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President Obama took office promising a new era of openness in government. But some activists say he hasn't done enough on at least one front - national security. Well, tomorrow will bring a major test of that promise to be more transparent. The Justice Department has a court-imposed deadline to say whether it will release some classified memos from the Bush administration. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this overview of where the Obama administration stands on national security secrets.
ARI SHAPIRO: This was President Obama on his first full day in office.
President BARACK OBAMA: The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made and whether their interests are being well-served.
SHAPIRO: And this was Attorney General Eric Holder last week in an interview with Katie Couric on CBS.
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): This is a very transparent administration. This is going to be a very transparent Justice Department. But I'm not going to sacrifice the safety of the American people or our ability to protect the American homeland. And that is, as I said, first and foremost.
SHAPIRO: So why is Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU's National Security Project saying this?
Mr. JAMEEL JAFFER (ACLU's National Security Project): The rhetoric has been very encouraging, but I don't think that that rhetoric has translated into reality.
SHAPIRO: In a couple of high-profile national security cases, the Obama administration has taken the same position as the Bush administration. The Justice Department asked a judge to throw out the cases. One was about sending people overseas for torture, the other had to do with spying on Americans without a warrant. Government lawyers argued that letting the lawsuits go forward would compromise state secrets.
Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Attorney): These are all the attitudes of a supreme imperial president that were displayed by President Bush.
SHAPIRO: This is former justice official Bruce Fein. He was a major critic of Bush administration's secrecy for the last eight years. And he recently wrote a piece for Slate magazine with the headline, "Czar Obama."
Mr. FEIN: They still have this attitude of the empire state where national security trumps everything else.
SHAPIRO: Administration officials reject that description. They point out that President Obama strengthened the Freedom of Information Act. Last month, he declassified nine Bush administration legal memos about national security. And Attorney General Holder told CBS the Justice Department is reviewing every case where the Bush administration invoked the state secrets doctrine.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER: Just to make sure that it was properly invoked and to see, in those cases where it was properly invoked, if there's a way we can be more surgical, whether there is a way in which we can share more information.
SHAPIRO: He said he hopes to make the final report public. He also said there's a case where he's likely to reverse the Bush administration's position on state secrets. But he would not go into any detail. There is a bill in Congress that would limit the administration's ability to stop a lawsuit by making a state secrets claim. Vice President Joe Biden co-sponsored a similar bill last year when he was in the Senate, but now the White House won't say whether the administration supports the bill or not. This was press secretary Robert Gibbs at a briefing yesterday.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary): We're happy to take a look at it and provide you some comment.
SHAPIRO: Today a White House official said they would not have a comment until after Holder produces his report on state secrets. With all of this as a backdrop, another major test of this administration's openness on national security issues comes tomorrow. The Justice Department has a deadline to release controversial legal memos that authorized harsh CIA interrogations. Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU sued to get the documents.
Mr. JAFFER: It'll be very difficult for the new administration to claim that it has made any progress whatsoever towards that promise of transparency if it's withholding these legal memos.
SHAPIRO: Jaffer is not as disillusioned as people like Bruce Fein, not yet, anyway. He says the Obama administration's record in the last few months has been mixed. But he says depending on how things go tomorrow, another bold assertion of secrecy could be a tipping point. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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