MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. Everywhere you look today, or try to look, our right to know is under assault.
In the name of fighting terrorists, the government is pulling a veil of secrecy around itself. Information that used to be readily accessible is now kept out of sight.
To cover this story, NOW is collaborating with US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT. Their 5-month investigation finds that although the government regularly cites 9/11 as the basis for secrecy, the true reasons, in many cases, have nothing to do with the War on Terror.
The US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT story will appear in the magazine that goes on sale Monday.
Our story is reported by NOW's David Brancaccio and producer Peter Meryash.
BRANCACCIO: Floyd County in southwestern Virginia. The perfect spot to paint a Blue Ridge Mountain landscape…or to run a new natural gas pipeline.
When Greenbrier Pipeline Company announced plans to cut through this area with a 30-inch, high-pressure gas pipe, many residents were upset.
JOSEPH MCCORMICK: This was just not the right thing for this county, to have a huge trench, and a pipeline that was going right near one of their schools, and right through their community, and right across the Blue Ridge Parkway.
BRANCACCIO: Joseph McCormick had just recently moved to the community and wanted to help. He believed he could bring everyone together. He believed he could bring everyone together. All he needed to get started was some basic information.
Mccormick's question was simple: which specific property owners would end up with pipeline cutting through their land?
MCCORMICK: I went to FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to ask for a route. A more specific route. The reason why we had to go to FERC, is because we had asked the companies to provide it, and we were not getting any response. We weren't getting maps.
BRANCACCIO: Word began to circulate about which land owners might be affected. Gini Cooper is another resident of Floyd County.
GINI COOPER: Someone called me and said I needed to attend this meeting that was being held by some other land owners and found out it was going directly across my house. They would basically strip a 100-foot wide row of trees, not to mention the safety issues.
BRANCACCIO: Cooper and McCormick have reason to be concerned about pipeline safety.
In New Mexico three years ago, 12 members of a family on a camping trip were burned to death when a natural gas pipeline exploded, leaving a crater 86 feet long and 20 feet deep.
At least 213 people have been killed and 837 injured in more than two thousand natural gas pipeline incidents in the United States in the past 10 years.
When Gini Cooper tried to get information about the pipeline running through her property, she filed what's known as a FOIA request, a legal procedure under the Freedom of Information Act designed to safeguard the public's right-to-know.
COOPER: The companies don't like to give the landowner list out because people will organize. So then I called FERC and they wouldn't give it to me either so I did a FOIA request because they're a federal agency and I thought I might be able to get it from them. Finally I got a sheave of paper it was about 78, 80 pages long of the landowner list. However all of the private names had been blacked out and if you held it to the light you couldn't see through it either.
BRANCACCIO: You tried.
COOPER: Yeah I did. (LAUGHTER)
BRANCACCIO: So, during this crucial period, when you're trying to raise consciousness about this pipeline coming through people's communities, what you need is that key. The map. And you're saying is, they wouldn't give you the map, why?
MCCORMICK: Because of national security. Now, this was two months after 9/11. This was in, I believe, October or November of 2001. Policies, had changed. Where information that previously was available to the public it was something that all, anybody could access was now considered secret.
BRANCACCIO: But McCormick says that defies logic.
MCCORMICK: It's not as though once you have the pipeline, you can really keep it a secret. It's just not that type of thing. It's so obvious. Common sense says that once it's built, then you have essentially… it looks almost like a highway. It's a 75- to 100-foot-wide tract of land that has been excavated, and then is also marked. And every landowner, and every member of the community, everybody knows where it is. And it's miles and miles long.
BRANCACCIO: So this notion that sorry, we can't give you the details of the key map because of national security concerns, strikes you as what?
MCCORMICK: It strikes me as not the full story.
BRANCACCIO: This from a fairly button-downed guy. A former captain with the army rangers who once ran for Congress as a conservative Republican. He thinks reasonable public access to government information is crucial to democracy.
MCCORMICK: But what we were finding is this was having the effect of defeating our opportunity to organize people, to get people involved. And when we couldn't get an exact route, the momentum, the groups actually that were forming, essentially disbanded.
BRANCACCIO: With the community unable to organize effective opposition, the government approved the pipeline plan.
And things changed with that supposedly sensitive information about the pipeline's route.
BRANCACCIO: What kind of government secret could it be if these days, you can come into this local branch of the library here in Floyd, Virginia, and get a hold of this map, containing the precise route of the pipeline?
