Group: Administration Making An Effort At Openness
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This week, the Obama administration agreed to restore thousands of emails that were thought to have been lost during the Bush administration. This is part of an effort to sort through many more emails even than that. Some could help us understand key events during the Bush years. Symbolically at lest, restoring these messages is a win for transparency, and the Obama administration has said it wants to make government more open and transparent.
One of the groups that fought for access to these emails is the National Security Archive. Meredith Fuchs is the organization's general counsel. We invited her into the studio to talk about how transparent the Obama administration has been during its first year in office. Welcome.
Ms. MEREDITH FUCHS (National Security Archive): Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: So how has the White House done on this front?
Ms. FUCHS: Well, I'd say day one of the Obama administration was an exciting day, because President Obama articulated his view that we should have an open government. And from there, things sort of went slightly uphill then slightly downhill. But I would say in the last couple of weeks, it appears that the Obama administration is really making an effort to try to deliver on the president's promises.
SHAPIRO: Well, just last week the Obama administration issued a new directive on government openness. Tell me about what that said and how significant it is.
Ms. FUCHS: That directive is going to get each agency in the Federal Government to develop a comprehensive open government plan. And they're going to have to identify high value data sets and make them available to the public without us even having to ask for them.
SHAPIRO: What does that mean, a high value data set?
Ms. FUCHS: Well, that's going to be one of the things we're going to really look closely at. For us, a high value data set would be something that helps the public understand better what government is doing. And it's up to the White House, and frankly, the public, to try to get the agencies to rigorously put in place what the memorandum directs them to do.
SHAPIRO: In addition to this directive that you hope will lead to more openness, we recently learned that the Obama administration is likely not to release all kinds of documents - some going as far back as World War II - that come out of the intelligence community. The deadline to release these is December 31st. Why would the Obama administration not be transparent in this other way?
Ms. FUCHS: Well, unfortunately, they are dealing with a legacy problem here, which is that these are very old, classified records that the agencies are unwilling to let free. They're supposed to release them under an executive order that was first issued by President Clinton that requires automatic declassification. But the agencies won't let anything be declassified automatically. They really want to conduct page by page review, line by line review, and that's the problem.
SHAPIRO: Well, if an agency such as the CIA, for example, can stop documents from being released, then what good does it do for the person at the top, the president, to say we want everything to be transparent if an agency can put up a wall and say no?
Ms. FUCHS: Well, this is one of our major concerns. And the one thing that we're still looking for from the Obama administration is an executive order on classification. And that executive order potentially could make it more difficult for an agency to keep blocking release for these really historic records. And we're not talking about things that relate to current issues. These are 25 years or older, these records.
SHAPIRO: Why would an agency need to protect a record that is as old as World War II? What possible intelligence value could that still have?
Ms. FUCHS: Well, the one really legitimate concern that agencies have is protecting sources and methods, and that concern may last for many, many years. But beyond that, it's hard to imagine that records that are 40 years old have much sensitivity to them.
SHAPIRO: When you say sources and methods, do you mean intelligence techniques - the ways that information is acquired?
Ms. FUCHS: The way information is acquired and who the information is acquired from. It's possible that intelligence agencies have sources, and even today those people may still be alive or their families may be alive and may be at risk if it was disclosed that they cooperated with intelligence agencies. So it's hard to shift these agencies' perspective. The Obama administration appears to be trying to do so in - at least incrementally. But I don't think we're going to see complete turnaround.
SHAPIRO: Meredith Fuchs is general counsel of the National Security Archive, the government records group. Thanks a lot.
Ms. FUCHS: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: And in a federal appeals court in San Francisco, yesterday, the Obama administration argued for greater secrecy in a case involving allegations of torture. The ACLU is representing five former detainees who say they were abused in overseas CIA prisons. Justice Department lawyers want judges to throw out the case. The government argued that a trial would compromise state secrets. That's the same argument the Bush administration made, and the ACLU says it's a betrayal of the Obama administration's promises of openness and transparency.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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