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Podesta details Clinton administration's open-government achievements


ARLINGTON, Va. — President Clinton’s former chief of staff says that despite the subpoena-plagued administration’s reputation for holding information close to the vest, it nonetheless made great strides towards increasing public access to millions of pages of government files.

John Podesta, who received the James Madison Award on March 16 at the National Freedom of Information Day conference at The Freedom Forum World Center, said in his acceptance speech that "the protection of openness in government" had been "a guiding principle during my three decades in public service."

Noting that March 16 marked the birthday of James Madison as well as the 35th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, Podesta said that Madison "dedicated his political career to building a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, and a government that protects the civil liberties of its citizens. Madison called the 'diffusion of information ... the best aliment to true liberty' and (said) that 'a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.'

"We often take those words of Madison for granted — but they are worth repeating and remembering."

The United States’ FOIA policies are a model for other nations, Podesta said.

"The greatest success can be seen in the fact that other democracies, newer democracies around the world, are building their laws, their governments and their societies around the principle of the public’s right to know. From Hungary to the Czech Republic to South Africa, you see that principle enshrined into law by new democracies emerging from days of tyranny, terror and secrecy."

Podesta said that the Clinton administration made great efforts to both increase public access to government information and declassify secret files. He cited several significant accomplishments, including:

  • A commitment to retaining electronic records, including e-mail records.
  • An executive order that declassified about 45 million pages of World War II and Vietnam War-era documents — nearly 15% of the National Archives’ classified materials.

  • Declassification of overhead images from the Corona, Argon and Lanyard intelligence satellite missions: "historic documents that will be of great value to scholars, as well as to the natural resource and environmental communities," Podesta noted.

  • Support of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which made millions of pages of public information available on the Internet.

  • Support of the work of the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board, which released more than 27,000 previously secret assassination records, and obtained agencies’ consent to release an additional 33,000-plus assassination records.

Referring to the scandal over last-minute presidential pardons, Podesta said, "Much has been written during the past few months about the decisions the president made on Jan. 19. Perhaps it’s worth noting that he also, on that date, decided the last two appeals of the Assassination Review Board, ordering the release of previously undisclosed records of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Review Board and Secret Service."

But by far the administration’s greatest accomplishments in open access, Podesta said, were Executive Order 12958, which set tougher standards for classifying documents, and the veto of the Official Secrets Act.

"Before President Clinton signed the executive order, a tiny minority of classified documents — only 5 percent — had a fixed declassification date," he said. Since then, "10 times that number are now marked for declassification in 10 years or less."

The order "resulted in the declassification of 800 million pages of historically valuable records, with the prospect of many hundreds of millions more pages to be declassified in the next few years. To give you a bit of a comparison, in the previous 15 years, the government had declassified a total of 188 million pages."

Podesta also praised his former boss for vetoing the Official Secrets Act, despite intense pressure from many in national security professions.

"Unauthorized disclosures can be extraordinarily harmful to the United States' national security interests and ... far too many such disclosures occur," Podesta said. "They damage our intelligence relationships abroad, compromise intelligence gathering, jeopardize lives, and increase the threat of terrorism."

But "President Clinton believed that had he signed that provision into law, it would have a chilling effect on legitimate activities, ranging from discouraging government officials from engaging in appropriate public discussion to stopping former government officials from teaching, writing or engaging in any activity aimed at public understanding of complex issues for fear of getting snared in the act’s broad reach."

Podesta said the veto was particularly courageous because it came only a few days before election day, and because most of Clinton’s national security advisers supported the act.

Podesta called on the Bush administration to continue to support freedom of information by:

  • Continuing to declassify historically valuable documents.

  • Supporting the Human Rights Information Act, which would facilitate the release of classified documents regarding human rights abuses.

  • Balancing the public’s right to know with legitimate security concerns by protecting computer systems from unauthorized access to classified information.

The James Madison Award is presented by the American Library Association. Podesta is the 12th recipient of the award, which is given each year on FOI Day to recognize those who champion access to government information and the public’s right to know.

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