Watt’s Buffonery: Deliberate Misdirection

James Watt is Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Interior and David Brinkley thinks he is the Administration’s leading fool. I think it is more accurate to say that he is the Reaganites’ leading decoy. For riot only does he take the heat off Mr. Reagan for what are clearly the President’s own anti-environmental and public land give-away policies, but he also takes the spotlight away from what he is doing deep inside the Interior Department.

Looking over the press reports of James Watt’s gaffes (e.g. the Beach Boys episode) and inanities (comparing environmentalists to Nazis and Communists), one notices a paucity of headline coverage on what he is doing with the one-third of America that comprise the public lands. His role of buffoon absorbs media attention more than his official position as trustee of a vast national treasure for present and future generations.

Consider the vast storehouse of mineral wealth under the public lands. Leasing such endowed lands provides the federal government with its largest source of revenue after federal taxes. Americans have a right to know what these minerals are, how much is produced, who controls the production and the amount of royalties remitted.

Elementary you might say. Why before Reagan, the Department of Interior published four volumes of information totaling over 1,000 pages answering such questions. Under Reagan-Watt, the Department has eliminated most of this data and compressed the remainder into a 72 page booklet. Even the American Petroleum Institute–the oil lobby in Washington–believes the booklet is inadequate.

Mr. Watt is not informing the American people how much uranium, geothermal steam or many other minerals are being produced on public lands, nor can they specifically determine if the royalties for this common wealth are reaching the Treasury.

But more than the public is being excluded. Other agencies inside and outside the Interior Department are being given the freeze. Our group, preparing a report on the federal lands, has learned that field officers of the Bureau of Land Management routinely complain to the Minerals Management Service that they cannot do their jobs because they lack sufficient information on mineral production.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) of the Congress has bridled. “Interior has been terrible in the last two years in terms of giving us information,” says one GAO official. Watt no longer provides the Department of Energy (DOE) with data on the value of the public’s natural gas produced on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). “We have to guess on the OCS data right now,” admits one employee of DOE’s Division of Resources and Natural Gas.

Watt, the decoy, boasts about his “Open-Administration Philosophy,” while the real Watt covers his Department with intimidating frost. An atmosphere of secrecy, intolerance and suspicion is pervasive. Career employees who, before Reagan-Watt, were responsive and made available public information, now refuse requests and are apprehensive about their jobs. One civil servant told our study group: “You don’t know what it is like around here. It’s vicious. If you talk to the wrong people, you are transferred into some unheard of job in the field or fired.” More than any other Cabinet Secretary, Watt has placed his operatives throughout and up and down the Department.

When governments which are indentured to corporate energy and other mineral interests close the door on the public’s access to information and personnel, a breeding ground for abuse and give-aways expands.

The situation has deteriorated so much that Congressman Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House Interior Committee’s Investigation Subcommittee is launching a probe. By the time it is over, Secretary Watt will be looking back on the Beach Boy dustup as a beach party by comparison.

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