By chance, conservatives William Safire and Robert Novak, whose columns appear respectively in the New York Times and the Washington Post, chose to begin the year 2002 with criticisms of President Bush despite his stratospheric ratings in the polls. The two columnists reflect the unease that many people, conservatives and liberals alike, share over some of the actions taken on the home front by our high-riding president.
Liberals have been more vocal in expressing concern about what they perceive to be threats to civil liberties posed by the proposed use of military tribunals to prosecute captured terrorists and holding terrorist suspects as material witnesses without charging them with any crimes. Conservatives have been more troubled by actions taken by the Bush administration that are aimed at withholding information that would normally be made public and that by law and precedent should be made public.
One of Attorney General Ashcroft’s early acts was to notify all federal departments and agencies that the Justice Department would back them up if they rejected requests under the Freedom of Information Act on legitimate grounds. Since the agencies have always claimed that their rejections of FOIA requests are legitimate, it has been necessary to file suit to free up anything they want to keep hidden. Mr. Ashcroft assured them that he would back them if they were sued.
Accuracy in Media has experienced the effects of this?an increased tendency to reject FOIA requests on specious grounds and an increased difficulty in persuading judges to rule against the government. When special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske, Jr. closed his investigation of Vincent Foster’s death in June 1994, most of his files were turned over to the Senate Banking Committee, which compiled them, together with its own files on the case, in two thick volumes that were released to the public in 1995. Those two volumes made it possible for AIM and others to expose serious flaws in Fiske’s investigation. His successor, Kenneth Starr, learned from that experience. He even refused to release the reports submitted by his paid consultants, and AIM had to sue to obtain them. His successor, Robert Ray, fought hard to keep the files he inherited from being made public. His lawyers, backed by Justice, even persuaded a judge to bar release of a photo of the keys which could not be found in Foster’s pants pocket at the crime scene, but which were found in his pocket at the morgue.
Why did we want the photo? It would show far better than words the absurdity of the claim that the officer who searched Fosters’s pockets at the crime scene simply overlooked them. AIM has learned that the Justice Department under Ashcroft is no more interested than it was under Reno in releasing evidence that adds to the proof that Foster was murdered and TWA Flight 800 was shot down by missiles.
William Safire says that the Justice Department induced President Bush to claim executive privilege in refusing to give the House Government Reform Committee documents relating to crimes sanctioned and even committed by FBI agents based in Boston. Among the examples he cites are granting a mobster on the FBI payroll immunity for 10 murders he is charged with committing and knowingly keeping an innocent man in prison for 30 years to protect FBI sources in the Mafia. He quotes James Wilson, the chief counsel of the House Government Reform Committee, as labeling the abuse of power by the FBI’s Boston field office as “the greatest failing in law enforcement history.”
That might be exceeded if the Bush claim of executive privilege to keep the committee from exposing who was responsible for the criminality that pervaded the Boston office succeeds. It is argued that revealing who made the decisions and why they made them would not be in the public interest because it would deter federal employees from giving their best advice to their superiors.
Just the opposite is true. If Ashcroft’s effort to extend executive privilege to federal employees at all levels succeeds, forget about Congressional oversight deterring misconduct and abuse of power in the executive branch. Why is this born-again Christian doing this? Here’s a possible clue. His handpicked FBI director, Robert Mueller, served in the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston in the 1980s, rising to the top job. A veteran FBI agent says the U.S. Attorney must have known about the corruption in the FBI Boston field office.