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Secrecy foes continue push for government openness

Analysis

By Deb Riechmann
The Associated Press

04.03.02

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WASHINGTON — Washington's secret-busters are used to long odds — it's always Big Government vs. Little Them.

Even so, they've been able over the years to make the CIA budget public (a battle won, then lost), get the government to share information on environmental hazards and keep White House officials from pressing the delete button on e-mails in the last days of the Reagan administration.

But these are especially tough times for exposing what government is up to.

The Bush administration is secretive by nature and even more so by circumstance: Defining the boundaries of openness and secrecy has gotten more difficult since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the 1980s, Gary Bass won accolades for helping get a right-to-know law passed, giving the public access to environmental information on government databases.

Since Sept. 11, he's been getting hate mail from people who think he is aiding terrorists by trying to keep the information spigot open. One person wondered "how much blood will be on your hands," said Bass, director of OMB Watch, which keeps an eye on the White House Office of Management and Budget.

"The biggest battle now is the slippage from right-to-know to need-to-know," said Bass.

Steven Aftergood once helped persuade the government to detail the CIA's budget, only to see the victory reversed. He says prying secrets from the feds is like detective work without the gumshoe glamour or shootouts.

"There's not much sex and violence, but there are unexpected discoveries and leads to track down," said Aftergood, who is with the Federation of American Scientists. "That's what makes the work exciting."

The excitement comes in measured steps, though.

"You need to have the endurance to get past the first obstacle — the glacial pace," he said. "Beyond that, you have to be a kind of library rat."

The secret-busters are well aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of what they do.

Kate Martin is still amazed that she and a fellow lawyer, armed with a word processor and a lot of nerve, were able to face off against a dozen government lawyers in 1989 and win.

The two succeeded in stopping White House officials from deleting e-mails on President Reagan's last full day in office. They argued these records should be preserved along with the rest of Reagan's papers.

Martin, now director of the Center for National Security Studies at the George Washington University, today is a lead attorney in a Freedom of Information Act case seeking the disclosure of the identities of hundreds of individuals who were arrested and jailed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Because of the clampdown, there's a lot people don't know, on top of the volume of material they haven't been able to squeeze out of the government in the past.

"The objective of this administration is to cut back as far as it can on openness," said David Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which has fought some 300 lawsuits challenging government secrecy since 1972.

"You see it with respect to Congress, the public," he said, "and much of it predates 9-11."

Among the ongoing battles in the war on government secrecy:

  • The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has sued Vice President Dick Cheney, seeking the disclosure of energy company officials who met with Cheney's White House energy policy task force. The White House says the GAO overstepped its bounds in seeking information on the confidential advice given to the vice president.

  • The Federation of American Scientists sued to get the Clinton administration to declassify the CIA budget total. The figure was released for fiscal years 1997 and 1998, but a federal judge in 1999 ruled that the FOIA did not compel the CIA to divulge the 1999 total. The federation is pursuing the disclosure of intelligence spending.

  • The James Madison Project, a nonprofit group that advocates government openness, filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking the release of the six oldest U.S. classified documents at the National Archives. The documents from 1917 and 1918 reportedly contain formulas for making and detecting secret ink. The CIA says disclosing them would jeopardize formulas still in use.

  • Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee have sued to obtain access to adjusted data from the 2000 census. Supporters claim those figures give a more accurate count of minorities. The Census Bureau refuses to release it, saying it contains errors that would taint the raw head count. The bureau maintains the 2000 undercount was less severe than any previous censuses. Political parties and civil rights groups could use adjusted data, if released, in other lawsuits over state redistricting plans.

Since Sept. 11, however, even the secret-busters are taking a second look at what they're making it easier for the public to access.

Aftergood, who has posted a trove of online information about U.S. weapons and strategic installations, deleted floor plans of nuclear weapons storage sites from his group's Web site after the attacks.

"I take the administration's actions to be mostly in good faith," Aftergood said. "There are people out there intent on killing Americans, and they are trying to respond accordingly."

But the wider goal of getting out the most information remains.

"Information is power, and if you want to participate in the political process, access to information is a prerequisite," he said.

Over the years, hundreds of millions of pages of government records have been released as the result of federal law, freedom-of-information lawsuits and other dogged pursuits.

Greatest hits include President Nixon's papers and tapes and records about the assassination of President Kennedy.

There are hundreds of other lesser-known examples: grand jury records in the spy case of Alger Hiss; thousands of pages from notebooks kept by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the Iran-contra scandal; documents revealing the risks of silicone breast implants; names of companies that made shoddy air bags.

Steven Garfinkel was once a gatekeeper of government information as director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees security classification programs. Just before he retired in December, he joked he was a "government hack defending the right of the government to keep information secret."

"I leave government most proud of having protected every bit of the classified information in which I have been entrusted," Garfinkel said.

But he conceded: "No one can be expected to take secrecy seriously if far too much information that is no longer sensitive remains classified."

Related

A matter of balance: Secrecy doesn't guarantee security
By Ken Paulson Using the terrorist attacks as justification for this new wave of efforts to close public records would be too easy — and misleading.  03.24.02

Open-government advocate sues CIA for budget figures
Steven Aftergood says disclosing how much money government spends on intelligence operations cannot damage national security.  06.13.02

Researchers stymied by clampdown on government records
Some scientists say post-Sept. 11 records restrictions have eliminated access to information vital to their studies.  10.15.02

White House puts new controls on federal Web sites
Open-government advocates worry directive limiting access to information about weapons of mass destruction could be used to withhold array of other material.  03.22.02

Open-government advocates see 'epidemic of official secrecy'
Analysis No White House can arbitrarily withhold information and expect to maintain public confidence, says Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood.  11.15.01

Louisiana lawmakers pass anti-terrorism bill
Legislature sends measure to governor despite complaints it would create veil of secrecy, infringe on residents' constitutional rights.  04.18.02

Public records tougher to view since Sept. 11
Culture of secrecy that traditionally has pervaded federal government was magnified after last year's terrorist attacks, panelists say.  05.09.02

Newspaper editors join to battle threats to FOI
ASNE, APME meet to consider ways to deal with increasing tendency of governments to withhold information and to make previously available records secret.  06.12.02

2002 National FOI Day resources
Material from March 15 conference, 'Access & Security in a Time of Crisis.'  03.18.02

Many new records laws balance free-speech, security concerns
Analysis First Amendment advocates, state lawmakers say middle ground has been found that protects sensitive information but doesn't unnecessarily freeze out public.  05.21.02

Governor's office rebuffs idea of limiting Arkansas' FOI law
'[L]et me be clear on this: Your efforts to amend the FOI are NOT authorized by the governor,' Mike Huckabee's liaison tells agency director.  08.12.02

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