Editorial: Obama’s secrets

The Obama administration should rethink its outrageous proposal that would allow the government to lie to citizens about whether documents exist.

One of the most disappointing attributes of the Obama administration has been its proclivity for secrecy. The president who committed himself to “an unprecedented level of openness in government” has followed the example of his predecessor by invoking the “state secrets” privilege to derail litigation about government misdeeds in the war on terror. He has refused to release the administration’s secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, which two senators have described as alarming. He has blocked the dissemination of photographs documenting the abuse of prisoners by U.S. service members. And now his Justice Department has proposed to allow government agencies to lie about the existence of documents being sought under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Even without the new rule, federal law enforcement agents have denied the existence of important documents. In a lawsuit involving surveillance of Muslim organizations in Southern California, the FBI was reprimanded by a federal judge. “The Government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the court,” wrote Judge Cormac J. Carney. The FBI justified its misrepresentation by citing national security.