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EDITORIAL: Secret agency

The more a government seeks refuge in secrecy, the less credibility it has with the people it serves. The longer a government refuses to answer basic questions about public business, the more suspicious taxpayers become.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management was angering ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts long before April’s Bundy ranch blowup in Bunkerville, thanks to arbitrary and underhanded policy decisions that in some cases violated the law. In recent years, the agency has been sued for ignoring the law in its handling of wild horses, and it lost a lawsuit over water and grazing rights in which an administrator was found to have engaged in witness intimidation. The BLM has justifiably earned a reputation as a hopelessly unresponsive agency long on arrogance and short on accountability.

So when the agency mobilized a small army, helicopters included, to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle and end a decades-long grazing dispute, then abandoned the effort in order to avoid a violent confrontation with Mr. Bundy’s supporters, all kinds of questions needed to be answered.

How much money was wasted on the aborted roundup? How was the roundup planned? What kind of guidance did local BLM officials get in handling potential armed resistance? Who had the great idea to create a “First Amendment area”? And once the entire operation went sideways, how did officials reach the decision to back down? Transparency would go a long way toward reducing tension on rangelands, helping the government reach less heavy-handed solutions and rebuilding some trust between Washington and rural communities.

Not surprisingly, the BLM refuses to answer these questions. The agency won’t even provide the public records that would answer these questions.

For more than two months, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has been submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to the BLM to learn exactly how the roundup came together and fell apart. A new round of requests went out Tuesday seeking email messages between key officials from April 1 to April 13, a period covering the Bundy ranch standoff. Last month, the BLM rejected the newspaper’s requests because of their alleged “broad and general nature.” The agency is stalling.

On June 12, the public land advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the BLM in federal court in Washington because the agency ignored the organization’s requests for information on the Bundy ranch debacle. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Steve Tetreault, PEER also wants to know how many threats and attacks BLM employees endured in 2013, a figure the agency had reported annually since 1996, as well as how many criminal referrals the BLM submitted to federal prosecutors following the Bundy standoff.

“Parts of the Sagebrush West are beginning to resemble Eastern Ukraine,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch told Mr. Tetreault, adding that BLM secrecy is breeding conspiracy theories on rangelands. “To tamp down the rumor mill fueling these high-profile incidents, the BLM should be communicating more with the public, not less.”

Exactly. The BLM has stripped agency logos from vehicles, told employees to stop wearing insignias or uniforms, and advised them against traveling alone. The BLM might as well build bunkers across the West. How, exactly, is inaccessibility and suspicion supposed to make things better? And what is the agency trying to hide?

If White House emails on the Benghazi terrorist attack and IRS emails on the targeting of conservative tax-exempt organizations are public records under the Freedom of Information Act, BLM records on a roundup certainly are. This isn’t a national security matter. It’s bureaucratic insecurity. And sunshine is the only remedy.

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