Thursday, January 22, 2009

Presidential Secrecy Smackdown

A sign that always had ominous overtones in the maladministration just past was its cloak of secrecy. As we learned, monstrous activities were indeed concealed under that cover. Yesterday, President Obama removed a major obstacle to public understanding by releasing presidential papers without the interminable delays that the former cretin in chief had instituted.

The secrecy that began with Darth's meeting to formulate energy policy, refusing to tell what influences were being allowed to make energy policy for the American public, foreshadowed the total power vacuum that the public suffered during the eight years of the oilmen from Texas. The wildly soaring prices of oil were the origin of the financial turmoil now, sucking all the buying power from working people for their transportation needs.

The faculty, alumni, and students at SMU were particularly troubled by the threat of a secret presence on campus that was part of the proposed library. Today that library still has a fight in court, as it has never gained title to the land it has announced it will build on.

A break with the disreputable past is a wonderful sign of President Obama's attitude toward the public. Openness and welcome is the exact opposite of the past eight years of disdain. The public interest has come into a new regard at the White House.

President Barack Obama began dismantling the Bush legacy Wednesday, using his first full day to overturn an order that let ex-presidents seal their papers forever.

It was one of a number of big and small steps by the new president that, taken together, amounted to a slashing denunciation of his predecessor – from an order halting military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to one meant to make unclassified records more readily available to the public.

"It is a new day," said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History, one of scores of groups that had complained for years about the Bush order regarding White House records. "This ... makes it much more difficult for a former president to shape his legacy."
Obama vowed during the campaign to overturn the order, as part of a government "transparency" agenda. Open-government advocates called it a pleasant surprise that he put a focus on the issue so soon after taking office.

"This is the earliest and probably the most emphatic call for more open government from any president," said Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

While a matter of reading up on official records may seem like a minor matter to many in the public, the matters of law in this event have been monumental. The maladministration just ended usurped law by an executive order, and the Department of "Justice" issued a directive that refusal to produce papers that were demanded under constitutional law would receive the support of that politicised Department. The subjugation of our laws to the whimsy of presidents was established in that proceeding by war criminals in high office. When they acted in opposition to the public interest, they declared their own freedom from the laws they used against the rest of us.

Bush's executive order is titled "Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act." But rather than "implementing" that law, the order abrogates the core principles of the act and violates both its spirit and letter.

The Presidential Records Act was created out of the legal morass surrounding the Watergate scandals and legitimate congressional fears that former president Nixon would never allow public access to the records of his administration. The legislation established once and for all -- or so we thought -- the principle that presidential papers represent the official records of activity by the highest office in our government of, by, and for the people -- and that they therefore belong to the U.S. government and, by extension, its citizens. The act further mandates that management of, custody of and access to such records should be governed on behalf of the nation by the archivist of the United States.
And there's more. On Oct. 16, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum telling federal agencies that when they decide to withhold records in response to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests, they can "be assured" that the Department of Justice will defend their decisions. The memorandum supersedes a 1993 directive by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, directing federal agencies to resolve ambiguous situations in favor of openness. Though Ashcroft's memo suggested that the present reversal on FOIA requests was necessary for protecting "national security, enhancing the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies, protecting sensitive business information and, not least, preserving personal privacy," the fact is that these categories of information are already exempted from release under our freedom of information laws. Like Bush's executive order, Ashcroft's FOIA memorandum has the effect of limiting our ability as citizens to know what our government is doing, and why.

The end of this failed executive branch should provide a lesson for all times, and its records should be public property. We have paid with lives and treasure, and debt stretching off into a distant future, for the criminal acts, and intent, of these reprehensible thieves. We can rightly claim ownership of the records of their misdeeds.

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