Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ann Richards & the FBI


             
            It’s easy to imagine what Ann Richards would have thought of the first term of the Obama presidency. They were cut from the same cloth, two liberal “outsiders” with insider’s moves struggling for a foothold in a white male world. Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House would have pleased former Gov. Richards not just for what it means to non-whites and our piece of the American dream but also for what it means to women.
            What she would have thought of President Obama today however, in his second term, would probably have been more nuanced. As Barack Obama enters the summer of his discontent or our first widespread stirrings of discontent with him there’s reason to believe she would also have been critical of her black brother. Civil liberties were after all what Ann Richards was all about. Dissent and the right to be different marked her public life. In a political career that spanned four decades from precinct worker to Governor of Texas Ann Richards gave a lot of speeches and took a lot of positions on topics as varied as feminism and the role in public life of the Bush clan, views that were not always considered “mainstream” at the time. She drew a lot of interest, some of it unwanted, not just from Bush la mère but also from agents of the federal government.
            Like the incumbent president, Gov. Richards was no agitator—no bomb-thrower—but she certainly was not standard political fare either, just as Barack Obama is not what we are used to in a national leader. The acknowledgement that the Obama Administration has targeted people who have questioned, or spoken up, or leaked—from Fox News to the Tea Party, to those radicals at Associated Press—might not have surprised Gov. Richards. It’s hard to surprise anyone who has worked for any time in the Texas Capitol. But she would probably have been disappointed.
           What would have made her angry is the Justice Department’s recent decision to keep her own FBI file under wraps. As is often true, censorship says more about the people keeping the secrets than the secrets themselves. It also speaks to black people in power. As an African-American, well—frankly we were supposed to be better than this.
            Apparently we’re not.
           


            A case for Ann Richard’s role in recent national history doesn’t really have to be made. For one thing the law doesn’t require it. Privacy rights terminate with death. Gov. Richards is past caring what the FBI wrote about her. We are not.
            If you did want to make a case though it would be pretty easy. According to the recent biography Let the People In, a civil rights group that Richards and her husband joined in Dallas, back in the day, was infiltrated by the FBI. Her cohorts as county commissioner in Austin, later in the day, received the corruption-related law enforcement attention they apparently deserved. Richards was also among a group of state Democratic officials who were targeted for a corruption investigation by the FBI during the administration of the first President Bush, attention that may or may not have been justified. As governor Ann Richards was actually taught how to shoot by FBI firearms experts as she attempted, unsuccessfully, to upgrade her law and order credentials against a hard-charging George W. Bush.
            Anyone who has actually seen a FBI file recognizes the historical value of the notorious “cables” from the field offices to Washington (now in the form of email) in which the agents discuss voting patterns, scandals both public and private and money—lots of it, especially in the Lone Star state. Understanding why the government wants to keep files closed is not difficult, FBI methods have not always been aboveboard, old hits and misses on the shooting range can still raise criticism. Yet there are so many reasons to condemn another bad decision on transparency by the Obama White House it’s hard to know just where to start.
             It’s worth noting at the start though that potentially the entire decision-making hierarchy on the refusal to release the Ann Richards file, from the president to the Attorney General to the administration’s “Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer,” otherwise known as Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, is African-American. (The presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by the way, Reggie Walton, is also black.) These individuals hold positions today because of civil liberties—civil rights—and ultimately, always, because of transparency: the fundamental right in society to know what the government has done and is doing. To ask questions and get fair answers. To criticize without putting a bullseye on your back. You can talk about Barack Obama making a mistake or “losing his way” in his second term but the evidence actually points to an administration that has devoted a lot of energy to keeping the public ill-informed during its first four years in office. These aren’t rash miscalculations by White House underlings. They constitute policy.
            If you consider why the Justice Department is withholding anything as mundane as the FBI dossier on a deceased former governor whose last act in office was nearly two decades ago, there are a couple of possibilities that stand out: One is that the FBI did something wrong in Richards’ past. That’s actually kind of a given. The Justice Department of the elder Bush went after Democratic Texas, leading ultimately to the rise of Bush the Younger and incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. Whether there was reason or not is debatable—actually there probably was good reason, the Texas Democratic Party of the time had been in power over a century and committed more than its share of abuses. Corruption investigations are often not much prettier than the corruption they investigate. The FBI may have screwed up or allowed itself to be politicized. That wouldn't be something new.
             Two, the Justice Department of a "liberal" Democratic president is withholding the file on a much-loved liberal Democratic politician in a state where the party hopes to make gains in the future. Why raise issues about old abuses by the FBI, or by Democratic officeholders? What's to be gained? The problem with this logic is that we're already near to becoming a society in which a major difference between classes is not just wealth or education—but whose information is public and whose is not. Yours and mine always is—but for select others that is not the case. If the government’s argument is that Richards only received the interest of the FBI because she was a public personality, politicians know that going in, don’t they? They are called “public figures” for a reason. Being famous has its perks and drawbacks and it’s hard to claim you chose the lifestyle without knowing what comes with it.
            A useful way to look at the withholding of Ann Richards’ FBI file is to consider the names directly involved in the decision: signing off were Janice McLeod and Ann D. Work, both lawyers of the “Office of Information Policy.” A brief search of these ladies’ recent accomplishments shows the administration’s real attitude toward disclosure: the denial that the U.S. Tax Court is actually a court in order not to have to release documents . . . the effort to deny an East Coast-based African-American journalist documents free of charge, as the law permits, on the grounds that because he writes opinion pieces he’s not really a journalist . . . and the amazing defense of FBI Director Robert Mueller who refused even to be served with a disclosure lawsuit by a Muslim former FBI employee who wanted to write about her experience in the Bureau. The Justice Department wants to leave the public with no choice but to sue to force disclosure, which the administration knows most individuals and even some publications cannot afford and do not dare—a lawsuit against the United States Government. Acting Associate Attorney General West, who wants the job permanently, has claimed great open records successes in testimony before Congress, arguing that his only reluctance to release information involves national security or on-going investigations or privacy matters, but clearly that’s not true. George Orwell was wrong, in any case. The issue of our age is not misinformation by government, it’s withholding information by government. Or seizing it. Ground Zero for the justification of that effort is the U.S. Department of Justice not Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.



