Civil Liberties

Protecting BP From Your Eyes


Over the weekend, the government amped up the secrecy surrounding the BP spill:

See also this account of a ProPublica photographer harassed by the police, a story that strongly resembles the experience of videographer Drew Wheelan, blogged here late last month. For more tales of the government blocking access to information in the Gulf, see the ACLU's roundup here.

When the authorities try to centralize the flow of information, chances are good that they're centralizing much more than that. It's worth noting that the feds have not just waved away outside efforts to help but are making it difficult for the people who actually live in the affected areas to deal with the disaster. When the head of one town's volunteer fire department led an effort to set up a blockade of barges to keep oil out of the Magnolia River, for example, it amounted to an act of civil disobedience—the bureaucratic approval process just wasn't fast enough.

Sound familiar? Take a trip back to New Orleans in 2005:

[I]t seems more and more clear that, far from working closely with volunteers and rival authorities, the Department of Homeland Security–the giant new bureaucracy that absorbed the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2003–adopted a command-and-control approach that at times worked actively against the other responses. Anecdotes abound not just of well-qualified civilians being turned away from the disaster zone but of public employees being poorly deployed, such as the 1,400 firefighters who were assigned to do community relations work.

This is looking a lot like Barack Obama's Katrina after all. Not because the president was too slow to respond, as the first people to throw around the "Obama's Katrina" phrase meant by it, but because his team has been recreating the centralized, authoritarian approach that marked the last administration's response to the hurricane. Even the most ridiculous PR moments of the Katrina cleanup are being echoed today. As Mark Twain supposedly said, history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.