of the charges against them or allowed to consult with counsel?

(Investigations by human rights groups have revealed persistent violations of detainees' rights, and the government itself has acknowledged, under pressure, that only a handful of detainees have any connection to terrorism or the particular terrorists of September 11.)

Would Americans feel confident about the war effort if they were apprised of its failures? As I write this column, for example, "Operation Anaconda" is ending. It was an eleven-day battle in which 3,250 bombs were dropped on caves and bunkers believed to harbor terrorists. At first, the military claimed to have killed more than five hundred enemy fighters; then search crews found fewer than twenty bodies on the battlefield, leading administration officials to back away from offering estimates of enemy dead. ("We don't get into body counts," one officer observed.) Army General Tommy Franks simply declared the operation "an unqualified success." If it was, in fact, a failure, it may well have been an excusable one. We can't expect the military to be infallible. But any news of a military failure would prompt questions about administration strategy, which could diminish blind faith in the president.

Lying to us about its own mistakes and inadequacies is one way for the administration to reassure us and guarantee the president's re-election. The public's desire for reassurance makes it complicit in the compilation of official secrets and lies. If the war is going badly, if our liberties at home are being sacrificed to mere illusions of security, a lot of Americans would rather not know about it. People need desperately to believe that the president is worthy of a 90 percent approval rating, so that they can believe the country has at least a 90 percent chance of prevailing against terrorism. Given our general ignorance about the war and the workings of the administration, all we can say is, "Who knows?"

Wendy Kaminer is an lawyer and social critic.  Her latest book is Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety.

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