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timely or comprehensive. Often “ as in the case of the controversies
over the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iraq “ the storm came too late
to prevent harm. Allegations of abuse in prisons run by the U.S. mili-
tary could be found in the American press throughout 2003, but it was
not until April 2004 that a combination of circumstances ¬nally put
pressure on the Bush administration to disclose much more about its
policies. And even then, the effect of the maelstrom was incomplete:
While the Army™s handling of detainees was closely examined, the
CIA™s treatment of detainees suffered from “a complete absence of
scrutiny”155 despite credible evidence of serious abuses.
Furthermore, there were many areas in which the Bush admin-
istration did succeed in rolling back openness. We do not have to
believe that Bush administration policies were “unprecedented” or
“worse than Watergate” in order to reach the conclusion that they
were, nevertheless, deeply troubling. The administration™s secretive-
ness undermined the political and civil rights of Americans, as well as
the human rights of many others affected by the exercise of American
power. National security was compromised by the secrecy that sur-
rounded war planning and efforts to improve homeland security.
Nor was it reasonable to believe that the policymakers in the Bush
administration would conclude from their experience that efforts to
reduce transparency had been wholly misguided. The administration
may have underestimated how dif¬cult it would be to restore presi-
dential prerogatives; Donald Rumsfeld™s moment of apparent bewil-
derment before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in
May 2004 was probably genuine. Nevertheless, of¬cials who entered

Regime Change

into power in 2001 with a belief that the authority of the executive
had been badly compromised might have viewed the following four
years as a vivid demonstration that the problem was even worse than
expected; even in a moment of national crisis, Gulliver was kept down
by Lilliputians. The prescription in this case was clear: not a retreat,
but an intensi¬ed and more clever campaign to reclaim the zone of


Cultural change in Whitehall is exactly like turning round the classic
ocean liner. Opening up Whitehall and introducing freedom of
information is a titanic task.
“ Charles Falconer, UK Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, 2004.

In the United Kingdom, debate about the way in which the Labour
government of Prime Minister Tony Blair had managed intelligence
about the threat posed by Iraq quickly took a tragic turn. In May
2003, the British Broadcasting Corporation featured an interview
with journalist Andrew Gilligan in which he alleged, based on infor-
mation from an unnamed source, that the government™s pre-war intel-
ligence brief had been “sexed up” with false information. The Blair
government reacted furiously against the allegation. When the coun-
try™s top WMD scientist, David Kelly, revealed to his superiors that
he might be Gilligan™s source but that Gilligan had misconstrued his
statements, senior Blair advisors effectively leaked Kelly™s name to
the media.1 After a week at the center of an intense controversy, Kelly
committed suicide. Prime Minister Blair appointed a special investi-
gation “ the Hutton Inquiry “ to examine the events leading to Kelly™s
In a country notorious for of¬cial secrecy, the Hutton Inquiry
was remarkable. Internal government documents “ memoranda, e-
mail, diaries “ written with extraordinary candor only weeks before
were not only handed to the inquiry, they were posted on the inter-
net for universal inspection.2 Lord Hutton™s report concluded that the
government had not treated Kelly unfairly, and that the intelligence
brief had not been “sexed up” “ if the phrase implied the deliberate

