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Discouraging words: the war on information
Inside the First Amendment

By Paul K. McMasters
First Amendment Center ombudsman
02.26.06

Louis Fisher is one of the nation’s foremost experts on American government and separation of powers. For 35 years, he has provided nonpartisan research for members of Congress and their staffs as a scholar at the Congressional Research Service, a part of the Library of Congress.

And he’s in trouble.

Fisher has built a sterling reputation as a fair and unflinching analyst, drawing praise from colleagues, other scholars, think tanks and public-interest groups — and even grudging respect from partisans on both sides of the aisle in Congress who have not always been happy with where the facts have led him.

A few measures of the 71-year-old senior specialist’s credibility: He has testified before Congress 38 times and has published 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles in addition to all of his CRS reports. His work is cited in congressional testimony and Supreme Court briefs.

Despite all that, he has been called on the carpet for not being sufficiently “neutral” in his outside work. That included an article published in Political Science Quarterly titled, “Deciding on War Against Iraq: Institutional Failures,” and a recent interview with Government Executive magazine in which he suggested that Congress had been overly deferential to the administration’s penchant for secrecy and insufficiently protective of government whistleblowers.

Fisher’s bosses may be looking over their shoulders, too. Congress has cut the CRS budget. Staff is being reduced. And from time to time, they receive a harsh letter from someone like the powerful chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who complained recently that two reports related to the National Security Agency’s warrantless-surveillance program were biased.

By itself, the sad saga unfolding at CRS would be enough to make employees elsewhere in government think twice before sharing information with Congress, or the American public, their real employer. Inexorably, the sound of silence is spreading throughout the federal government.

At NASA, political appointees have been interfering with what the agency’s scientists — including James Hansen, a leading authority on global warming — can say in lectures, online presentations and press interviews. A review of those guidelines is promised.

Meanwhile, officials at EPA continue to insist on screening all contacts with the press by its scientists.

Not even speech as a private citizen escapes the watchful eye of officials. For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last fall launched an investigation into whether criticism of the administration in a VA nurse’s letter to a weekly newspaper in Albuquerque was an act of sedition.

If there are any doubts about the administration’s hard-line stance on government-employee speech, its brief in a case before the Supreme Court should dispel them. The case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, presents the question of whether the First Amendment protects job-related speech, even when it is a matter of public concern. The solicitor general, on behalf of the United States, argues that it does not.

Ironically, while government officials suppress speech and punish criticism by others, they are greatly expanding the boundaries of their own speech.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flayed the U.S. press for getting in the way of such Pentagon initiatives as planting articles in the Iraqi press, hiring private contractors to influence information in Iraq and elsewhere, and engaging in disinformation operations. Noting how “our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age,” Rumsfeld called for even more aggressive information dissemination operations in the form of a “strategic communications framework.”

And while the Pentagon targets foreign audiences, other federal agencies target American citizens. The Government Accountability Office reported last week that in two and a half years, seven agencies spent $1.6 billion on media and advertising, including government-produced video news releases that both the GAO and Congress labeled “covert propaganda.”

These developments, combined with aggressive tactics for withholding information from Congress, the courts, scholars, historians, the press and the people, represent a sea change in information policies that have sustained and vitalized our democracy for more than two centuries.

This new climate of fear and intimidation is discouraging the very words that drive democratic decision-making in the right direction.

The authors of these policies appear to have thought neither long nor hard about the long-term consequences of such policies. The implications for good government and democracy, as well as the First Amendment, are profound.

A strategy of withholding, manipulating and distorting information to control and defeat our enemies works also to mislead and control allies and citizens alike. Moreover, we are careening dangerously toward an information environment that not only punishes dissenters and critics but those who are insufficiently laudatory.

As a nation, we should not gaze wistfully toward the tactics of tyrannies and terrorists as a possible model for our own information policies. To do so would plunge us into a deplorable mistrust of honesty and openness as a way of winning the hearts and minds of our enemies, not to mention the trust and support of our citizenry.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.


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Balancing Act: Public Employees and Free Speech

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