Trans­par­ent ruse? Anti-se­crecy panel called ‘White House pup­pet’

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Shaun Water­man

A panel set up last year to re­duce ex­ces­sive se­crecy in gov­ern­ment is be­ing la­beled tooth­less af­ter its chair­man told law­mak­ers that he could not act ex­cept at the re­quest of the pres­i­dent.

“The statute un­der which we op­er­ate pro­vides that [Pres­i­dent Bush] must re­quest the board un­der­take such a re­view be­fore it can pro­ceed,” wrote L. Britt Snider, chair­man of the Pub­lic In­ter­est De­clas­si­fi­ca­tion Board, to Sen. Ron Wy­den, Ore­gon Demo­crat.

Gov­ern­ment trans­parency ad­vo­cates say that if the statute is in­ter­preted that way, it makes the board, in the words of Steven Af- tergood, of the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Sci­en­tists, “a White House pup­pet.”

Mr. After­good said, “The board needs the ca­pac­ity for in­de­pen­dent ac­tion; oth­er­wise it might as well not ex­ist.”

The let­ter from Mr. Snider says it is “an in­terim re­sponse” to a re­quest from Mr. Wy­den and a bi­par­ti­san group of col­leagues for the board to re­view two re­ports from the Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Intelligence that as­sessed U.S. intelligence about Iraq be­fore the 2003 in­va­sion, in the light of what has been learned since.

“We be­lieve that por­tions of th­ese two re­ports re­main un­nec­es­sar­ily clas­si­fied,” wrote com­mit­tee mem­bers Sens. Christo- pher S. Bond, Mis­souri Repub­li­can; Dianne Fe­in­stein, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat; Mike DeWine, Ohio Repub­li­can; Russ Fein­gold, Wis­con­sin Demo­crat; Or­rin G. Hatch, Utah Repub­li­can; and Vice Chair­man John D. Rock­e­feller IV, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat, in a let­ter in Septem­ber.

They re­quested that the board re­view the re­ports to see whether they were over­clas­si­fied — the first test of the board’s role as a watch­dog for se­crecy pol­icy.

“I think the intelligence com­mu­nity used their black high­lighters ex­ces­sively as they re­viewed th­ese re­ports,” Mr. Wy­den said at the time. “I am par­tic­u­larly con­cerned it ap­pears that in­for­ma­tion may have been clas- si­fied to shield in­di­vid­u­als from ac­count­abil­ity.”

The board was es­tab­lished in law in 2000, af­ter a 1997 rec­om­men­da­tion from a com­mis­sion headed by Sen. Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han, New York Demo­crat. The board was set up, ac­cord­ing to the statute, “To pro­mote the fullest pos­si­ble pub­lic ac­cess to a thor­ough, ac­cu­rate, and re­li­able doc­u­men­tary record of sig­nif­i­cant U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity de­ci­sions and [. . . ] ac­tiv­i­ties.”

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion did not ap­point any mem­bers un­til Septem­ber 2004, and no funds were ap­pro­pri­ated for it un­til last year.

Now the board says it is stuck in the mid­dle of a tus­sle about its author­ity be­tween law­mak­ers and the White House.

“The White House po­si­tion is they have to re­quest “any re­view such as that of the Se­nate com­mit­tee re­port,” Mr. Snider said. “The sen­a­tors be­lieve they can ask in­de­pen­dently. [. . .] We’re kind of stuck in the mid­dle.”

Mr. Snider said the board was “wait­ing for guid­ance from the White House” about how to pro­ceed. The board’s ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary, J. William Leonard, added that the board was keen to get things right the first time around.

“There’s a de­sire that [this first re­quest] is pro­cessed in ac­cor­dance with the statute, be­cause it will be es­tab­lish­ing a prece­dent,” he said.

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