Message Discipline

inclusion of false intelligence.3 In a looser sense, however, the charge
clearly held. Media staff in the Prime Minister™s of¬ce had been deeply
involved in the drafting of the dossier, pushing intelligence staff to
make a case against Iraq that would produce compelling media cov-
erage. Blair™s senior press of¬cer had even chaired a meeting of the
Joint Intelligence Committee charged with preparing the brief.4 The
usually nuanced language of intelligence analysis, said commentator
Peter Riddell, had clashed with “the megaphone communications of
˜spin doctors™ and the twenty-four-hour news cycle.”5
That Blair™s media advisors had played such a critical role was, for
most observers, no surprise at all. Even before the Iraq crisis the Blair
government was criticized for a culture of “top-down centralism” and
a preoccupation with imposing “message discipline” in government.6
The number of political appointees with a “license to spin” grew sub-
stantially after Labour™s election in 1997.7 Career civil servants work-
ing in public relations were pressured to present the government™s
program more forcefully, leading to widespread complaints about
their politicization.8 Overall authority for communications functions
was concentrated within the Prime Minister™s Of¬ce even more than
it had been under preceding Conservative governments, with the task
of news management tightly controlled by Blair™s press secretary,
Alastair Campbell.9 Campbell, one commentator wrote, “realized
that contemporary journalism, brutally competitive and relying on
the day-by-day manufacture of sensational, attention-grabbing head-
lines . . . had come to constitute a permanent obstacle to the smooth
practice of government.”10
However, the Labour government™s program was not without its
paradoxes. It had been elected in 1997 on a promise to undertake
broad constitutional reforms intended to diffuse the power of the
central government. Some reforms (such as new national assemblies
for Scotland and Wales) had been completed; some (such as reform
of the electoral system) had been abandoned; some (such as reform
of the House of Lords) were mired in a no-man™s-land. One that had
survived, scheduled to go into force eight years after Labour™s 1997
election, was the Freedom of Information Act.
The Blair government had once made bold promises about the
new law. In 1997, Blair himself said that it would break down the
“traditional culture of secrecy” within the UK government and pro-
duce a “fundamental and vital change in the relationship between

Blacked Out

government and governed”11 ; in 1999, Home Secretary Jack Straw
lauded the law as a landmark in constitutional history that would
“transform the default setting” of secrecy in government.12 The gov-
ernment also anticipated that after the date of implementation “
January 2005 “ departments would administer the law in a highly
decentralized way: Requests for information would be received and
processed “at a local level, by the relevant policy of¬cial.”13
The tension between these bold promises on openness and the gov-
ernment™s own tendency to centralize control over the out¬‚ow of infor-
mation seemed to go unrecognized. The government had promised a
much freer ¬‚ow of information, with decisions on access being made
at low levels of the bureaucracy. However, experience from other
countries made clear that the new law would be used extensively
by journalists, legislators, and advocacy groups seeking information
for the purpose of scrutinizing or embarrassing the government or
shaping its policy agenda. How would a top-heavy public relations
system respond as the Freedom of Information Act began to corrode
its foundations?

The center cannot hold
The United Kingdom was not the ¬rst country to wrestle with this
question. In 1997, the Irish government had adopted its own Freedom
of Information Act. At ¬rst blush, there were similarities between the
history of the two laws. As in the UK, the Irish legislation was intro-
duced by a new center“left government “ the “Rainbow Coalition”
of the Fine Gael, Labour, and Democratic Left parties “ as part of
a program of constitutional modernization. The coalition™s commit-
ment to freedom of information was meant to signal a break from the
Fianna Fail government, which had invoked the doctrine of cabinet
con¬dentiality to withhold information from a judicial inquiry into
allegations of of¬cial corruption, and eventually collapsed following
revelations that the prime minister had withheld information from
the parliament in a controversy over the extradition of a pedophile
priest.14 The new law promised an end to the “antiquated procedures
of secrecy” in the Irish government.15
Irish journalists became early and enthusiastic users of the new
law, ¬ling over 7,000 requests “ roughly one-¬fth of the total sent
to central government “ in its ¬rst ¬ve years.16 The Irish Times

