PETER O. ZIERLEIN*
“For a long time there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” President Obama said on his first day in office as he announced new policies favoring openness in government. Ever since, reporters and others in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) business have been talking about their priorities for release of documents they have been seeking, in some cases for years. One group is compiling a list of the Ten Most Wanted Government Documents, and there are lots of suggestions.
“More important than anything, I want Treasury to tell us what they did with the bailout money,” says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Bloomberg News filed a FOIA suit on November 7 seeking information from the Federal Reserve about the recipients of the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program rushed into law last fall and about the “troubled assets” the government accepted as collateral. The request was denied on December 8, six weeks before Obama took office, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Pittman, on the grounds that the 231 pages of documents should be withheld because they are internal memos and also contain information about trade secrets. That decision should be reversed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s team, says Dalglish.
Others have different priorities. For Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, number one is the secret memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which permitted torture and warrantless surveillance of Americans in the name of national security. The ACLU had filed three FOIA lawsuits seeking to compel the Bush administration to release dozens of legal memos related to rendition, abusive interrogation and detention and other abuses of civil liberties. On February 17 the government and the ACLU agreed to a thirty-day extension of the date for a hearing on an ACLU request that the Obama administration end the litigation and release the records.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, has the same priority: “These are documents of profound, sometimes decisive policy significance that have often been withheld even from Congress,” he said. These documents are “immediately eligible for the kind of discretionary release that the Obama memoranda advocated.”
The investigative journalism project ProPublica has set up propublica.org/special/missing-memos, which lists and describes the OLC memos that are still secret.
White House e-mail is first on Thomas Blanton’s list–he is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the major repository of national security documents released over the years under the FOIA. The archive has been litigating over White House e-mail since 2007. In a court hearing on the missing e-mails, White House attorneys admitted “finding” 14 million e-mails that had been reported destroyed. This is another area where Obama could simply stop defending the Bush administration lawsuit and instruct the National Archives to organize and release the e-mails. But on February 20 the Justice Department refused to do that and continued to defend the Bush position in court.