The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Will House Dems Stand Up to Obama on Torture Photos?

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | June 08, 2009 | Frazer Pugh

The Weekly Standard and Greg Sargent are both reporting that the House Democratic leadership is boldly (my characterization, not the Standard’s) standing up to the White House and the Senate, which last week passed an amendment to the appropriations bill that would allow Obama to keep those much-discussed detainee abuse photos secret.

The Lieberman-Graham Amendment, also known as The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act, is strongly supported by President Obama. It would amend the Freedom of Information Act — the same one Obama promised to construe liberally in favor of releasing information — to allow the president to conceal the photos of detainee abuse that the administration has already been ordered to produce in a pending lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Oddly, the Obama administration and Senate Democrats seem to have followed the advice of Andy McCarthy at National Review, who a few weeks ago specifically suggested that the administration need not follow the court order requiring release of the photos; Congress, with the White House’s support, could just amend FOIA or adopt a new law to allow Obama to conceal the photos, and avoid having to bother with the pesky federal court system, which so far hasn’t given the administration its way.

The only problem is, how is the Obama administration going to reconcile this move with the President’s eloquent promises on his first days in office?

Remember this Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government?

Government should be transparent.  Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.

Or this statement by Attorney General Eric Holder during his confirmation process?

I firmly believe that transparency is a key to good government.  Openness allows the public to have faith that its government obeys the law.

So isn’t it strange that the government, rather than appealing a court order pursuant to its rights under the law, now wants to defy the court by asking Congress simply to change the law?

I agree with Glenn Greenwald on this one:

If, as Obama claims, there are legitimate reasons to suppress these photos under FOIA’s exemptions (including its very broad national security exemptions), then the Supreme Court can reverse the two lower court rulings ordering disclosure — as Obama is asking it to do.  But there is no good reason to vest the Obama administration with the unilateral power to simply waive FOIA requirements simply because it loses in court and decides it doesn’t want to comply with court rulings and with current transparency laws.

And Nick Baumann at Mother Jones, who calls the photo suppression bill “an abomination that is reminiscent of the worst Bush-era excesses.”

It gives the executive branch the power to withhold an entire category of information from public scrutiny without any review. This law is Example A of the theory of the Presidency that says citizens should just trust the benevolent executive to do the right thing. Even in you oppose releasing some of the photos, I don’t see why you would want to give the White House the power to unilaterally decide what’s best. It says a lot about the Congress that members are willing to give Obama this kind of power. It says a lot about Obama that he supports this bill. Thank God for Barney Frank.

Well, except that late last week, Frank switched his vote.

In his recent speech at the National Archives, Obama said:

I ran for President promising transparency, and I meant what I said. That is why, whenever possible, we will make information available to the American people so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable. But I have never argued – and never will – that our most sensitive national security matters should be an open book. I will never abandon – and I will vigorously defend – the necessity of classification to defend our troops at war; to protect sources and methods; and to safeguard confidential actions that keep the American people safe. And so, whenever we cannot release certain information to the public for valid national security reasons, I will insist that there is oversight of my actions – by Congress or by the courts.

Now that the court has refused to give the president what he wants, he’s hoping Congress will. He’s won in the Senate already. Let’s see if the House Democrats will stand their ground on this one.

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