After two terms of the famously opaque Bush White House, secrecy watchdog groups like the National Security Archive have high hopes for the new administration. Archive General Counsel Meredith Fuchs describes three steps Obama can take on day one of his presidency to bring some transparency to Washington.
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BOB GARFIELD: Come January 20th, all eyes will be on President Barack Obama, and many of those eyes are eager to see what the secretive Bush White House has worked so hard to conceal —information that sheds some light on the corridors of power.
Nobody is more eager than the secrecy watchdog group the National Security Archive, and the Archive’s General Counsel Meredith Fuchs has a three part to do list for President Obama on his first day in office. Number one, reverse former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s 2001 memo, which made it easier for the government to reject Freedom of Information Act requests by raising the bar for disclosing information. Fuchs says fixing the FOIA policy is priority number one. MEREDITH FUCHS: We want President Elect Obama on day one to get rid of the Ashcroft memo and restore the presumption of openness. BOB GARFIELD: All right, FOIA is one. What’s number two? MEREDITH FUCHS: Number two is presidential records. The Bush Administration has lost something like five million emails in the White House because they have no archiving system. In addition, we don't even know whether Vice President Cheney’s records are going to get transferred to the National Archives at the end of this administration.
And we would like the new president to make clear that he will have better practices. And we would also like him to revoke an executive order that was issued by President Bush that allowed new privileges to apply to withhold historical presidential records. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, and number three. MEREDITH FUCHS: Number three, we would like to see a complete overhaul of the classification system. During the Bush Administration, not only did classification numbers surge, more than doubling, up to about 14 million, but the cost of the classification system has grown immensely, to over eight billion dollars. And at the same time, the classification system has inhibited discussion of important issues.
So, for example, many of the legal memos that justified torture, rendition and warrantless surveillance have been classified as secret. From some of the records that have come out, we know that those classification decisions were not legitimate and they should never have been kept secret. BOB GARFIELD: And it is explicitly illegal to use the classification process to save the government from embarrassment or political fallout. MEREDITH FUCHS: Oh, yes. You cannot classify in order to protect the disclosure of illegality or to avoid embarrassment or for any of those reasons. BOB GARFIELD: One of the inherent problems of extreme government secrecy is you don't know what the secrets are to try to get unclassified. It’s kind of a chicken and egg proposition, isn't it? MEREDITH FUCHS: That’s certainly true, although one of the things that happens when you classify everything is you increase the leaks. People are much more likely to come forward with leaked information because they don't really have any respect for the classification label.
There are people in government who think that the excessive secrecy is dangerous and who will try to come forward to report things. BOB GARFIELD: We're speaking Wednesday. The buzz around Washington is that Eric Holder, the former U.S. Attorney, will be named Attorney General in an Obama administration. What’s his résumé on secrecy issues? MEREDITH FUCHS: We're pretty hopeful, even though we don't know a lot about what he would do in specific cases. First of all, he served as Deputy Attorney General under Attorney General Reno, and Attorney General Reno had an outstanding policy on FOIA.
Secondly, he comes from a public integrity and ethics background in his career. And when he was U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, he actually apparently pushed back against efforts to avoid disclosure of the records of the Hillary Clinton Health Care Task Force. That’s significant.
There was also a somewhat [LAUGHS] controversial case, involving records that were requested that related to some terrorists, where the Justice Department withheld them, in part protecting the privacy interests of those terrorists. And Eric Holder, when he was U.S. Attorney, made clear, we are not going to [LAUGHS] protect the privacy interests of terrorists. So those are a couple of good signs. BOB GARFIELD: Now, obviously the Bush Administration was in a class by itself in obscuring its inner workings. But isn't the pattern that all administrations, and maybe even the Obama Administration, discover once they're in office that, well, you know, a little bit of secrecy is not so bad? Do you expect President Obama to behave as President the way he campaigned? MEREDITH FUCHS: One of the problems with people in power is they don't give up their power easily. And I think we're going to have to watch very closely to see whether the White House is going to give up any of those protections that the Bush Administration asserted.
I mean, that’s one of the reasons it’s so dangerous when you have a president who takes extreme positions, because once they establish the precedent, it’s hard to know whether the next administration will really pull back. BOB GARFIELD: Meredith, once again, thank you very much. MEREDITH FUCHS: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure to talk with you. BOB GARFIELD: Meredith Fuchs serves as the General Counsel to the National Security Archive.