Thursday, August 23, 2007

NHTSA places gag order on its entire agency

I found this on both Carpetbagger, and The Washington Monthly. The original source story is through The New York Times, and it is just bizarre:

If you want to know something as simple as who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, don’t bother to ask the safety agency’s communications office. Without special permission, officials there are no longer allowed to provide information to reporters except on a background basis, which means it cannot be attributed to a spokesman.

Without such attribution, there are few circumstances under which most reporters will report such information. This makes for interesting dealings with the office charged with providing information about the nation’s top automotive safety agency.

So, I will end the suspense about the boss’s identity. The administrator is Nicole R. Nason, who took over on May 31, 2006, after she was appointed to the post by President Bush.

And it is she who put the big hush on one of the government’s most important safety agencies. I found this out recently when I asked to talk to an N.H.T.S.A. researcher about some technical safety issues in which he had a great deal of expertise. Agency officials told me I could talk to the expert on a background basis, but if I wanted to use any information or quotes from him, that would have to be worked out later with a N.H.T.S.A. official. The arrangement struck me as manipulative, and I declined to agree to it.

It seems that Ms. Nason has adopted a policy that has blocked virtually all of her staff — including the communications office — from providing any information to reporters on the record, which means that it can be attributed.

Nicole R. Nason took over as N.H.T.S.A. chief in 2006. (Photograph by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

As an alternative I was told I could interview Ms. Nason on the record (instead of the expert on the subject of my article). I declined, failing to see how her appointment as administrator — she was trained as a lawyer — made her a expert in that subject.

When I said I would like to talk to Ms. Nason on the record about her no-attribution policy, she was not available.

The agency’s new policy effectively means that some of the world’s top safety researchers are no longer allowed to talk to reporters or to be freely quoted about automotive safety issues that affect pretty much everybody.

“My God,” said Joan Claybrook, who was N.H.T.S.A. administrator from 1977 to 1981 and is now president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. Given that N.H.T.S.A. is the leading source of automotive safety information in the United States, its researchers are public officials and people are entitled to “know what information they have, whether it is on paper or in their heads,” Ms. Claybrook said.

The policy of allowing information to be attributed only to political appointees is intermittently enforced around other parts of the Department of Transportation, including the Federal Railroad Administration. But it is a radical change from the way N.H.T.S.A has operated for at least 20 years. In the past, reporters could talk to its experts and the agency was proud to discuss its research and accomplishments.

Ms. Nason felt it was necessary for N.H.T.S.A. to have a “central spokesperson” and “we were finding a lot of stuff did not need to be on the record,” David Kelly, her chief of staff, told me. He also insisted, after our telephone conversation, that he did not want to be quoted and had intended to speak only on background. (My notes show no such request.)

What we have here is a Ministry of Truth within the N.H.T.S.A that is being run by a Bush political apointee, Nicole R. Nason. Any attributed information to reporters has to go through Nason, who would then determine whether the release of such attributed information will politically benefit the Bush administration. This is beyond any type of Bush PR-campaign here. This is a program of spoon-feeding reporters Bush administration talking points, and hoping that the reporters would regurgitate them in their media. Even more, I'm guessing that Nason imposed this gag order on N.H.T.S.A officials just after the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and the subsequent media reports revealing that 77,000 bridges that are rated by the federal government as "structurally deficient." This is the type of information that the Bush administration certainly doesn't want published in the media, not when you consider how the Bush White House has wasted over $1 trillion dollars in its disastrous war in Iraq--money that could have been used to repair this nation's bridges and infrastructure. I'm also wondering if this gag rule has been imposed to keep more information on this Minneapolis bridge disaster secret out of the fear of lawsuits initiated by the families who have suffered from this disaster. Either way, we can now rename The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the Ministry of Truth.

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