From left: Anna Laitin, David Vladeck, Meredith Fuchs and Laura Rychak
WASHINGTON — Though President Bush may have many legacies once he leaves
office, “one that is bound to be [is that] history will anoint him as the
secrecy president,” a law professor and open-government advocate said today.
Speaking during the National FOI Day conference panel on “Access Priorities:
What Congress Needs to Do,” David Vladeck said there must be an “attitudinal
shift” within the current administration in order for real reform to occur.
Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University who has been litigating FOIA
cases since 1976, cited the now-infamous Ashcroft and Card memos as evidence of
the Bush administration’s tendency toward secrecy.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John
Ashcroft, shifting from the Clinton administration’s policy of disclosure,
advised agencies not to release information if it was unclear whether FOIA
exemptions applied. In 2002, then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card
directed agencies to protect information that could aid the development or use
of weapons of mass destruction or that could pose a threat to national
Vladeck said the “philosophical shift" initiated by those memos had had
"enormous real-life consequences in the kinds of withholding determinations [an]
agency makes and in the kind of decisions government lawyers make in defending
FOIA cases.” To counteract this philosophy, Vladeck said, “there needs to be
(an) attitudinal shift within the government that FOIA actually matters and that
openness, not secrecy, ought to be a dominant objective of an administration.”
Panelist Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive echoed Vladeck’s
concern. Noting that she was born the year FOIA was enacted, 1966, Fuchs said
that as she entered her maturity, she “would like to think that the FOIA would
enter into its own maturity," but that unfortunately the law "really hasn’t been
completely integrated and accepted by the federal government.”
Panelist Anna Laitin, lead assistant on FOIA issues for the House Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform, said that in September 2004 her office
released a report on secrecy within the Bush administration. Since then, she
said, “secrecy has just increased.”
“The report was 81 pages when we released it. I fear what it would be if we
tried to redo it now,” she said.
Although the Bush administration and Congress haven’t offered much hope to
freedom-of-information advocates over the past few years, there has been a
“surge of optimism” with the recent introduction of several open-government
bills, said moderator Pete Weitzel, coordinator for the Coalition of Journalists
for Open Government.
“This Sunshine Week, at least, there might be some real sunshine in store for
us,” he said.
This week, five open-government measures have been moving through Congress:
H.R. 1309 and S. 849, both of
which would strengthen FOIA, H.R. 1254, which would
require groups that raise funds for presidential libraries to release
information about their donors, H.R. 1255, which would
overturn a 2001 Bush decision that made it easier for presidents to shield their
records, and H.R.
985, which would strengthen protections for federal whistleblowers.
Laitin said the overwhelming congressional support for the bills, which Bush
has threatened to veto, “was a clear statement by both parties against the
secrecy within the Bush administration.”
Panelist Laura Rychak said her organization, the Sunshine in Government
Initiative, works closely with lawmakers to promote bills that strengthen
For Sunshine Week, Rychak said, SGI
gave members of the relevant congressional committees flashlights to “highlight
the importance of sunshine” and also took out ads to tell Congress “now’s your
moment to take a stand, especially with all this legislative momentum this week,
and vote for meaningful FOIA reform.”