CHRISTOPHER SCHMITT: More and more secrecy is moving from an abstract concept to something that actually affects the daily lives of ordinary Americans.
BRANCACCIO: Christopher Schmitt is an investigative reporter at US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT. What happened to the citizens of Floyd County is just one example Schmitt and his editor Edward Pound have found in their five-month investigation into government secrecy.
SCHMITT: I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this shroud of secrecy is descending across the federal government. When you talk to people who see these things and watch these things and do business with the federal government, they'll tell you that the federal government is now the most closed that it's been in a long time.
BRANCACCIO: So, pipeline … example one.
Example two … airline safety. The public used to be able to learn about government enforcement actions against airlines, pilots or mechanics who screw up. No more. The Federal Aviation Administration has now made that information secret.
Or example three … consumer safety. The US NEWS investigation shows the Consumer Product Safety Commission has increasingly been denying public requests for information about product safety and recall activity.
SCHMITT: Even the people who classify things will tell you that things are too secret.
It becomes a political thing. It becomes a bureaucratic thing. It becomes a status thing. It becomes something other than actually trying to serve the intended purpose of the secrecy. No one would say that some secrecy isn't necessary. It always a matter of where the line is. And many would tell you now that the line has moved far too far.
BRANCACCIO: I suppose, though, a citizen who really wanted to get tough and get a hold of that information could possibly convince a court to order the government to disclose certain bits of information.
SCHMITT: Not actually. This administration has made a new national pastime out of fighting in the courts battles to keep information secret.
In fact, there's one agency, the Department of Homeland Security, which actually issued regulations which say that in certain circumstances if a court orders them to release information their employees are instructed to ignore the court order.
BRANCACCIO: One nonprofit group in Washington is leading the charge to make government more transparent and open to the public. It's called the Information Trust. It's headed by Scott Armstrong, an investigative journalist who's covered Washington for three decades. He says he's never seen secrecy at this level.
ARMSTRONG: The political actors in the administration, those who have a political reason to use 9/11, or to use homeland security issues have tried to sweep in a lot of information that the professionals that long-term career people don't consider to be sensitive.
BRANCACCIO: Armstrong is most alarmed by a whole new category of secrecy…homeland security information that's not classified, but is considered "sensitive" by the government.
Remember when former California Governor Gray Davis warned citizens that the Golden Gate Bridge was a possible terrorist target? Well, under a new law, revealing that kind of information could have landed Governor Davis in legal trouble, says Armstrong.
That's because the law requires people in possession of what the government considers sensitive information to sign a non-disclosure agreement. And if they reveal any of the information to the public, they could go to jail.
Armstrong says the law's effect could be sweeping.
ARMSTRONG: This is a horrifyingly large amount of information. And so, it is virtually uncontrollable. Once it starts, once the federal government puts something into the system, then all the other players that have signed nondisclosure agreements in responding to it, are responding within this secret system. They're obliged to.
BRANCACCIO: Armstrong estimates as many as 4 million people could be covered by the law: state and local officials, as well as "first responders" in emergencies firefighters, police, medical personnel.
ARMSTRONG: Almost all doctors, ultimately, will be required to sign such an agreement. Nurses. Hospital personnel. People involved in the communicable disease field, will not be able to talk about the very basic things that communities need reassurance on. Do we have enough vaccine, or treatments, or antidotes for Anthrax, or for some other disease, or for some biological… some chemical threat.
SCHMITT: One fellow who we talked about put it this way. Everybody sooner or later will have their Freedom of Information moment. One day you will look out your backyard and you will see a surveyor in your yard. And you will go out and you'll say, "What are you doing?" And they will tell you, "Oh, a highway's coming through here." And all of a sudden you care a lot about government information and you want to know everything about that highway and where it's going and how close to your house and how many cars and whatnot.
BRANCACCIO: So you go online, you pick up the phone, you try to find out about that highway. What's gonna happen?
SCHMITT: That's what you used to do. But increasingly you can't go online because government agencies are taking things off-line. Increasingly, you can't go to government offices because a lot of that stuff is being taken away. And so whether it's highway or a chemical facility or whatever, all of us will have some sort of public information or government secrecy moment.
BRANCACCIO: And sometimes that secrecy moment has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with health and well-being.
Case in point: cleaning up toxic pollution.
When citizens want to know which companies are dumping toxic chemicals in their neighborhoods, they can turn to a database at the Environmental Protection Agency.
