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Obama's disappointing secrecy

He promised openness. Instead, like Bush's, his administration wants the power to keep Congress in the dark on some intelligence activities.

By Benjamin Friedman / July 21, 2009


The Obama administration promised an "unprecedented level of openness in government."

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The White House website says that citizens have a right to know what their government is doing and that accountability makes government more effective. That's absolutely right. In some areas, such as the liberalization of policy on Freedom of Information Act requests, the administration has embraced this principle.

Disappointingly though, the administration's commitment to openness and accountability does not extend to intelligence activities.

The administration recently threatened to veto the intelligence authorization bill, the annual legislation that funds the Central Intelligence Agency.

The trouble with the bill, according to the administration, is a requirement that intelligence officials brief some secret intelligence activities to Congress's full intelligence committees rather than just the "gang of eight" (each party's leader in each house and the chairmen and ranking members of those committees). The administration wants to keep the power to determine whom it briefs.

This veto threat, and its implicit plea to shut up and trust the executive branch, comes at an awkward time. It arrives just as we have learned about more secret, possibly illegal, doings that the Bush administration launched as part of its panicked reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks.

This month, because of a leak, we heard that the Bush administration long blocked the CIA from revealing to the gang of eight a proposed program to assassinate Al Qaeda members. Thanks to a report written by the inspector generals of several federal agencies, we also learned last week that the National Security Agency's controversial, warrantless wiretapping program (the "terrorist surveillance program" to its Orwellian creators) found few, if any, terrorists, contrary to its advocates' claims.

That's the same surveillance program conducted for years in violation of a federal statute, the one that Congress last year legalized, rather than investigate. Had the program remained a secret, as the Bush administration wanted, we wouldn't know that our laws and liberties had been abused for essentially no gain.

The inspector generals' report about the recent NSA program pointed out a related secret NSA program, one involving massive data mining of domestic e-mail traffic. That program is not particularly controversial because no one knows much about it. Does it violate the Fourth Amendment or a statute? Is it over? Those unwilling to take the assurances of the Bush administration that it was kosher are left to wonder.