Wednesday, January 06, 2010

More Sunshine, Please

Candidate Barack Obama proclaimed that there were too many secrets in Washington and promised to change that. Recently, President Barack Obama took a step to do just that by changing the rules on classified information. Unfortunately, according to Jon Wiener, it was a baby step. From the Los Angeles Times:

...Last week, Obama announced he was replacing Bush's executive order on classified documents with a new one designed to reduce secrecy. Obama's policies are a distinct improvement, but they don't really solve the underlying problem.

The basic idea is a simple one. As Obama said in the order: "Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government." Officials rely on secrecy to avoid being held responsible for their failures and to conceal illegality and misconduct -- waterboarding of suspected terrorists, for example. If practices like waterboarding are a good idea, the details of why, when, how and who should be knowable and defendable in public debate. That's the principle behind the Freedom of Information Act, which permits "any person" to request government documents.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the president's order doesn't go far enough to stop the delaying tactics of the various agencies when it comes to declassifying millions of documents, some more than 50 years old. The even worse news is that President Obama has extended the secrecy rules in his own administration. The excuse is the perennial one: the president, the vice-president, and now those commissions appointed by the president need to be able to meet and confer in an atmosphere of frankness which would be impossible if every word were reported to the public. It wouldn't be prudent. That's how the last administration got away with its disastrous energy policy. It's also the way the administration got away with adding kidnapping and torture to its arsenal of weapons.

Mr. Wiener quite properly suggests that more must be done if we are to remain a viable democracy. Here are a couple of his suggestions:

To start, all documents more than 25 years old should be automatically declassified. Cold War secrets are irrelevant in today's world. We don't need to spend taxpayer dollars going through these documents page by page. (In fact, a Department of Defense task force concluded that "perhaps 90%" of technical and scientific information could be safely revealed within five years of classification.)

Then we need a requirement that declassification rules serve the public's right to know. Without such a directive, it will be much easier for the Obama administration to continue to keep secret aspects of Bush-era national security policy. Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, has a list: "The CIA is still withholding documents about its rendition, detention and interrogation program. The Justice Department is still withholding the legal memos that supplied the basis for the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. The Defense Department is still withholding the interrogation directives used by special forces in Afghanistan." We need this information if we are to avoid repeating abuses from the past and to evaluate the wisdom of government policy in the present.

From you lips, Mr. Wiener. From your lips ...

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home