Magazine article The American Prospect

You Can Handle the Truth: How Far Will Obama Take His Professed Commitment to Transparency?

Magazine article The American Prospect

You Can Handle the Truth: How Far Will Obama Take His Professed Commitment to Transparency?

Article excerpt

J. William Leonard, the former head of classification procedures for the government under President George W. Bush, was settling into his new life in St. Mary's County, Maryland, after his retirement in late 2007. He planned to teach political science at a small liberal-arts college and tend his garden, leaving behind the world of government and classified documents. But several months later, he came across a news story about an Office of Legal Counsel memo that had been classified for national-security reasons and only recently released. Leonard turned on his home computer and downloaded the memo, an 81-page document about interrogation policy that assistant attorney general John Yoo had written in March 2003. The memo had no information that would endanger national security. Instead, it was a legal defense of harsh interrogations. "You know, I guess 'angered me' would be the appropriate phrase," Leonard says describing his reaction. The memo had been withheld, he says, to shield the document from military lawyers who opposed the interrogation methods.

He went out to his garden after reading the memo. "I was weeding and saying, 'I got to do something,'" he says. "I got lots of weeds, so I was doing a lot of muttering." Several months later, Leonard, who worked for the government for 34 years, testified at a Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee hearing that the memo was one of the "worst abuses of the classification process" he had ever seen.

Declassification, at its most basic level, provides the raw material that historians, students, journalists, and all Americans need to understand the nation's past. The process is far more than a formality; it is crucial to learning the truth about everything from Bush's decision-making to the Kennedy assassination to Gulf War syndrome. Each administration's policies--its stance on classification of its own information and declassification of historical documents--demonstrate whether it intends to close off or open up history.

On President Barack Obama's first day in office, he spoke about the importance of "transparency and the rule of law." In addition, he signed several executive orders that set out new guidelines for a clear and open government, including one that requires the president to seek advice from the solicitor general about the classification of documents. He is not the first chief executive officer to pledge transparency. Bill Clinton was reluctant to disclose certain things (such as the details of his Whitewater real-estate deals), but overall he was a leader in the movement toward the declassification of documents. When the National Archives conducted an audit in 2006, researchers found that 1 billion pages of documents had been released in the years since 1995, a fourfold increase over the previous decade and a half.

The Bush administration, however, was notoriously withholding. And it wasn't just historical classified documents that the administration kept under wraps. In Bush's first term, he held only 17 solo question-and-answer sessions with reporters-the fewest of any president in the television age. Former Vice President Dick Cheney even bragged about the fact that he kept few notes and planned to leave no paper trail.

With Bush gone, transparency advocates are wondering how much Obama will fight to expose decisions made by Bush--and by previous presidents. And how much will he be willing to open up his own government?

IN SOME CASES, WE KNOW which documents are classified--we just don't know exactly what they say. It is no longer a secret that Bush issued a directive allowing the creation of secret prisons overseas--we know the sites were built--but the written authorization for these sites has not been released. Also classified are dozens of photographs that reportedly show Americans abusing prisoners at detention sites other than Abu Ghraib. That's just scratching the surface.

Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's national-security project, and other attorneys have filed lawsuits to obtain the memos, images, and documents. …

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