On Inauguration Day, I promised to offer praise for Barack Obama when he pursued good policy, and it didn’t take long. Yesterday, Obama issued an executive order rolling back executive privilege on White House records, ensuring more openness not only for his administration but for those preceding it:
President Barack Obama, in his first full day in office, revoked a controversial executive order signed by President Bush in 2001 that limited release of former presidents’ records.
The new order could expand public access to records of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the years to come as well as other past leaders, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. …
Under Bush’s order, former presidents had broad ability to claim executive privilege and could designate others including family members who survive them to exercise executive privilege on their behalf.
Obama’s new order gives ex-presidents less leeway to withhold records, Aftergood said, and takes away the ability of presidents’ survivors to designate that privilege.
Separately, an Obama memorandum issued Wednesday also appears to effectively rescind a 2001 memo by President Bush’s then-Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft giving agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests.
Obama’s one significant legislative accomplishment came when he partnered with Tom Coburn to force the federal government to create a searchable database of the federal budget. This follows that effort at openness, and it couldn’t come at a better time. When the federal government begins to see itself as a guarantor of private industry and throws tons of money at every wailing mouth, we need to have access to the records of how those decisions get made, both in the White House and throughout the bureaucracy. This executive order will facilitate that.
I believe in executive privilege for presidents to work effectively with their advisors, but the Bush administration made a big mistake with these two orders. Government belongs to the people, and it should be as open and accountable as possible. Only national security should keep the internal workings of our government from the eyes of the people who give it its power, or eventually we will become its slaves instead of its master. Extending executive privilege beyond death was particularly senseless, as no one elected family members to make decisions about what can and cannot be available for review by citizens.
So far, I’m mostly unimpressed with Barack Obama, but this much he got right.
Update: Some interesting arguments in the comments, but this one puzzles me:
Of course it won’t do any such thing. The purpose of confidential records is not just to allow you to be secretly naughty; it’s to ensure that you’re not afraid to document things.
Well, if no one can see the documents, they don’t do anyone much good, do they? I’d rather have access to somewhat fewer records than never see a pile of them.
Besides, the nature of government is to produce massive amounts of documentation as a CYA. The more a bureaucracy grows, the more documents it produces and the more complete it gets. One of the more interesting aspects of the Nazi regime was how well they documented their own crimes, which surprised historians. They had to do so, though, in order to ensure that they met the goals of their bosses. (And no, I’m not comparing Obama to the Nazis.)
We’re going to have plenty to criticize about the Obama administration, but this one he got right. In a period of time when one party controls Washington, we need all the sunlight we can get.