The Big Idea

Smoking Gun

Dick Cheney’s assault on the public’s right to know.

The Bush administration’s aversion to openness reached the proportions of parody last weekend, when Dick Cheney shot a man in the face with a shotgun while hunting for quail in Texas. The White House revealed nothing about the accident when it occurred, and it’s entirely possible that this near-manslaughter would have gone unreported had the host of the shooting party not spoken to a local reporter about the incident a day later. 

Must one really argue the case that when the vice president of the United States shoots someone—intentionally or unintentionally, fatally or otherwise—that the public has a right to hear about it? It’s true that there is historical precedent for Cheney’s attempted cover-up. When Vice President Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, Burr’s second used an umbrella to obscure the wounded man from the view of potential witnesses. Burr went home and mentioned nothing to his luncheon guest about what had happened that morning. After Hamilton died, a public cry went up and Burr fled to an undisclosed location in Georgia.

A somewhat stronger American tradition, however, suggests that high officials are obliged to inform the public not just about the rare violent encounter, but also about their financial interests and the condition of their health, and above all about the workings of the government. In this regard, Cheney’s role model appears to be not Burr, but the belligerent and contemptuous Spiro Agnew. Even before Sept. 11 provided an all-purpose excuse for his subterranean instincts, Cheney, like the president he serves, had made clear his 28-gauge disdain for the kind of disclosure and freedom of information that democracy demand.

Like the right to privacy and the separation of church and state, the public’s “right to know” is nowhere stated in the Constitution. But, like those other rights, access to information about the government was both assumed and implied by the Founding Fathers. For the right to elect leaders to have meaning, citizens have to be able to find out what the people they elect actually do in office. Similarly, the right to criticize the government presumes having something to criticize other than government secrecy.

More cartoons on misinformation

From the earliest years of the republic, an unprecedented degree of openness and disclosure were distinguishing features of the American system. According to Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian and author of the majestic new book The Rise of American Democracy, judicial hearings, state and federal legislative proceedings, and presidential papers were already being made accessible to the public in various ways as early as the 1790s. But not until just after World War II did the now-familiar phrases “freedom of information” and “the people’s right to know” come into broad use.

These terms appear frequently in Cold War-era discussions of the balance between government openness and national security. It is impossible to read those half-century-old considerations of how a free society can protect itself without sacrificing its values and not experience a feeling of déjà vu. In 1956, for instance, the Coolidge Committee on Classified Information made recommendations to the secretary of defense about how to mitigate what it depicted as the related evils of excessive classification and government “leaks.” The movement to provide greater public access to documents was codified in the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. In the post-Watergate era, the reach of FOIA was greatly extended and supplemented by a host of “sunshine” laws mandating public access to meetings. In the Internet age, the expectation of openness and the availability of documents have expanded further, even as Cheney and Bush have indulged their urge to purge.

To be sure, every president has fenced with the press and Congress over access to information. But no modern administration other than Richard Nixon’s has so vigorously and reflexively slashed away at legislative oversight and public scrutiny. Another episode, as shocking in its way as Cheney’s suppressed shooting, is the administration’s refusal to answer questions about the White House meetings of the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This week, Time magazine finally got hold of some of the photos that the administration has been suppressing. One shows Abramoff lurking in the background as Bush pumps the hand of a since-indicted tribal chief whose Indian name means “black buffalo.” White buffalo Karl Rove stands beside the president, blessing the encounter.

This and other photographs of Abramoff and Bush are public property, taken by photographers who are salaried government employees. They raise no questions of national security or personal privacy. But the pictures are embarrassing to the president, and on that basis alone, Bush has refused to release them. At one of his rare press conferences, the president offered the rationale that if shared, the Abramoff photos would be used for “political purposes” by Democrats. I do not recall Bill Clinton resisting Republicans demands for details about his use of Lincoln bedroom for fund-raising on such a basis. On the same theory, Bush could refuse to open his mouth again in public ever again—which, come to think of it, has been pretty much Cheney’s approach.

When it comes to the content of the Abramoff meetings, as opposed to the snapshots, the White House could potentially make a serious argument for holding back details. In 2002, a federal court rejected the General Accounting Office’s effort to pry into Cheney’s secret meetings with oil and gas executives who helped him to formulate the administration’s first-round energy policy. The theory behind the court’s decision was that executive-branch officials must be able to receive unvarnished advice from whomever they wish. But in the Abramoff case, Bush aides have claimed that any White House meetings were policy-free grip-and-grin sessions.

One could go on recounting the dozens of examples in which Bush and Cheney have spurned legitimate requests for information—from Congress, journalists, historians, and watchdog groups. In sum, these episodes represent more than the familiar tug and pull of the branches of government, mere hostility to the press, or the challenges to freedom in wartime. They are the arrogant expression of a deaf, imperial presidency that hears the phrase “the public’s right to know” as the public’s right to “No.”