            In March the Office of Information Policy which Tony West oversees held its annual “Sunshine Week Celebration.” That’s the actual name of the festivities.
            In a speech OIP Director Melanie Ann Pustay lauded her own office’s clearance of backlogged requests that she said illustrates “the progress we have made under the President’s and Attorney General’s leadership.”
            “In addition to responding to more requests, more quickly, agencies also continue to release more, providing records in full or in part in response to over 93 percent of requests where records were processed for disclosure, marking the fourth straight year that the government has achieved a release rate of over 92 percent. These numbers are more than just improved statistics. They represent hundreds of thousands of individuals, organizations, students, reporters and public interest groups, all of whom have received more information, more quickly to help them in their research, or their work, or simply to increase their understanding of the working of government.” Actually there have already been significant encroachments on disclosure under this administration.
            The FBI no longer routinely tells requestors how many pages are being withheld—which had been the best indication of the actual extent of disclosure. And what Ms. Pustay doesn’t say is what percent of requests have not been processed or are denied outright like Gov. Richards' file. Orwell was correct about one thing. Ours is an age in which the government uses a kind of info-speak that’s worse than meaningless. And in lieu of Orwellian “thoughtcrimes” we have information release crimes or government redactions. Ms. Pustay’s comments about the Obama Administration’s successes in transparency were actually made at a time the government was lying about surveillance of journalists. Someone has a credibility problem and it’s growing. What we saw on President Obama’s face when he began a charm offensive after the recent Fox News surveillance revelations were two emotions: fear and shame. These were exceptional displays because this is a president who is remarkable for maintaining his cool. The fear presumably relates to possible further disclosures. That the full nature of governmental surveillance and the full scope of IRS targeting of dissent has been made public seems unlikely. That much was apparent just reading the president’s face.
            The shame presumably related to betrayal of an ally. This president has received the most friendly press of any national leader in memory and has betrayed that kid-glove handling in a remarkable manner. You don’t feel sorry for reporters, who have gotten what we deserved. It’s the public’s right to know that will turn out to be the real victim here, not James Rosen at Fox News.
           What’s amazing is a civil liberties record by a Democratic president that is beginning to make the Bush years look enlightened. That this may well turn out to be a miscalculation by the administration seems probable. The press loves this president, loves his “story,” but loves itself more. There’s a real risk here for Barack Obama. If he thinks the Taliban is difficult to defeat, or Al Qaeda, he has no idea what to expect in a war with the Fourth Estate. Reporters are already looking ahead to the next occupant of the White House who may also offer a “first” storyline, like a woman, maybe even a straight-shooter and attractive media presence in the style of Ann Richards. That makes this president a tempting target even for liberal journalists.
            “There’s no upside for the government,” said a Texas attorney who specializes in disclosure commenting on the federal reluctance to open its files. Actually there’s one very good reason to release information. It's the law.
               
             
            

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