Tuesday, 20 January 2009

“I think he’s long-winded because he’s informational.” Said of Joe Biden by young Damon Weaver, but perhaps applicable to the new administration generally. Obama signed an executive order re-viscerating the Freedom of Information Act this morning: The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known. To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law. I will also hold myself as President to a new standard of openness. Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution. Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency. I quote at length because, like the boy says, the new administration’s informational. Not so informational as to have the text of the executive orders available to the public yet, but it should only be a matter of time. I write “should” instead of “will” because conservatives might be right: all this could be simple showmanship; that is, Obama could be saying his administration heralds a new era of accountability while squirreling away all the important memos with Cheney’s “Treated as Top Secret/S.C.I.” stamp. But this potential criticism demonstrates why conservatives find themselves in a bind: to make it, they must confess that they believe opacity is a virtue; that the President alone—without the advice of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer—decides how informational his office need be. (All such complaints exercise the same double standard that has conservatives wishing Bush had abrogated the powers he’d concentrated in the executive office before he left it. How will they hash Obama’s apparent willingness to return them to their proper place? By changing the topic.) We can expect, then, that cries of the coming socialism will be bolstered by partisan fiskings of the very facts the Bush administration would’ve withheld from the public. While they may acknowledge the facts themselves, their import will be lost on them because...

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