SCHMITT: There's been pressure in those communities as a result. And literally billions of tons of toxics have been eliminated from the environment because of public pressure.
BRANCACCIO: But now, this kind of success may be in jeopardy. New legislation backed by the Bush administration could keep this important information secret from the public.
These days, secrecy in Washington is standard operating procedure. When we called over to the Department of Homeland Security just to ask for their address, the receptionist wouldn't tell us, saying, "Our physical location is something I am not obligated to give."
SCHMITT: We had one agency we saw had declined documents on what I've taken to calling the "Pester and Annoy Standard."
BRANCACCIO: How's that work?
SCHMITT: And that is, they said that they would… among the reasons that they would not provide information that someone wanted was that if they provided it then the people getting it would somehow be able to pester and annoy the government officials.
BRANCACCIO: That's an acceptable excuse?
SCHMITT: No, it's not. That is not… it doesn't appear anywhere in the law. The same folks also said that another reason that they would decline to provide the information was that if people got it, who knows what other questions they might ask based on what they learned.
BRANCACCIO: Usually, the public never learns whether these denials are reasonable. But sometimes the public gets a glimpse behind this veil of secrecy.
When the Department of Justice put out a report on its hiring and promotion of minorities, almost half of the report was electronically blacked out.
But an enterprising journalist was able to restore what the Justice Department had deleted.
And what he found under those blackouts was not sensitive, but embarrassing information that was critical of the Justice Department's own record on diversity.
One conclusion the Justice Department thought too sensitive to be revealed: "…minorities are significantly more likely than whites to cite stereotyping, harassment and racial tension as characteristics of the work climate."
But again, it's not always about embarrassment. Secrecy can also cost lives.
KHOU-TV ANCHOR: Tonight, we have an 11 News investigation revolving around tire trouble.
BRANCACCIO: Remember that awful story about Firestone tires coming apart while on the road? Three years ago, Houston TV station KHOU first focused public attention on the problem. In their broadcast, they interviewed Cynthia Jackson.
ANNA WERNER [on KHOU]: But as Jackson drove back north, something went horribly wrong.
CYNTHIA JACKSON [on KHOU]: As I went to change lanes, I heard a "pop."
BRANCACCIO: Jackson, a school choir director, had both of her legs amputated and lost her husband when a Firestone tire on her Ford Explorer came apart and the vehicle rolled-over back in 1997.
Jackson was just one victim. According to the Department of Transportation, more than 270 people died and 800 were injured in accidents in which faulty Firestone tires played a role.
But it wasn't until a flood of news reports that Firestone and Ford acted.
GARY CRIGGER: Bridgestone-Firestone is taking the extraordinary step of announcing a voluntary recall.
BRANCACCIO: It turns out, Firestone and Ford had known about the danger but kept the information hidden from the public.
And the federal Transportation Department had received some early warnings, such as this one from a state farm insurance analyst who had reported a spike in accidents. Yet the government took no action.
Congress reacted by creating an early warning system to catch problems sooner and to save lives.
Passed in 2000, the Tread Act required the auto industry to provide the government with information such as consumer complaints to manufacturers, warranty claims, and field reports from dealers.
One of the tread law's advocates has been Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and now the president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: The intent is to have an open, available source of information so consumers can not only contribute to it but can be saved by it too. So, they can look at it and determine whether or not there's a problem. And also, so the government can be monitored by the public to make sure that if there is a real problem here, they're going to act.
BRANCACCIO: The public's right to know, says Claybrook, is one of the law's cornerstones. But now the Department of Transportation has decided to keep that crucial safety information secret from the public.
CLAYBROOK: This is a double check system that was created by the Congress to work, work for consumers, work for oversight of the government. And now it's being destroyed by the Bush administration keeping everything secret for no good reason.
BRANCACCIO: No good reason, perhaps, but Claybrook believes there is an explanation.
CLAYBROOK: Because the auto companies objected to it. And the auto companies have huge sway in the Bush administration, not only with their financial contributions. But a former lobbyist is the Chief of Staff to the President.
BRANCACCIO: Andrew Card, President Bush's Chief of Staff is a former lobbyist for General Motors.
The auto companies say this is about protecting information that could help their competitors but Claybrook contends it's really about keeping damaging information secret.
CLAYBROOK: This is a matter of life and death. This is not something that is just esoteric and a potential issue of interest. This is real death and injury. And the impact on American families is huge.