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Stonewalling Time | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Stonewalling Time

Have you heard about the Restore Freedom of Information Act? Support it--If you care about our democracy. Since October 2001, when Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed longstanding Freedom of Information Act policies, this poster child of good government legislation, which provided citizens with broad access to FBI records which previously had been severely limited, has been under severe assault.

So comprehensive is the Bush Administration's systematic attack that the presidents of twenty major journalists' organizations declared in a joint statement that Ashcroft's "restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."

The Restore FOIA Act, recently introduced by Senators Leahy, Levin, Jeffords, Lieberman and Byrd, would restore protection for so-called federal whistleblowers, allow state and local "sunshine" disclosure laws to use information obtained from government agencies, and allow civil litigation against companies to use this information. But times are such that, as the ombudsman for the Freedom Forum says, "many in Congress are reluctant to challenge the administration" on security.

But, as Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the Act's sponsors, eloquently said: "We do not respect the spirit of our democracy when we cloak in secrecy the workings of our government from the public we are elected to serve."

Government watchdog groups warn that if the proposed changes to the Homeland Security Act are implemented, businesses could shield almost any data from public scrutiny, government regulations and civil litigation by claiming "critical infrastructure information" protection. As a spokesperson for Public Citizen put it, "these rules would allow corporations to dump information into a black hole of secrecy."

But there's some good news too: Last week, accountability trumped secrecy when a federal appeals court rejected Vice-President Dick Cheney's bid to keep secret all the workings of his energy task force. (The two to one ruling by a panel of judges from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, said that sufficient safeguards were already in place to prevent the disclosure of genuinely privileged information.) And there was another victory for openness when Thomas Kean, 9/11 Commission head and former Republican governor of New Jersey, publicly criticized the Administration for stonewalling a politically damaging inquiry.

What's clear is that whether it's stonewalling the 9/11 Commission, the Courts or the American public, this Administration is contemptuous of the public's right to know, which unavoidably undermines a democratic society. Listen to Senator Robert Byrd who's seen it all in his forty-five years in office: "If the government is allowed to operate in secrecy without scrutiny, then the people's liberties easily can be lost."

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The Left on the Move?

Yesterday's Washington Post caught up with what we've known for months. To read more, check out the Post's front-page story arguing that "the left is once again a driving force" in the Democratic Party.

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