Facing the facts

Janus, the Roman god of gateways and portals, is often depicted as having two faces looking in opposite directions. He is a good symbol for characterizing the Bush administration's approach to government information access.

One face of the administration's information access policy is shown in the President's Management Agenda under the E-Government Strategy. There, one finds that the strategy will result in "making it possible for citizens, businesses, other levels of government and federal employees to easily find information and get service from the federal government." The agenda promised that its e-government initiatives would "make government more transparent and accountable."

The other face is the administration's actual behavior.

Early on, we had the president reinterpreting the Presidential Records Act to place new restrictions on the release of records from previous White House administrations, an action that angered members of his own party in Congress.

Next we had the attorney general encouraging agencies to "just say no" to Freedom of Information Act requests, saying the Justice Department would back them up. The vice president stonewalled the General Accounting Office over basic information about his energy policy task force, and GAO has taken him to court over the matter.

Sept. 11 was traumatic for the entire nation, to be sure, and caused a whole new attitude toward access to government information. Agencies rightfully became more cautious about what they placed on their Web sites and how freely they disseminated some scientific and technical information.

But now the administration has gone too far. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card sent a memo to all agencies talking about new restrictions on "sensitive but unclassified information." This term was in vogue during the Reagan administration and has been resurrected to cover information that is not classified but in the judgment of agency officials could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"Sensitive but unclassified" boils down to a bureaucrat's decision about the advisability of releasing information. Because the decision is not open to public scrutiny or judicial review, the public has no way of knowing if the information denied is truly sensitive or just politically embarrassing.

The administration can try showing one information access policy face by its rhetoric, but the other face of its actual behavior is now overwhelmingly dominant. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: Your actions trumpet so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

Gateways and portals can let information in and out. They can also serve as chokepoints and bottlenecks, and that is what this Janus-faced administration means by information access policy.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]


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