Pundits from both major parties agree that--aside from the Nixon administration- - the Bush group is the most secretive administration to date. Want to see the federal government's regulation that authorizes airport security personnel to pat you down before boarding a plane? No chance--it's a secret rule. Got arrested by the thought police and held without charges? You might never even know why you were taken into custody; it could be a national security matter and therefore classified.

Hit the computer and surf the web.

As official news sources become more and more vacuous, savvy Internet users are stepping up to fill the information void. These "netizens" use Freedom of Information Act requests, lawsuits, and good old-fashioned elbow grease to ferret out government secrets and publicize the documents through websites and e-mail news services. And the things they find are amazing.

Search engine Google, for instance, has developed a government-specific search tool that probes the dusty corners of federal archives to bring you all kinds of interesting tidbits. Want to give Condi Rice a call? You can easily dig up her
office number. How about perusing an Al-Qaeda training manual taken from a terrorist's "guest house"? Or read PDFs of the handwritten diaries of Oliver North (who, interestingly, serves as Honorary Chairman of Freedom Alliance, a conservative organization "committed to strengthen morality in our public institutions and restoring honesty and integrity to our political system").

It's all just a mouse click away.

Then there are the downright wacky findings. Research from the website, an online encyclopedia of government secrets, shows that aerial photos of the White House have been PhotoShopped post-9/11 with fake trees obscuring the locations of surrounding driveways, gardens, and even the swimming pool. Or the Centers for Disease Control's disease trading cards, whose ulcer edition has been preserved for posterity on And be sure to check out the Air Force research report recommending $7.5 million in funding to study psychic teleportation, recently reported by the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy website.

Aside from just providing interesting reading, these services are also helping police our leaders. In 2004, pressure from watchdog groups helped prompt the release of a briefing that President Bush received one month before 9/11, warning that Osama bin Laden was "determined to strike inside the U.S." The document later became a centerpiece of congressional questioning of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice over how much Bush knew about Al-Qaeda's designs on attacking America. The people behind Project on Government Secrecy are also fighting to have the CIA make public its budget.

Services such as the
Electronic Privacy Information Center's weekly e-newsletter also provide useful tips for average citizens. A recent edition alerted readers to the fact that personal credit reports are now available in fourteen western states, meaning that residents can monitor their own credit and guard against identity theft without buying expensive reports from credit services. The notice is particularly valuable given that, as EPIC notes, many credit agencies have blocked links to the free reports website. If not for the Center's efforts, many Americans might never have heard about the service.

Some efforts to daylight sensitive information have met with controversy, such as Cryptome's publishing of lists of intelligence agents' names, pictures of vulnerable gas mains in New York City, and maps of government officials' homes. But the website's proprietor John Young defends his content, saying he's merely collecting information that's out there for anyone with a computer to find. When asked about terrorists using his site, he told Wired, "We aren't experts, so if we can find it... they are almost certain to have it already." Young went on to say that his work is aimed at debunking the myth that hiding information will keep America safe.

And the government still has several remedies to keep sensitive information from the populace. Although the Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool for watchdog groups, it is bound by a host of exemptions. A "national security" clause, for example, prevents citizens from obtaining the latest info on troop movements in Iraq. Rules on memos and personal documents keep us from ordering up President Bush's notes from the latest lunch meeting, or Donald Rumsfeld's medical records. In fact, White House Executive Office staff are completely exempt from requests, as are Congress and the Federal Courts. And if all that fails, officials can foil FOIA by passing a statute making particular information confidential, as is the case with data on the structure of the CIA.

Given that such broad powers still give government a tight rein on information about its inner workings, the efforts of watchdog websites seem like a useful counterbalance. Unless of course, you believe that federal agencies need no oversight as they pursue their valuable work on psychic teleportation.

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Posted 03-21-2005 5:18 PM by Doug Casey