Clinton, Reno, and Freedom of Information: From Waldheim to Whitewater

By Woodbury, Marsha | Social Justice, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Clinton, Reno, and Freedom of Information: From Waldheim to Whitewater


Woodbury, Marsha, Social Justice


Introduction

In Schmerler v. FBI, the D.C. Court of Appeals (April 1990):

The FBI can withhold the identities of sources indefinitely, even if they are dead or would suffer no invasion of privacy as a result of disclosure. In this instance, the requester is an author working on a book about a 1931 murder of his aunt. The court ruling came 59 years after the crime (Lowe, 1994).

Four years later, Janet Reno (1994) stated in her "Speech to the National Press Club":

A few years ago a newspaper reporter toured the FOIA processing shop at one Justice Department component and noted that there was a sign on the wall that said, "When in doubt, cross it out." The sign is down now.... Our challenge is much like the one faced by a captain who must bring an aircraft career about.... You touch the controls. You hear a lot of noise and grinding and gnashing of gears, but you don't see much movement I am determined to make my message heard.

Liberating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, pronounced "foya") from the bonds imposed during 12 years of Republican role is among the many reforms professed by the Clinton administration. A conservative legacy, these tethers on the FOIA have drawn little media and public attention, because images of sheets of paper or computer tapes do not hold the TV spotlight long, particularly when contrasted with powerful pictures of violence (the Oklahoma federal government building bombing) and visible poverty (homeless people sleeping on sidewalks). The FOIA remains almost unnoticed, except by frequent, and sometimes frustrated, requesters. With FOIA, President William Clinton has articulated a policy diametrically opposed to his two predecessors, and his Attorney General Janet Reno has been following through on his 1993 FOIA executive order.

Yet the realities of defending a regime in power through the manipulation of information have not escaped this new administration. The battle over access to and the control of information for political purposes still rages, this time under a Democratic president. Despite its public pronouncements, the Clinton White House has not avoided media ire for withholding documents.

Perhaps conflict is unavoidable, for freedom of information, or "the right to know," is an emotional issue, a symbol of the best and worst aspects of democracy and capitalism. Regardless of how open a government might aspire to be, it can hardly avoid the temptation to limit access to and release of information in the name of governing effectively. At one extreme, totalitarian governments do not even go through the motions of openness. Yet even supposedly highly democratic countries, such as the United Kingdom, practice as much or more government secrecy than does the United States. Indeed, no modern state provides its citizens with total access to government information, and all engage in some limitation to government documents.

This article examines the FOIA before and during the Clinton administration. When he took office, Clinton inherited the sprawling Executive Branch bureaucracy and a judiciary full of Reagan-Bush appointees who will interpret FOIA in years to come. What did Clinton's "New Covenant" mean to FOIA? Will his presidency change its course? In Reno's speech quoted above, she correctly depicted the huge government bureaucracy as being like an aircraft carrier, with the new administration attempting to modify its course on FOIA decisions. Other commanders have a hold on the helm: the Congress and the judiciary can set direction through rule-making and legal interpretation.

Once in power, Clinton sent mixed messages about the FOIA to the press and public. To extend the ship metaphor, it appears that with FOIA the White House, where Clinton commands the bridge, is similar to a submarine, surfacing and then diving, depending on whether it is safe to be "in the sunshine" or not. In a word, he is inconsistent.

Clinton's FOIA activity is an illustration of illusory ideology, where the political myth of participatory democracy confronts the pragmatism of people with a handhold on power.

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