SPJ Reading Room
So How Did George W. Bush Celebrate Sunshine Week? Sorry, That's Classified
By Susan Tallant
SPJ Fort Worth Pro Chapter
Too much secrecy. Too few accessible documents. Too many elected officials hiding their motives and their actions and their world-changing decisions from the people they were elected to serve.
Oh, and a threat to press freedom as palpable as the tornadoes the forecasters breathlessly proclaimed could strike at any minute.
Pete Weitzel's speech April 13 at Fort Worth SPJ's First Amendment Awards and Scholarship Dinner had it all, and if he didn't scare you, there was always the weather. Outside, powerful winds were tearing through Haltom City just a few miles west of the banquet site, Cacharel in Arlington. Inside, thoughts centered on concerns of a different sort.
"The fight for open government is a contest between competing values," said Weitzel, a former managing editor of The Miami Herald who helped launch the National Freedom of Information Coalition and served as its second president. "We are going to have to remain vigilant and proactive. The alternative is greater government secrecy. That would be disastrous for us as journalists and for our country."
Weitzel, now FOI coordinator of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, told the SPJ members, award winners and guests that there is strong sentiment in the administration, supported by conservative voices in Congress, to take action against those who leak information. But he also said the media are more united than ever on open government issues.
He referenced recent bill amendments that would criminalize the leaking and publishing of classified information and said the whole issue of leaks is both fascinating and dangerous.
"What's important to remember and to explain to the American people is that leaking serves to level the Washington playing field, which would otherwise be even more heavily slanted in favor of any incumbent administration," he said.
This incumbent administration, he noted, has opposed four bills that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. "That opposition isn't really surprising. This is an administration that came into office determined to tightly control the flow of information."
Weitzel became involved in freedom-of-information issues with the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. He chaired FSNE's Freedom of Information Committee for 15 years and in 1984 helped found the Florida First Amendment Foundation, serving as president its first 11 years.
He has seen government secrecy in many forms, but never before the number of officials who use private e-mail accounts to conduct government business so the conversation is never part of the official archive.
"There's been an explosion in the classification of information," he said, "to the point where even those in the business of secrecy say it's gone too far and become counterproductive. And it is damaging to our security."
Thousands of people in government have the rank to classify information, but audits show one-third of these experts are not doing their job properly. Also, Weitzel said, the three million other government officials who make secondary decisions take the information from the already classified documents and incorporate it into a new document.
"Imagine how many times they get it wrong," he said.
The AP recently reported that more than a million documents have been removed from the national archives since 2001 in response to a Justice Department directive. Weitzel painted a picture: a stack as tall as the Capitol dome. "We've seen a great explosion in pseudo-classification," he said.
In closing, he urged the journalists in the room to tell the open government story. He said many of the nation's media organizations are aggressively engaging open governement issues.
And for that, he said, "we can thank the Bush administration."