White House Secrecy Starts to Give

Shown with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said of the White House, "By trying to keep secret information that doesn't need to be secret, it invites skepticism of all of its secrecy claims."
Shown with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said of the White House, "By trying to keep secret information that doesn't need to be secret, it invites skepticism of all of its secrecy claims." (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008

After years of hammering on the walls of secrecy surrounding the Bush White House, activists and Congress have begun, slowly, to open some cracks.

A federal magistrate on Tuesday ordered the administration to reveal by this week whether it has backup copies of millions of missing White House e-mails, which may describe decisions related to the Iraq war.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that lists of presidential visitors that President Bush has kept secret are in fact public records.

On New Year's Eve, Bush bowed to lawmakers in his own party and signed a bill speeding the release of millions of government documents requested by Americans under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a measure he has opposed.

In the waning days of an administration marked by a penchant for confidentiality, open government groups and Congress have redoubled efforts to ensure that the written record of the Bush presidency is not lost to history. They say recent developments show growing irritation with a president who has used national security concerns to draw a veil over the workings of the executive branch and to hoard power for the White House.

Those developments include the declassification of the nation's intelligence budget and new recommendations that the president's daily intelligence briefings be saved as presidential records.

"They're getting exactly the open government results they labored to prevent, and in part because they so overreached," said Thomas Blanton, who heads the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "They could have gotten 90 percent of the extra power they wanted if they went to Congress and the public, but by going for 100 percent and doing it in total secrecy, they undermined their own legitimacy and left the presidency weaker than when they started."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded that "we are simply trying to preserve national security information, because that's in the best interests of the country; we are indeed protective of the prerogatives of the executive branch."

Fratto said the administration is working to resolve the missing e-mails issue, and that Bush's concerns about the FOIA requests centered on the resources required, not the release of information.

The line was drawn early in the Bush administration, when Vice President Cheney stiff-armed lawmakers and environmentalists who requested records from his energy policy task force, a battle the White House won in the Supreme Court.

As the executive branch tightened its grip on information, even the Department of Health and Human Services was provided new power to classify its work. In 2001, Bush issued an executive order giving past presidents and their families the authority to stall release of presidential papers indefinitely.

When Bush in 2002 invoked executive privilege and the "national interest" in refusing a subpoena from Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), then the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, for Justice Department documents relating to a decades-old murder investigation, Burton complained about a "veil of secrecy that is descending around the administration."


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