Message Discipline

showed that the European Investment Bank had expressed concern
to Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey about his attempt to appoint
to the Bank™s board a judge who had been forced to resign from the
bench following allegations of judicial misconduct. Later the Times
revealed that civil servants had called the case for a new national sta-
dium (soon nicknamed the ˜Bertie Bowl™) proposed by Prime Minister
Bertie Ahern “¬‚imsy.” (The project was cancelled.) The Irish Sun pub-
lished documents that suggested McCreevey had misled voters about
the state of public ¬nances before the 2002 election, prompting calls
for his resignation. Other documents revealed con¬‚ict between the
¬nance and health ministers over the control of health service costs,
and concessions by the education minister in negotiations with the
Catholic Church over compensation of abuse victims.
Within the government, frustration over the law began to mount.
In 1999, an internal committee proposed new restrictions on “large
and disruptive” requests for information.17 In 2002 the coun-
try™s Information Commissioner, Kevin Murphy “ an independent
of¬cer responsible for investigating complaints about denial of
information “ acknowledged that many public servants were exas-
perated by news stories that used government documents “in a selec-
tive, unfair or sensationalist manner.”18 Murphy™s successor, Emily
O™Reilly, a former journalist, speculated that ministers “felt that FOI
had made governing a democracy even less easy.”19 Justice Minister
Michael McDowell con¬rmed the speculation, telling a radio audi-
ence that the law prevented frank conversation inside government:

One of the consequences of the Freedom of Information Act which
isn™t generally appreciated is the huge negative effect it has had
on the process of government itself. Unless you are sitting at a
minister™s desk . . . you would not be aware of the extent to which
it has corroded the process of government.20

Some government of¬cials began to develop techniques for limit-
ing the damage done by the release of information under the law. Jour-
nalists complained that government departments encouraged other
reporters to duplicate their requests for documents “ a step that
heightened the department™s ability to ensure a “more sympathetic
spin” on the story.21 The Justice Minister himself acknowledged that
he had “pre-released” information requested by opposition politicians
to friendly journalists, telling the Parliament that he would not allow

Blacked Out

“my opponents to spin against me without having at least the oppor-
tunity to put my side of the story into the public domain.”22 One
government department began posting details about new requests,
including journalists™ identities, on its website, a practice the depart-
ment defended as an advance in transparency but journalists con-
demned as a tactic to reduce the “scoop value” of an information
In 2002, the coalition government went even further. Acting on
the Prime Minister™s instructions, a group of senior civil servants
drafted new restrictions that were incorporated into a bill to amend
the FOI Act. The bill was introduced in March 2003, only weeks
before a provision of the law allowing access to ¬ve-year-old Cabinet
records was scheduled to go into effect. The amended law extended
the delay in releasing Cabinet records to ten years, and broadened
the Cabinet con¬dentiality rule to include advisory committees that
did not include a Cabinet minister at all. Ministers were allowed
to block requests for information relating to other deliberative pro-
cesses within the public service, and national security restrictions
were toughened as well.24
The amended law also introduced new fees for information
requests: 15 euros for an application, 75 euros to have a department
reconsider its decision on denial of information, and 150 euros for an
appeal to the Information Commissioner. The fees had a predictably
sharp impact on the demand for information. A year later, the Com-
missioner reported that requests for information had declined by over
50 percent. Requests by journalists dropped more precipitously “ over
80 percent within the space of a year.25 The changes, an opposition
critic charged, “rendered the whole concept of Freedom of Informa-
tion almost useless.”26

The United Kingdom and Ireland were latecomers to the concept
of freedom of information. Canada, by contrast, was not. Through-
out the 1970s, a combination of circumstances “ frustration over
the declining power of Parliament,27 deteriorating economic perfor-
mance, constitutional instability, ¬scal indiscipline, and abuses of
power by the national police force “ contributed to disillusionment
with central government in Canada. One of the consequences was

Message Discipline

mounting pressure for adoption of a version of the United States™
Freedom of Information Act. “What we are talking about is power,”
said Joe Clark, leader of the Conservative opposition that pushed for
the law:

We are talking about the reality that real power is limited to those
who have facts. In a democracy that power and that information
should be shared broadly. In Canada today they are not, and to that
degree we are no longer a democracy in any sensible sense of that
word. There is excessive power concentrated in the hands of those


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