A panel set up last year to reduce excessive secrecy in government is being labeled toothless after its chairman told lawmakers that he could not act except at the request of the president.
“The statute under which we operate provides that [President Bush] must request the board undertake such a review before it can proceed,” wrote L. Britt Snider, chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board, to Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.
Government transparency advocates say that if the statute is interpreted that way, it makes the board, in the words of Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, “a White House puppet.”
Mr. Aftergood said, “The board needs the capacity for independent action; otherwise it might as well not exist.”
The letter from Mr. Snider says it is “an interim response” to a request from Mr. Wyden and a bipartisan group of colleagues for the board to review two reports from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that assessed U.S. intelligence about Iraq before the 2003 invasion, in the light of what has been learned since.
“We believe that portions of these two reports remain unnecessarily classified,” wrote committee members Sens. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican; Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat; Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican; Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat; Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican; and Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, in a letter last month.
They requested that the board review the reports to see whether they were overclassified — the first test of the board’s role as a watchdog for secrecy policy.
“I think the intelligence community used their black highlighters excessively as they reviewed these reports,” Mr. Wyden said at the time. “I am particularly concerned it appears that information may have been classified to shield individuals from accountability.”
The board was established in law in 2000, after a 1997 recommendation from a commission headed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat. The board was set up, according to the statute, “To promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and … activities.”
But the administration did not appoint any members until September 2004, and no funds were appropriated for it until last year.
Now the board says it is stuck in the middle of a tussle about its authority between lawmakers and the White House.
“The White House position is they have to request “any review such as that of the Senate committee report,” Mr. Snider said. “The senators believe they can ask independently. … We’re kind of stuck in the middle.”
Mr. Snider said the board was “waiting for guidance from the White House” about how to proceed. The board’s executive secretary, J. William Leonard, added that the board was keen to get things right the first time around.
“There’s a desire that [this first request] is processed in accordance with the statute, because it will be establishing a precedent,” he said.