Battle of Light and Dark

     As a young reporter in Los Angeles, I had easy access to city prosecutors under the long-ago lead of District Attorney John Van de Kamp, a Democrat.
     But then came California’s anti-crime politics and the election of Robert Philibosian, a Republican.
And the shades came down.
     Prosecutors who had commented freely in the past told me they had been told they could not talk to the press, upon pain of losing their jobs.
     So a reporter might expect the reverse in Washington D.C. with the election of Barack Obama who has made mighty statements about the need for openness in government. Early on, for example, he ordered that agencies presume documents are open for inspection under the Freedom of Information Act.
     That philosophy stands in complete contrast with the near-nutty fetish of secrecy in the Bush administration.
One might expect, in other words, that the shades have now gone up.
     But secrecy in government does not steal away so quickly. It runneth not from the forces of light.
     We at Courthouse News were covering a story a couple months ago about the conviction of a large poacher of protected fish on the east coast. The Department of Justice refused a request for an interview with the prosecutor – which was meant to delve into the larger problem of trying to protect the resources of the sea – and instead we got a boiler plate excuse that an investigation was under way.
     But the guys had been convicted! And the case was not exactly a big-time matter. I protested with the PR people at the DOJ and got a contrite email answer, but the story had long since run.
     So then – not sure why fish are the center of all these stories – so then we covered another story about a prosecution of smugglers of rare fish from Thailand out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Northern District of California.
     Our reporter again sought an interview with the prosecutor but got a call back from the press spokesman. He downplayed the story, saying these prosecutions “happen all the time.” He could add nothing about the case or the larger issues implicated, other than to say the U.S. Attorney would prosecute “to the fullest extent of the law” – boiler plate baloney.
     Our reporter, a young woman, said she could hear the spokesman getting angry as she kept asking questions. When I hear her account, I am thinking, “My God, man, why did you issue a press release, if you are going to run away from the story.”
     I haven’t gotten around to that letter of protest yet.
So now we are working on what looks like a great story. The Port of Anchorage is vastly expanding its size, a billion-dollar project, in the very waters that are home to the Beluga Whale, which, with a population down to 375, is in danger of extinction.
     The port expansion is proceeding through a no-bid contract awarded to a Republican campaign contributor (This is both a Bush administration contract and Alaska, a freighted and frightening combination) working with an ex-Democratic governor.
In addition, there has been no environmental impact statement for the massive project in the waters of the endangered whale. The environmentalists say it is as though “pixie dust” has been spread over the entire regulatory process.
     A supposedly “proprietary method” of construction used by the Republican money man justified the no bid contract – isn’t that a surprise! But it appears that this proprietary method which razes the sea bed is both more expensive than the traditional method using pilings and also substantially worse for the whales, because pilings would allow the whale’s food fish to thrive.
     So, this is a great news story, and one which sure raises some questions.
     Our Washington reporter directs a set of questions to the Department of Transportation. What does he get back? The initial response is absolute boiler plate, non-responsive stonewalling.
      But while the gears that close the doors to government information may turn slowly, and mysteriously, they do turn. A few minutes after that initial response from the Transportation Department, we get a pull-back of the first email. A couple days later, we get a series of probably evasive (which is fairly normal) but much more substantive answers.
     From this series of efforts to get someone in the Federal Government to answer a reporter’s questions, it would certainly appear that the forces of the Order of the Veil of Secrecy, Obfuscation and Stonewalling are only slowly giving way.
     The success of the new administration’s initiatives on an enormous map of policy remains in grave doubt. But it is made all the more doubtful by the federal government’s hankering for the dark.

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