Bush presidency: accent on secrecy, panelists say

Friday, March 16, 2007

WASHINGTON — Though President Bush may have many legacies once he leaves office, “one that is bound to be [is that] history will anoint him as the secrecy president,” a law professor and open-government advocate said today.

Speaking during the National FOI Day conference panel on “Access Priorities: What Congress Needs to Do,” David Vladeck said there must be an “attitudinal shift” within the current administration in order for real reform to occur.

Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University who has been litigating FOIA cases since 1976, cited the now-infamous Ashcroft and Card memos as evidence of the Bush administration’s tendency toward secrecy.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, shifting from the Clinton administration’s policy of disclosure, advised agencies not to release information if it was unclear whether FOIA exemptions applied. In 2002, then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card directed agencies to protect information that could aid the development or use of weapons of mass destruction or that could pose a threat to national security.

Vladeck said the “philosophical shift” initiated by those memos had had “enormous real-life consequences in the kinds of withholding determinations [an] agency makes and in the kind of decisions government lawyers make in defending FOIA cases.” To counteract this philosophy, Vladeck said, “there needs to be (an) attitudinal shift within the government that FOIA actually matters and that openness, not secrecy, ought to be a dominant objective of an administration.”

Panelist Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive echoed Vladeck’s concern. Noting that she was born the year FOIA was enacted, 1966, Fuchs said that as she entered her maturity, she “would like to think that the FOIA would enter into its own maturity,” but that unfortunately the law “really hasn’t been completely integrated and accepted by the federal government.”

Panelist Anna Laitin, lead assistant on FOIA issues for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said that in September 2004 her office released a report on secrecy within the Bush administration. Since then, she said, “secrecy has just increased.”

“The report was 81 pages when we released it. I fear what it would be if we tried to redo it now,” she said.

Although the Bush administration and Congress haven’t offered much hope to freedom-of-information advocates over the past few years, there has been a “surge of optimism” with the recent introduction of several open-government bills, said moderator Pete Weitzel, coordinator for the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

“This Sunshine Week, at least, there might be some real sunshine in store for us,” he said.

This week, five open-government measures have been moving through Congress: H.R. 1309 and S. 849, both of which would strengthen FOIA, H.R. 1254, which would require groups that raise funds for presidential libraries to release information about their donors, H.R. 1255, which would overturn a 2001 Bush decision that made it easier for presidents to shield their records, and H.R. 985, which would strengthen protections for federal whistleblowers.

Laitin said the overwhelming congressional support for the bills, which Bush has threatened to veto, “was a clear statement by both parties against the secrecy within the Bush administration.”

Panelist Laura Rychak said her organization, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, works closely with lawmakers to promote bills that strengthen FOIA.

For Sunshine Week, Rychak said, SGI gave members of the relevant congressional committees flashlights to “highlight the importance of sunshine” and also took out ads to tell Congress “now’s your moment to take a stand, especially with all this legislative momentum this week, and vote for meaningful FOIA reform.”

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