By William Fisher
Amid claims of Executive Privilege by President Bush in the firing of US Attorneys, a bipartisan coalition of civil liberties groups has published a new report charging that the Administration’s stonewalling is simply part of a six-year pattern of unprecedented government secrecy.
The report – “Government Secrecy: Decisions Without Democracy 2007” – was prepared by advocacy groups, OpenTheGovernment.org and People For the American Way Foundation. It documents how executive power has dramatically expanded while executive accountability has diminished.
The report charges that “Over the past six years, President Bush has used executive orders to limit use of the Freedom of Information Act and Presidential Records Act, expanded the power to classify information for national security reasons, and created a range of new categories of "sensitive" information. In some cases, the government has gone so far as to reclassify documents that had been available to the general public for many years.”
According to Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org., "As Congress and the White House clash over this administration's unprecedented secrecy, Americans need to know the full scope of the problem. It is up to us, with and through our elected officials, to preserve our heritage of open and accountable government."
"Increased secrecy is just one of the ways that the Bush Administration has made the government less accountable," said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas.
He added: "This report is an eye-opener even for those who think they already know the extent of the problem. At a time when technology should make it easier than ever to promote openness in government, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have taken unprecedented steps to cloak themselves in secrecy."
The report includes a preface written by former conservative Republican Congressman Bob Barr and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta.
Barr and Podesta charge that “In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the current administration has laid claim to a dramatic expansion of executive power,
sometimes with congressional approval, as with the Patriot Act, and sometimes
through legally dubious assertions, as with the National Security Agency’s
domestic surveillance program. At the same time, the administration has
routinely withheld information that should be made public, thereby insulating
itself from democratic accountability.”
Secrecy, they write, “has been advanced in a myriad of ways, including excessive classification, brazen assertions of ‘executive privilege’ and ‘state secrets’, new control markings to restrict ‘sensitive but unclassified’ information, and new limits on Freedom of Information Act requests.”
The report acknowledges that the government should keep certain kinds of
information secret. “Our laws recognize the need to protect national security
information, such as intelligence sources and military plans, for example, as
well as personally identifiable data, such as information provided on tax
returns,” Barr and Podesta write.
But they add that the secrecy claims asserted by the administration “go far beyond what is contemplated by the law — and far beyond what is healthy for democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry.”
“Citizens deprived of relevant information cannot participate in their government’s decisions or hold their leaders accountable. Without this check, government officials are more likely to make decisions contrary to the public interest, abuse their authority, and engage in corrupt activities…The administration’s embrace of secrecy comes frustratingly at a time of great opportunity for government openness,” they say.
The Internet and other new information technologies, the report explains, “make it far easier and cheaper for government to disseminate information and interact with the public. Through government Websites, for example, citizens can now access the Congressional Record, track environmental pollution in their neighborhoods, and comment on regulatory proposals.”
But they conclude that, “Instead of building on this foundation…the executive branch is retrenching — in a host of cases, government information previously available through the Internet has been removed.”
A foreword to the new report charges that “Excessive secrecy is the enemy of public accountability and democratic governance. Unfortunately, it is becoming standard operating procedure for many government officials. Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent insistence that his office is not subject to secrecy regulations that apply to the executive branch is just the latest evidence of a systematic campaign to keep information about government activities out of the hands of the American public. Freedom of Information laws are grounded in the recognition that knowledge about the government’s actions is the necessary first step in oversight and accountability.”
It says that governments have “discovered that secrecy is a source of power and an efficient way of covering up the embarrassments, blunders, follies and crimes of the ruling regime. When governments claim that a broad secrecy mandate is essential to protect national security, they mostly mean that it is essential to protect the political interests of the administration. The harm to national security through breaches of secrecy is always exaggerated.”
The new report was written by David Banisar. Banisar is Director of the Freedom of Information Project of Privacy International in London and a Visiting Research Fellow at the UK’s Leeds University law school. Previously he was a Research Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and co-founder and Policy Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC.
The report comes at a time of intense debate about what many believe is the Bush Administration’s obsession with secrecy, placing the Constitutionally enshrined doctrine of separation of powers under extraordinary challenge. While Congress struggles to exercise its oversight responsibilities as one of the country’s three co-equal branches of government, another branch, the Executive, seeks to deny legislators the people and documents lawmakers require to meet those responsibilities.
The current controversy was generated by the firings of nine US Attorneys, but has moved into a number of other areas. One of these is the admission by the former White House Liaison at the DOJ, Monica Goodling, that she “crossed the line” in questioning applicants for career positions about their political beliefs.
Another is the alleged arm-twisting of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, in his intensive care hospital room following surgery. Then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and then Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card reportedly went to the attorney general’s hospital room to persuade him to approve the extension of a secret intelligence program that Ashcroft’s deputy had declined to authorize.
Both houses of Congress have been investigating the reasons for the Bush Administration’s firing of the US Attorneys, alleged perjury by Attorney General Gonzales in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the role of the White House in engineering the firings.
The White House has claimed executive privilege in refusing to allow former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and current White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to respond to subpoenas from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to recommend contempt citations against Miers and Bolten.
