Freedom and security demand delicate balance
President Bush's ambitious reorganization of more than 100 federal departments and agencies into the massive new entity to be known as the Department of Homeland Security also contains an ambitious attempt to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act.
This should not be too surprising. President Bush has brought much to the office, but obviously absent was a love for open government. Last November, when you would have thought the government would have been too preoccupied with 9/11 to concern itself with much else, the president took time to issue an executive order circumventing the Presidential Records Act of 1978.
Congress passed the law following Watergate and Richard Nixon's attempts to hold on to his papers and tape recordings. The act made presidential records the property of the government, not former presidents, and provided for them to become public after 20 years.
President Bush signed an executive order giving himself the power to veto the release of any presidential documents from the archives of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He extended the veto power to the past presidents themselves.
It was not only an assault on open government, but a clear violation of the separation of powers.
The Freedom of Information Act allows the public to discover what its government is up to. Attorney General John Ashcroft has all but urged federal agencies not to comply with freedom of information requests in a variety of contexts, and now he is pushing for a wholesale exemption for the Department of Homeland Security.
A case of overkill.
The government has the ability to contest FOI requests that violate national security. But the Homeland Security proposal would place off-limits any information provided voluntarily to the department by private citizens, companies or organizations if the information related in any way to "infrastructure vulnerabilities or vulnerabilities to terrorism." That is a phrase so vague as to render the FOI act meaningless.
The administration also wants Homeland Security to be exempt from the Whistleblower Protection Act. That would silence people of conscience such as FBI agent Cathleen Rowley, whose memo about ignored pre-Sept. 11 warnings demonstrated the need for more coordination between the agencies protecting the nation.
The need for homeland security should not compromise the need to maintain an open government.
The House of Representatives has already responded to the administration's homeland security proposal with its own 216-page bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
It varies from the administration's proposal on a number of key issues, including the desirability of a national identification card and the date by which airports will be required to provide screening of luggage for explosives.
Doubtless other changes will come with debate in the House Select Committee on Homeland Security today and on the floor of the full House next week. The Senate won't be taking up the issue for a few weeks.
Among those, we hope, will be language that will disabuse the administration of its idea that openness and security cannot co-exist.
Indeed, if both aren't accommodated, the nation will be giving up part of what makes it great.