President’s Program: Secrets Expert Tells All

July 12, 2009

The same day that National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton keynoted the ALA President's Program, a front-page article in the New York Times revealed that former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to withhold information from Congress about a secret counterterrorism program. Blanton noted that as President Gerald Ford's chief of staff, Cheney had convinced him to veto amendments strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. Congress overrode Ford's veto, allowing Blanton to show his audience 35 years later declassified government documents obtained by the NSA through FOIA requests. An ALA member since 1986, Blanton said "I've learned at the feet of some ALA activists for intellectual freedom and open government." One of the NSA's first FOIA requests in 1988, was for documents relating to the Library Awareness Program, a 1960s effort in which the FBI asked librarians to look out for users with foreign-sounding names and accents. Since then the NSA has filed 36,000 FOIA requests that have "liberated," as Blanton put it, 8 to 10 million pages. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush White House had “a testosterone attack," Blanton noted. Among the measures implemented in the name of national security was a wiretapping program that was later found by the inspector general to be ineffective because of the secrecy with which it was conducted. “Essentially, security mania broke out in our government in these last eight years,” Blanton said. Blanton documented the rising rate of security classifications by the government, which is now twice that of the height of the cold war23 million last year. He argued that the government performs a massive amount of overclassification, driving home his point by presenting side-by-side comparisons of documents that had been declassified under Clinton and subsequently reclassified under Bush; the reclassified documents removed extensive material that had not been redacted under the original declassification. Although President Obama had "made transparency and openness the key to his Senate career, Blanton said he has continued to cover up the warrantless wiretapping program, blocked the release of hundreds of torture photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners, fought against the release of the White House visitors list, and even argued against the release of an interview Cheney gave regarding the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson because of fears that it might end up on The Daily Show. Comparing librarians' values to those prevailing in Washington, Blanton remarked, "Every person in this room has an ethical posture that's 180 degrees away from this." He concluded, "openness is our protection, not secrecy."