details Clinton administration's open-government achievements
By John Podesta
Former White House chief of staff
President Clintonís former chief of staff says that despite
the subpoena-plagued administrationís reputation for holding information
close to the vest, it nonetheless made great strides towards increasing
public access to millions of pages of government files.
who received the James Madison Award on March 16 at the National
Freedom of Information Day conference at The Freedom Forum World
Center, said in his acceptance speech
that "the protection of openness in government" had been "a guiding
principle during my three decades in public service."
March 16 marked the birthday of James Madison as well as the 35th
anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, Podesta said that
Madison "dedicated his political career to building a Constitution,
a Bill of Rights, and a government that protects the civil liberties
of its citizens. Madison called the 'diffusion of information ...
the best aliment to true liberty' and (said) that 'a popular government
without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but
a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.'
"We often take
those words of Madison for granted ó but they are worth repeating
The United Statesí
FOIA policies are a model for other nations, Podesta said.
success can be seen in the fact that other democracies, newer democracies
around the world, are building their laws, their governments and
their societies around the principle of the publicís right to know.
From Hungary to the Czech Republic to South Africa, you see that
principle enshrined into law by new democracies emerging from days
of tyranny, terror and secrecy."
that the Clinton administration made great efforts to both increase
public access to government information and declassify secret files.
He cited several significant accomplishments, including:
- A commitment
to retaining electronic records, including e-mail records.
- An executive
order that declassified about 45 million pages of World War II
and Vietnam War-era documents nearly 15% of the National
Archivesí classified materials.
of overhead images from the Corona, Argon and Lanyard intelligence
satellite missions: "historic documents that will be of great
value to scholars, as well as to the natural resource and environmental
communities," Podesta noted.
of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which made millions
of pages of public information available on the Internet.
of the work of the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board,
which released more than 27,000 previously secret assassination
records, and obtained agenciesí consent to release an additional
33,000-plus assassination records.
the scandal over last-minute presidential pardons, Podesta said,
"Much has been written during the past few months about the decisions
the president made on Jan. 19. Perhaps itís worth noting that he
also, on that date, decided the last two appeals of the Assassination
Review Board, ordering the release of previously undisclosed records
of the Presidentís Foreign Intelligence Review Board and Secret
But by far the
administrationís greatest accomplishments in open access, Podesta
said, were Executive Order 12958, which set tougher standards for
classifying documents, and the veto of the Official Secrets Act.
Clinton signed the executive order, a tiny minority of classified
documents only 5 percent had a fixed declassification
date," he said. Since then, "10 times that number are now marked
for declassification in 10 years or less."
The order "resulted
in the declassification of 800 million pages of historically valuable
records, with the prospect of many hundreds of millions more pages
to be declassified in the next few years. To give you a bit of a
comparison, in the previous 15 years, the government had declassified
a total of 188 million pages."
praised his former boss for vetoing the Official Secrets Act, despite
intense pressure from many in national security professions.
disclosures can be extraordinarily harmful to the United States'
national security interests and ... far too many such disclosures
occur," Podesta said. "They damage our intelligence relationships
abroad, compromise intelligence gathering, jeopardize lives, and
increase the threat of terrorism."
Clinton believed that had he signed that provision into law, it
would have a chilling effect on legitimate activities, ranging from
discouraging government officials from engaging in appropriate public
discussion to stopping former government officials from teaching,
writing or engaging in any activity aimed at public understanding
of complex issues for fear of getting snared in the actís broad
the veto was particularly courageous because it came only a few
days before election day, and because most of Clintonís national
security advisers supported the act.
on the Bush administration to continue to support freedom of information
to declassify historically valuable documents.
the Human Rights Information Act, which would facilitate the release
of classified documents regarding human rights abuses.
the publicís right to know with legitimate security concerns by
protecting computer systems from unauthorized access to classified
The James Madison
Award is presented by the American Library Association. Podesta
is the 12th recipient of the award, which is given each year on
FOI Day to recognize those who champion access to government information
and the publicís right to know.