One week ago I wrote that the Bush Era Of Secrecy May Be Coming To An End, noting that:
George W. Bush has presided over the most secrecy-obsessed administration in the history of the country.
Well, on his first full day as president, Barack Obama has issued a series of Executive Orders and Memoranda that demonstrate his commitment to an open and honest administration. The announcement by the White House reveals several new initiatives, including a pay freeze for certain members of the President’s staff, and ethics provisions that define acceptable behavior with regard to gifts and lobbying.
But the real gems in this announcement are those concerning transparency and open government. The Memorandum specifically cites the Freedom of Information Act and orders on Presidential Records as areas that need to be reformed. President Obama (wow…that’s the first time I’ve typed that) made these remarks this morning about the new direction:
“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing some thing to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”
Under the new directives, only the President will have the authority to assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Under the Bush rules former presidents or their representatives had that authority. Obama went further explaining that…
“[A]ny time the American people want to know something that I or a former president wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the attorney general and the White House counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be … withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution.”
Bush had set up a system that only an organized crime family could love. But now, as Obama says, that era is now over. These new rules are an encouraging beginning that can be reinforced with the passage of the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009 (H.R. 35), by Rep. Edolphus Towns. This legislation has already passed in the House and will be considered soon in the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The bill covers some of what Obama’s Orders do, plus it explicitly overturns Bush’s Executive Order 13233 that permits withholding presidential records. Speaking about the bill, Towns said:
“President Bush’s executive order created an imbalanced and restrictive process. The Presidential Records Act preserves the important intent of the original post-Watergate law, which was to assure timely accessibility and preservation of official White House records for historical and, if necessary, legal purposes.”
The quick action by Towns and Obama suggests that this is indeed a new era. An era wherein the public can begin to trust their government again – or at least have access to the information required to ascertain whether it is trustworthy.
Update: The text of the new Executive Orders is now available on the White House web site. The EO on Presidential Records contains this provision:
Sec. 6. Revocation. Executive Order 13233 of November 1, 2001, is revoked.
I wasn’t aware that the EO was going to be that explicit. What a breath of fresh air. However, there is still a need to pass the Towns bill so that these guidelines are codified into law and a future president cannot merely issue a new EO.