There is no question that President Bush believed that he was doing the necessary and right thing in making secret decisions and setting secret policies as commander in chief against the jihadists. But how will the next president know what has been done in our name, and whether the resulting practices were, as Mr. Bush kept telling us, within the law? Accordingly, Steven Aftergood (whose online Secrecy News I have often cited in this column) — director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists — has presented a quintessential challenge to the leading presidential candidates in an article for the Nieman Watchdog, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
“By now no one expects the Bush Administration to make itself accountable for its controversial and possibly illegal practices.” But the next president will have the authority to declassify and disclose any and all records that reflect the activities of executive branch agencies. … It goes without saying that genuine national security secrets such as confidential sources and legally authorized intelligence methods should be protected from disclosure,” he writes. But with regard to other secret actions and policies, Mr. Aftergood continues, “the new Administration could demonstrate a clean break with its predecessor, and lay the foundation for a more transparent and accountable Presidency.”
Mr. Aftergood asks the candidates fighting for the Oval Office: “Will you disclose the full scope of Bush Administration domestic surveillance activities affecting American citizens, including all surveillance actions that were undertaken outside of the framework of law, as well as the legal opinions that were generated to justify them?” But on Feb. 12, Sen. John McCain voted for Mr. Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping. Sen. Hillary Clinton said she would have opposed it. Sen. Barack Obama was against it.
I would include the legal opinions of not only former attorneys general John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, but most certainly those of their successor, Michael Mukasey, the more strategically opaque true believer in executive power in these jihadist times. Mr. Aftergood also asks candidates Mr. McCain, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama to look into the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions,” pointing out that, “the U.S. Government has seized suspected terrorists and transported them without any semblance of judicial process to foreign countries where they have been tortured.” And he also asks, what legal justification and authority did the president use in allowing these “renditions,” according to the classified orders by which he gave the CIA special powers?
These kidnappings and subsequent tortures have done much to discredit the United States in countries from which the suspects were taken — and they have interfered with our intelligence gathering from officials there who are now accused of complicity with American disregard of the laws of those sovereign nations. Also adding to the assaults on our reputation in countries that are not our enemies are such previously classified presidential supports for “coercive interrogations,” including waterboarding. Mr. Aftergood asks the frontrunners for the next presidency to find out:
“On what authority did interrogators engage in what has long been considered a prosecutable action (waterboarding)? What other coercive interrogation techniques have been adopted? … If there is to be accountability for the interrogation of prisoners in U.S. custody, the first step must be a forthright disclosure of what the Bush Administration has done.”
The next president can do that. Mr. Aftergood quotes Mr. McCain: “Excessive administration secrecy… feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public’s confidence in government.” And he cites Mr. Obama: “I’ll turn the page on a growing empire of classified information. We’ll protect sources and methods, but we won’t use sources and methods to hide the truth.” Mr. Aftergood also quotes Mrs. Clinton: “We need a return to transparency and a system of checks and balances, to a president who respects Congress’ role of oversight and accountability.”
But I haven’t heard any of the frontrunners stress this need for a clean break with the Bush administration’s use of a “unitary executive” doctrine to cloak these and other extrajudicial — and indeed extralegal — practices in deep secrecy. Will they publicly agree to Mr. Aftergood’s challenge to “declassify and disclose” these and other Bush administration policies that — unless exposed to sunlight — could continue to be embedded in executive agencies in the new administration?
In 1772, John Adams warned: “Trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty!” That not only includes the Bush government’s pervasive surveillance of us, but also America’s trust around the world to actually live by the values we are fighting, along with other nations, to protect against the terrorists.
The press and the nation’s voters should ask these candidates whether they will start clean in the Oval Office.