Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Democracy Depends on the "Demos" -- I

Barack Obama assumed power with a pledge that his would be the most transparent, open, non-secretive administration in the modern era if not in the entire history of the United States. From 12:01 pm January 20, 2009, there was going to be a fresh breeze blowing through Washington.

Well, reality must have hit about 12:02 pm, for after a mere 66 days, there are troubling signs that some of the bad habits of the Bush administration are alive and well. It would appear that at least some secret Presidential National Security Directives are still on the books and are affecting adversely the rights of individuals and organizations seeking redress, including those subjected to wide ranging warrantless wiretapping done by the Bush Department of Justice (DoJ) -- that could not be discussed without breaking the administration’s secrecy strictures.

The first indication that the fresh breeze hadn’t penetrated all the nooks and crannies in government came on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a well known nongovernmental organization, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). They had originally asked the Bush administration’s Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to release the “top-line” budget for the Intelligence community for Fiscal Year 2006. The request was not submitted until after the DNI had already declassified and made public the intelligence “top-line” for Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008. The response to the request to declassify the 2006 figure was that it was correctly classified. When the Obama – appointed DNI was on the job, FAS resubmitted its request – and was surprised when the response was no – and was cast in the exact language used by the Bush administration.

But that is just the beginning. For the second time since Obama became president, his DoJ Office of Legal Counsel has stepped into “terrorist” trials warning that the trials may not introduce into the proceedings – including pre-trial discovery by the defendants’ legal teams – certain classified court papers or other documents because to do so would breach national security secrecy. The most recent case is from Oregon where an Islamic charity was closed down by the Bush administration after allegations (based in part on warrantless wiretaps) were made that the funds collected by the charity were in part used to fund terrorist groups and activities overseas. The charity is suing and is seeking documents related to the Bush government’s actions that are currently in the possession of the courts. Not only has the Obama DoJ gone into court – as did the Bush DoJ – and warned that the charity’s lawyers cannot be shown the documents because of national security reasons, the Obama DoJ reportedly is contemplating seizing the documents which, according to DoJ, should never have been sent in the first place..

So how bad is it really?

Within the last week, the Public Interest Declassification Board, a congressionally mandated body established to advise the executive on declassification policy and programs affecting mainly historical records, issued a statement that easily applies to current practices of DoJ: “We have concluded that this fundamental principle [public access to reliable government information] of self-government…is at risk and, without decisive action, the situation is liable to worsen.”

Next: what the public can do.

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