June 9, 2009
An "era" used to last, but not so much anymore. We've already heard GOP Chairman Michael Steele proclaim that "the era of apologizing for Republican mistakes" was over (when many of us didn't know it had begun), and now it appears that Barack Obama's era of openness has closed, too.
That era began on the new President's first working day in office when he rescinded some of George W. Bush's imperial edicts granting himself and his family--along with other former presidents and vice presidents--broad control over historical records.
On Jan. 21, President Obama spoke eloquently about "a new era of open government,"- declaring that "a democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency."
Regarding whether to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act, he added, "In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
However, the Obama administration is now moving aggressively to prevent federal courts from ordering the release of photographic and other evidence of crimes and misconduct committed by the CIA and U.S. military forces during George W. Bush's "war on terror."
On Monday, Obama's lawyers submitted an affidavit signed by CIA Director Leon Panetta claiming that a federal judge must not release documents relating to the destruction of 92 CIA videotapes regarding interrogations of terrorism suspects.
To do so, Panetta said, could "result in exceptionally grave danger to the national security by informing our enemies of what we know about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed."
Panetta insisted that the continued secrecy regarding the documents about the destroyed videotapes was "in no way driven by a desire to prevent embarrassment for the U.S. government or the CIA, or to suppress evidence of any unlawful conduct." Rather, he cited concerns about revealing "sources and methods" and other potential harm to U.S. national security.
The ACLU has sought the documents in an attempt to ascertain who in the Bush administration was responsible for torturing detainees and for destroying the videotapes, which detailed the treatment of two terrorism suspects.
The Obama administration's objection to the document release follows Obama's personal decision in May to withhold photographs showing abuse of detainees at U.S. military prisons. Obama said releasing the photos could enflame tensions in the Middle East and endanger American soldiers. He also has reaffirmed the government's right to kill court cases by asserting a "state secrets privilege."
What Obama apparently has realized is that a commitment to openness requires courage and a readiness to take some political hits. Republicans--and parts of the U.S. news media--attacked Obama in April for releasing the Bush administration's four legal memos justifying torture of detainees.
Stung by that criticism--and accusations from former Vice President Dick Cheney that the disclosures had endangered national security--Obama began his retreat on openness.
Yet, virtually every major disclosure of serious U.S. government wrongdoing has entailed some risk of damaging the national image or increasing risks faced by U.S. soldiers deployed around the globe.
For instance, the disclosure of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War--including photos of women and children slaughtered in a drainage ditch--surely reflected negatively on the U.S. military. So, too, did the leaking of photos showing abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.