BILL MOYERS: Eileen Welsome learned just how hard it is to find out what government doesn't want us to know. She won a Pulitzer Prize for searching out secrets dating back fifty years, to the dawn of the atomic age.
EILEEN WELSOME (AUTHOR, THE PLUTONIUM FILES): I had come across a footnote in a scientific report describing 18 humans who had been injected with plutonium during the Manhattan Project.
MOYERS: The Manhattan Project created the first atomic bomb. To study the effects of radiation on human beings, scientists working on the bomb injected unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium. It was all top secret.
WELSOME: The names of the scientists and the names of the patients were blacked out. And I was simply horrified. I wanted to find out who they were, why were they injected, did they develop cancer, did they have pain? What happened to them and why was it done?
MOYERS: She started her search in 1987. But the patients were identified only by number. Welsome wanted their names. So she turned to a law passed by Congress twenty years earlier to safeguard the public's right to know. It's called the Freedom of Information Act...also known as FOIA.
WELSOME: All of these individuals were found with the help of scraps of information that came from the FOIA request that I filed.
MOYERS: She found that, with one exception, none of the patients had any idea what had been done to them. And none of their relatives knew for fifty years.
WELSOME: ...If the Freedom of Information Act means anything, it ought to mean that I should get documents on these 18 forgotten people.
MOYERS: Over many years, using the Freedom of Information Act, she forced the Department of Energy to release thousands of documents a shocking story of half a century of official deceit and dangerous science.
WELSOME: We were able to take these people who had lost their humanity and had been reduced to numbers by the federal government and restore to them their names.
MOYERS: Her reporting brought an official apology from the government and a condemnation of the secret experiments.
JANE KIRTLEY (PROFESSOR OF MEDIA ETHICS & LAW, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA): Government does make mistakes. And I don't think the public demands infallibility from its government. I certainly don't. Accountability is what we demand. And we should have the tools that make it possible for us to compel the government to tell us what it's up to, how it's carrying out our business and to instruct the government to take corrective steps when mistakes are made. Ultimately what we're really talking about is not so much looking back, but looking forward to make sure that the mistakes that have been made in the past are not repeated.
MOYERS: There have been other hard-won battles to open government archives in the almost 40 years since the Freedom of Information Act became law. We have learned about Medicare fraud, CIA assassination manuals, the My Lai massacre. We have learned about underage children forced to work in factories, and how wealthy corporate farms pocket taxpaper subsides.
THOMAS SUSMAN (FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT EXPERT): Agencies have never thought it a very good idea to make information public. Surprise! It's more work. It may, in fact, reveal something that you don't want known about your decision-making. And it's always a lot easier to operate in the shadows.
MOYERS: President Richard Nixon knew all about operating in the shadows, as we learned from tapes he recorded in secret.
PRESIDENT NIXON: "We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?"
MOYERS: The President of the United States is about to give his aides an extraordinary order. He is instructing them to break into a respected Washington think tank.
PRESIDENT NIXON: "Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute's safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that it makes somebody else look bad."
MOYERS: If Richard Nixon had had his way, we might never have heard him ordering that illegal break-in. He claimed the tapes belonged to him and would not be made public.
KUTLER: He made his decision on the 6th to resign – and he leaves on the 9th. And there really wasn't much chance to pack up everything, but things were being packed up and were going to be shipped to California.
And on September 10th, there is an agreement between the Ford Administration – the General Services Administration and Nixon – for the disposal of this material that would have him allowed him to even to destroy it.
MOYERS: But Congress stepped in with emergency legislation and declared the tapes to be public property. The act would eventually be broadened to set a new standard of openness for the records of all future Presidents.
KUTLER: For twelve years after he leaves office, the President has exclusive access to his papers. In other words, Presidents then are free to peddle their memoirs, use their papers for money. The recent President of the United States has sold his memoirs for $9 million. At the end of twelve years, however, those papers which were generated with public funds, by public servants, belong to the public.
There was a wonderful consensus that we owe something to our history and to ourselves as a people, to understand what happened. History that's made up is the endeavor of a totalitarian state not this state.
