CIA Stance On Torture Tape Docs Suggests Obama’s New Open Government Era Won’t Materialize

June 9, 2009 9:49 a.m.

It’s looking more and more like Barack Obama’s pledge to usher in a new era of openness in government may well go unfulfilled.

Yesterday, administration lawyers cited national security concerns to argue that Bush-era documents detailing the videotaped interrogations of detainees should not be released. And in the wake of that news, open-government advocates are reluctantly acknowledging that, despite Obama’s campaign promises, his approach to secrecy on issues of national security will likely not depart significantly from that of George Bush.“The Obama administration is not going to represent an abrupt departure from Bush-era policy,” Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told TPMmuckraker. “If we thought they were, we were mistaken.”

He added that it’s no longer realistic to think that Obama’s administration will take a strong stand in favor of openness on national security issues. “We have to recalibrate our expectations.”

The news of the CIA’s position comes on the heels of several other administration decisions that have disappointed civil libertarians. Obama announced last month that he opposes the release of photos showing abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, and the administration has several times invoked the state secrets privilege in wiretapping and renditions cases.

Obama’s presidential campaign website declared last year that one “problem with Washington” was that “secrecy dominates government actions” and complained that the Bush administration “has invoked the state secrets privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court.”

Aftergood did point to one prominent decision in which Obama clearly differed with Bush by coming down in favor of openness: the release of the Justice Department’s OLC memos on torture. But he described this as an isolated case.

Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at UC Davis who has written extensively about the CIA’s track record of secrecy, agreed with Aftergood about the significance of the administration’s position on the interrogation tapes material.

“It’s a bad sign that they’re not going to break as much with the Bush administration as they had said they were going to,” Olmsted told TPMmuckraker. “I really want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but they certainly seem to be going down that path.”

Olmsted described the CIA’s position on the issue as more egregious than Obama’s decision to oppose the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. “You can make the argument that the photographs are so inflammatory that it’s going to help recruiting of terrorists” to release them, she said. “But just having the text of the interrogation, I think that’s really pushing it to say that that also is going to hurt national security.”

And Ken Gude, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress — whose founder and president, John Podesta, is a close administration ally — described the news as “frustrating.”

“I think that the argument [for secrecy] in the photos case is pretty strong,” Gude told TPMmuckraker. “I think the argument in this case is pretty weak.” He said that releasing the material at issue in the case was highly unlikely to reveal new information that could genuinely damage national security. “The information that’s likely to be in this material is not a great surprise,” he said.

Gude said he worried that the administration’s position could undermine other efforts to keep information secret for legitimate national security reasons. “There has to be a time in which the government can lawfully withhold information from the public that could be harmful.” But, he said, there’s also a need to maintain the credibility of the government. “I think it undermines the administration’s claims that really all it’s interested in is security. I’m worried that they’re losing that credibility.”

“I think the administration has an opportunity to change the way in which this whole issue of secrecy around detention and torture and detainee treatment is viewed,” he said, making it clear that it had not yet taken that opportunity, in his view.

Gude said he wasn’t ready to render a broader judgment on the administration’s approach to secrecy issues on national. “We’re not there yet,” he said, pointing out that Obama has been in office only five months. But, he allowed, “there is cause for concern.”

Obama’s approach to issues of secrecy on national security doesn’t mimic Bush’s alone, it appears. Rather, said Olmsted, it’s broadly in keeping with “every other presidential administration” of modern times. But, she added, “it’s disappointing, because President Obama promised a whole new era in government transparency, and here they go again concealing this information.”

Aftergood, for his part, said that many open government advocates, predisposed to give the president the benefit of the doubt, defended some of the earlier decisions in favor of secrecy by saying: “Oh, the administration is too new, they haven’t gotten their policies in place yet…the good stuff is still coming.”

But now, he lamented, that optimistic attitude is no longer tenable. It’s becoming clear, he said, that “the administration has made a different calculation.”

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