The “battle of the branches” continued to escalate during the week. On Thursday,
four Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the Solicitor General of the US, Paul Clement, to appoint a special counsel to investigate possible perjury charges against Gonzales in connection with his testimony about the hospital visit to Ashcroft.
The chairman of the committee, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Maine, did not join with his committee colleagues, instead choosing to offer Gonzales an opportunity to amend his testimony.
The action came after the White House vowed it would instruct the US Attorney in the District of Columbia not to seek a grand jury indictment.
The Solicitor General is part of the Department of Justice, but is meant to be independent of the Attorney General. However, because he is part of the Executive Branch, most observers believe he is unlikely to act on the Senators’ request.
In a further blow in what can only be described as a bad week for the Administration, FBI Director Robert Mueller testified to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the intelligence program Gonzales and Card attempted to have approved by the ailing John Ashcroft was in fact the NSA’s Domestic Surveillance Program, also known as the warrantless wiretaps program.
In testimony before the Senate earlier in the week, Attorney General Gonzales claimed it was another program for which they sought Ashcroft’s approval.
Finally, Sen. Leahy issued subpoenas to White House political adviser Karl Rove and one of his deputies, demanding their testimony by Aug. 2 in the panel's long-running investigation into the firings of the US attorneys and the alleged politicization of the Justice Department.
Knowledgeable sources said it was unlikely the White House would allow Rove’s testimony, thus opening the possibility of additional contempt citations or involvement by the courts.
The issue of excessive secrecy in the Bush Administration also surfaced elsewhere during the past few weeks. Last week, in a report to the president that found serious shortcomings in the process, the government’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) said there were 20.5 million decisions to classify government secrets last year.
More than one in ten documents the ISOO reviewed lacked a basis for classification, and called into question the propriety of the decisions to remove them from public disclosure, the ISOO report said.
The ISOO’s annual review highlighted what it termed "the high error rate," and said it could be addressed only by a process of continuous oversight.
The report came as the office of Vice President Dick Cheney continued to refuse to cooperate with the office of the National Archives. Executive branch agencies give the ISOO data on how much material they classify and declassify. Cheney's office provided the information in 2001 and 2002, but has provided no further information since then.
"The reviews of actual decision making are striking, given the vice president's refusal to report" to the ISOO, said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive, a private advocacy group concerned with public disclosure of government secrets.
The White House claimed that an executive order from the president was never intended to define the vice president's office as “an agency.”
In another development shrouded in the issue of government secrecy, a federal appeals court ruled that the government must make available whatever information it has on Guantánamo detainees who are challenging their detention. But it also stated that “highly sensitive information” – likely to be information concerning the torture of detainees – can be withheld from defense attorneys.
The ruling rejected an effort by the Justice Department to limit disclosures to detainees’ lawyers, but opened the way for new legal battles over the government’s reasons for holding the men indefinitely.
The court said it would be impossible to review the military tribunals “without seeing all the evidence, any more than one can tell whether a fraction is more or less than half by looking only at the numerator and not the
At the same time, the Court also issued a new order that substantially curtails the ability of attorneys to work with clients at Guantánamo. Civil rights groups charged that this ruling compromises attorney-client privilege.
“If we don’t have access to key information, how can we trust the government process?” asked attorney Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), an advocacy group that represents many of the GITMO detainees.
Dixon said the decision “will make it even more difficult for us to represent our clients. We’re extremely disappointed that the Court of Appeals has given its imprimatur to the notion that attorney-client privilege can be abolished with the stroke of a pen.”
The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA) allows detainees to challenge their designation as “enemy combatants.” But the CCR and other human rights and legal groups have long maintained that the DTA review process is no substitute for the right to habeas corpus and fair hearings that operate under the rule of law.
The CCR says the CSRT process that is reviewed by the DTA hearings is itself flawed because CSRTs allow the use of secret evidence, torture evidence, and hearsay. They also exclude lawyers from the process, and deny detainees the right to see much of the evidence against them.
Detainees’ lawyers have argued that the military officials running the hearings
may have failed to collect information that might support the detainees’ cases.
The cases were filed shortly before the Supreme Court declined to hear two of the CCR’s habeas petitions. The Court took the position that detainees should first exhaust the review process set up by the DTA. But last month, in an unusual turnaround, the Court reversed itself and decided to hear the two cases during its next session, which begins in October 2007.
The Court’s surprising self-reversal potentially opened the door to scores of cases by detainees challenging the actions of Pentagon tribunals that decide whether terror suspects should be held as enemy combatants. As these cases proceed, their centerpiece is likely to be the confluence of government secrecy, national security, separation of powers, and the preservation of constitutional rights.
Whether related to national security or to a host of domestic issues, concern about excessive government secrecy is unlikely to go away any time soon. For some observers, the current controversy is reminiscent of the final months of the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, when the executive branch battled unsuccessfully to block judicial oversight.
In the wide range of current controversies, virtually all observers doubt that the Executive and Legislative branches of government will ever be able to resolve their differences and that executive privilege and other secrecy-related issues will once again have to be decided by the third branch of government, the Courts.