Friday, August 24, 2007

White House Shell Game

NYT Editorial

The Bush administration’s obsession with secrecy took another absurd turn this week. The administration is claiming that the White House Office of Administration is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, even though there are some compelling reasons to think it is. Like the fact that the office has its own FOIA officer. And it responded to 65 FOIA requests last year. And the White House’s own Web site, as of yesterday, insisted the office is covered by FOIA.

The administration’s logic-free claim about the Office of Administration follows fast on the heels of Vice President Dick Cheney’s laughable claim that he was immune to an open-government law because his office supposedly was not an executive agency.

The fight over the Office of Administration’s status is part of a larger battle over access to an estimated five million e-mail messages that have mysteriously disappeared from White House computers. The missing messages are important evidence in the scandal over the firing of nine United States attorneys, apparently because they refused to use their positions to help Republicans win elections. The Office of Administration seems to know a lot about when and how those messages disappeared, but it does not want to tell the public.

What exactly does the administration want to hide? It is certainly acting as if the e-mail messages would confirm suspicions that the White House coordinated the prosecutors’ firings and that it may have broken laws. It is hard to believe the administration’s constant refrain that there is nothing to the prosecutor scandal when it is working so hard to avoid letting the facts about it get out.

The administration’s refusal to comply with open-government laws is ultimately more important than any single scandal. The Freedom of Information Act and other right-to-know laws were passed because government transparency is vital to a democracy. The American people cannot monitor their elected officials, and ensure that they act in the public interest, if government is allowed to operate under a veil of secrecy.

Fortunately, the White House does not have the final say on the Office of Administration. It made its absurd arguments to a federal judge who can restore some logic to the situation by ruling that the Freedom of Information Act applies, and the data must be turned over.

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