Associated Press
April 3, 2002

A clampdown on information tests the mettle of Washington's secret-busters

By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON -- Washington's secret-busters are used to long odds - it's always Big Government vs. Little Them.

Even so, they've been able over the years to make the CIA budget public (a battle won, then lost), get the government to share information on environmental hazards and keep White House officials from pressing the delete button on e-mails in the last days of the Reagan administration.

But these are especially tough times for exposing what government is up to. The Bush administration is secretive by nature and even more so by circumstance: Defining the boundaries of openness and secrecy has gotten more difficult since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the 1980s, Gary Bass won accolades for helping get a right-to-know law passed, giving the public access to environmental information on government databases.

Since Sept. 11, he's been getting hate mail from people who think he is aiding terrorists by trying to keep the information spigot open. One person wondered "how much blood will be on your hands," said Bass, director of OMB Watch, which keeps an eye on the White House Office of Management and Budget.

"The biggest battle now is the slippage from right-to-know to need-to-know," said Bass.

Steven Aftergood once helped persuade the government to detail the CIA's budget, only to see the victory reversed. He says prying secrets from the feds is like detective work without the gumshoe glamor or shootouts.

"There's not much sex and violence, but there are unexpected discoveries and leads to track down," said Aftergood, who is with the Federation of American Scientists. "That's what makes the work exciting."

The excitement comes in measured steps, though.

"You need to have the endurance to get past the first obstacle - the glacial pace," he said. "Beyond that, you have to be a kind of library rat."

The secret-busters are well aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of what they do.

Kate Martin is still amazed that she and a fellow lawyer, armed with a word processor and a lot of nerve, were able to face off against a dozen government lawyers in 1989 and win.

The two succeeded in stopping White House officials from deleting e-mails on President Reagan's last full day in office. They argued these records should be preserved along with the rest of Reagan's papers.

Martin, now director of the Center for National Security Studies at The George Washington University, today is a lead attorney in a Freedom of Information Act case seeking the disclosure of the identities of hundreds of individuals who were arrested and jailed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Because of the clampdown, there's a lot people don't know, on top of the volume of material they haven't been able to squeeze out of the government in the past.

"The objective of this administration is to cut back as far as it can on openness," said David Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which has fought some 300 lawsuits challenging government secrecy since 1972.

"You see it with respect to Congress, the public," he said, "and much of it predates 9-11."

Even the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has trouble getting information out of the White House. The GAO has sued to get access to records showing who met with Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force as it developed energy policy.

Even the secret-busters, though, are taking a second look at what they're making it easier for the public to access.

Aftergood, who has posted a trove of online information about U.S. weapons and strategic installations, deleted floor plans of nuclear weapons storage sites from his group's Web site after the attacks.

"I take the administration's actions to be mostly in good faith," Aftergood said. "There are people out there intent on killing Americans and they are trying to respond accordingly."

But the wider goal of getting out the most information remains.

"Information is power, and if you want to participate in the political process, access to information is a prerequisite," he said.

Over the years, hundreds of millions of pages of government records have been released as the result of federal law, freedom-of-information lawsuits and other dogged pursuits.

Greatest hits include President Nixon's papers and tapes and records about the assassination of President Kennedy.

There are hundreds of other lesser-known examples: grand jury records in the spy case of Alger Hiss; thousands of pages from notebooks kept by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the Iran-contra scandal; documents revealing the risks of silicone breast implants; names of companies that made shoddy air bags.

Steven Garfinkel was once a gatekeeper of government information as director of the office that oversees security classification programs. Just before he retired in December, he joked he was a "government hack defending the right of the government to keep information secret."

"I leave government most proud of having protected every bit of the classified information in which I have been entrusted," Garfinkel said.

But he conceded: "No one can be expected to take secrecy seriously if far too much information that is no longer sensitive remains classified."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press

On the front lines of the war on government secrecy

By The Associated Press
April 3, 2002

Several ongoing battles in the war on government secrecy:

Copyright 2002 Associated Press