MOYERS: Gerald Ford was sworn in as President three minutes after Nixon resigned. Ford swiftly signed the legislation declaring Nixon's Presidential records public property.
But when Congress – in another reaction to the Nixon scandals moved to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Ford administration resisted.
MOYERS: The year was 1974. President Ford's chief of staff at the time was a young man named Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld's deputy was another young man named Dick Cheney.
THOMAS BLANTON (EXEC. DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE): President Ford vetoed the Freedom of Information Act as we know it today. And he vetoed it because he and Rumsfeld and Cheney believed that it took away too much Presidential power. It allowed courts to order the release of documents even when the President said they shouldn't be released. Then, these guys fought it tooth and nail and lost. Now - these guys are re-opening those battles, and with ninety percent approval ratings, they think they can win.
MOYERS: Back then, Congress overrode Ford's veto of the Freedom of Information Act.
Today, Dick Cheney is the Vice President of the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense.
KIRTLEY: President Bush, it's hard to say what his personal views are, but he has included people in his administration who have indicated in the past their predilection towards secrecy and what I would characterize as their outright contempt for the public right to know.
MOYERS: Soon after he took office, George W. Bush made his own feelings known.
QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE (PRESS CONFERENCE TAPE): Would you take this moment to articulate your own view of First Amendment freedoms and give us a sense of the fundamental message that you will send to your Administration as it makes decisions on whether to open or close access to government information?
President BUSH (FROM TAPE): Yeah. I – uh – heh – yes. There needs to be balance when it comes to freedom of information laws. There are some things that when I discuss in the privacy of the Oval Office – or national security matters – that should just not be in the national arena. I'll give you one area, though, where I'm very cautious and that's about e-mailing. I used to be an avid e-mailer. And I e-mailed to my daughters or e-mailed to my father. And I don't want those e-mails to be in the public domain. So I don't e-mail any more. Out of concern for freedom of information laws, but also concern for my privacy. And, uh, but we'll cooperate with the press unless we think it's a matter of national security or something that's entirely private.
SUSMAN: The President sets the tone for the executive branch. When the President says, "I've stopped using e-mail because of the Freedom of Information Act", you know, I think that that sends the wrong message to those government employees who generate documents on e-mail that constitute official public records. And so to somehow inhibit the generation of records that constitute our nation's history, is setting the wrong tone.
MOYERS: Once the tone was set, the policy followed. On November 1st of last year, President Bush quietly issued a sweeping Executive Order that despite its title effectively repealed the Presidential Records Act. Even some of his strongest supporters were taken aback.
CONGRESSMAN BURTON: We're talking about things that are not national security issues. We're talking about other issues that need to be explored and looked at very thoroughly.
MOYERS: Republican Dan Burton had fought to impeach Bill Clinton over White House secrets. Now, it is the President from his own party whose secrecy alarms him.
CONGRESSMAN BURTON: The Executive Order very simply says that unless the previous President or the President want those documents from the archives released, they cannot be released unless whoever wants them goes to court to get them.
MOYERS: In other words, if a scholar, historian, teacher, or any citizen wants access to records of previous Presidents, a lawsuit is the only way to get it.
STANLEY KUTLER (PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN): And more than that more than that it's wonderful the kind of guarantees that are built in here. If, for example, some obscure history professor somewhere wishes to challenge a former President's refusal to release his materials and takes him to court, this Executive Order provides that the Department of Justice will defend the former President. You know, Richard Nixon spent a young fortune on lawyers for the better part of twenty years, much of which was spent resisting this kind of thing. Now, Richard Nixon had to pay for that himself, which explains why he wrote so many books to pay for these things. But it's true. It's true. Now, here though, President Bush is giving legal cover to his predecessors.
BLANTON: Not only could the former President veto, the former President's kids, and representatives and former Vice Presidents. This Executive Order is the first time that Vice Presidents have ever been given their own executive privilege, separate from the President. And I don't think it's exactly coincidence that the first Vice President who gets to use this new privilege is George W. Bush's father, from his tenure under Reagan.
President REAGAN (FROM TAPE): "To eliminate the widespread but mistaken perception that we have been exchanging arms for hostages, I have directed that no further sales of arms of any kind be sent to Iran."
