US: Veils of secrecy are lifting

As President Barack Obama’s Justice Department issued sweeping

new guidelines to reverse the secrecy policies of former president George W. Bush, a federal judge ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to produce unedited summaries of some 3,000 documents related to its admitted destruction of 92 videotapes of prisoners being subjected to extremely harsh interrogation techniques.

At the same time, Congress weighed in with proposed new legislation to liberalise the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder issued comprehensive new FOIA guidelines that

direct all executive branch departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness when administering the FOIA.

The new guidelines, announced in a memo to heads of executive departments and agencies, build on the principles announced by President Obama on his first full day in office when he issued a presidential memorandum on the FOIA that called on agencies to “usher in a new era of open government.”

One of the first tests of the Obama administration’s new approach came in federal court, where the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked a federal judge to order the CIA to produce full and unedited copies of the 3,000 summaries, transcripts, reconstructions and memoranda relating to the interrogation videotapes they destroyed.

When the CIA refused to publicly disclose the list — and the names of witnesses who may have viewed the videotapes — Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ordered an

independent but non-public review of that material next week to determine whether it should be publicly disclosed.

“The government is still needlessly withholding information about these tapes from the public, despite the fact that the CIA’s use of torture is well known,” said Amrit Singh, staff attorney with the ACLU.

“Full disclosure of the CIA’s illegal interrogation methods is long overdue and the agency must be held accountable for flouting the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, Congress is taking action to end the Bush administration’s government-wide efforts to increase the classification of documents to thwart citizens’ requests for information under the FOIA.

The House of Representatives approved a measure to end what its sponsor calls pseudo-classification — creation of many new and ambiguous classification terms.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Steve Driehaus, a Democrat from Ohio, the bill would not only be a boon for the public, but an attempt to promote “a common language within government.”

The new FOIA guidelines issued by Attorney General Holder rescind the guidelines issued in 2001 by President Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft.

The new FOIA guidelines address both application of the presumption of disclosure and the effective administration of the FOIA across the government.

As to the presumption of disclosure, the attorney general directs agencies not to withhold records simply because they can technically do so.

In his memo, the attorney general encourages agencies to make discretionary disclosures of records and to release records in part whenever they cannot be released in full. — IPS