REPORTER (FROM TAPE): Vice President Bush, did you know about the Contra aid, or not, sir?
MOYERS: Under the Presidential Records Act, tens of thousands of pages from the Reagan administration had been readied for release in January, 2001. That very month, George W. Bush, the son of Reagan's Vice President, was sworn in as President.
Not only are his own father's papers now protected by the executive order, he will be able under the order to deny future scrutiny of his own administration.
KUTLER: I knew at the beginning of President Bush's term that the law was in some trouble because one of his aides said, well, twelve years may not be enough time. And I asked whether what do you need? Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, a hundred? Or is any too many? And I think that's it. Any is too many.
KUTLER: And then September 11th happened. An Executive Order that I'm sure had long been in the works came down. And it was justified in the name of national security, and in effect September 11th. And it has nothing to do with September 11th.
MOYERS: It wasn't only the Presidential Records Act the current Bush administration set out to cripple. In a directive also drafted before September 11th, Attorney General John Aschroft encouraged federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information requests.
BLANTON: On October 12th, Attorney General Ashcroft sent around a memo to all the agencies. And the memo simply said, If you can find any good reason, legal reason – the exact phrase was "sound legal basis" – for withholding information, we'll back you up.
KIRTLEY: What he's saying is, the deliberations of the agencies, the information that they obtain and exchange, the whole, how we get to where we are in our governmental policy is not gonna be something that will be readily available to the public. That's not democracy in my view. It may be an efficient way for a government to operate, but I don't think we can call it a democracy.
BLANTON: The Ashcroft message is cover your rear, cover our rear. Don't let information out. And get technical, get legal and damn the torpedoes. We'll deal with the litigation when it comes.
SUSMAN: Unlike constitutional principles that will survive one Congress after another, one administration after another, the Freedom of Information Act is more fragile. It's something that I think we all take for granted.
TOM BLANTON: The people's right to know is on the run right now. We have an administration in Washington that - they see their job in Washington to recoup all the ground that the people's right to know has gained over the last thirty years. We gained that ground for the people's right to know in order to prevent another Vietnam or another Watergate or a kind of unaccountable Washington that we used to have.
CONGRESSMAN BURTON (R-IN): I'm a Republican and George W. Bush is one of my heroes. He's a Republican. I think he's doing a fine job in the war and the economy. But this flies in the face of openness in government. And while I understand every President wants to protect their turf and keep people from overseeing what they're doing, it's the responsibility of Congress to do just that. I believe a veil of secrecy has descended around the administration and I think that's unseemly.
MOYERS: America is at war and Washington is in a state of high alert. In the name of national security, the white house has denied Congress information it has sought, restricted reporters in their coverage, decreed secret military tribunals, and sealed off thousands of pages of public records.
KIRTLEY: Security and secrecy are not synonymous, but the Bush administration acts as if they are. What's happening here is that the Bush administration, I feel, is exploiting the public's legitimate concern about national security and turning that into carte blanche to say, anything we decide we don't want to share with the public we will withhold on grounds of secrecy.
The irony of all of this is that at the very time when I think the actions of government need to be scrutinized very closely, the roadblocks that have been set up by the Bush administration are going to make it very difficult for the public, for Congress, really for anybody who has an interest in the outcome, which is all of us, to find out what's going on. And the attitude of the Bush administration, frankly, seems to me to be that it's none of our business.
MOYERS: But the accountability of power is the public's business. Just ask Eileen Welsome. Without the Freedom of Information act, what the government did to its own citizens secretly injecting them with radioactive plutonium might never have been known. And Elmer Allen might have remained...just a number in a filing cabinet.
WELSOME: I went back to Elmer's grave and his family had put up a beautiful new headstone. Elmer Allen, the tombstone said, "One of America's human nuclear guinea pigs." He had been a human being up until he was injected with plutonium and from that date in 1947 until the day he died, he was a number.
WELSOME: What are reporters gonna be finding out fifty years from now about what is going on right now in the post-September 11th period. I mean are we gonna find out horrendous things in fifty years about what's been happening in the last four months? And is it going to take fifty years to find out this information?