Jim Lee: No privilege for keeping secrets

President Barack Obama in 2012 should follow the advice of Sen. Barack Obama in 2007 and come clean with the American people regarding the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" operation.

That operation, which allowed guns to flow from buyers in the U.S. to Mexico, ostensibly so that the agency could track them to their ultimate destination and make high level arrests that went beyond the street-level gun buyers, went awry when they lost the guns.

At least two of those guns were later found to have been used in the murder of ICE agent Jaime Zapata. The guns also are feeding the ongoing bloody violence of drug cartels, with many civilians getting caught in the crossfire.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has been investigating Fast and Furious, voted to find Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over the documents.

In attempting to keep the documents secret, Obama declared executive privilege. The administration is arguing that thousands upon thousands of documents related to the operation have been turned over to the committee, and the ones in question fall into the category of "deliberative process." Releasing documents of that type, the administration says, is something that administrations in the past - both Republican and Democrat - have not done because they fear doing so would make staff less likely to speak freely in discussions about sensitive matters.

The fear of staff being able to speak freely is a worn and tired excuse that governments roll out every time they can't think of a legitimate reason for withholding documents or holding open meetings. Seldom, if ever, does the excuse stand the test of reason.

Democrats have charged that the Republican-led committee is merely trying to smear Obama with this investigation, which probably has more than a little to do with the fact that Holder hasn't been entirely cooperative. But if you consider that the practice of "gun-walking" - which is what the Justice department calls it when they let guns go through U.S. buyers to drug cartels untouched with the hope of eventually getting bigger fish down the line - was started under the Bush administration, then you can take the political party argument and set it aside.

Both parties at one point or another approved of this program, so it isn't a "Democrat" or "Republican" thing. Instead, it should be a discussion about the wisdom of programs like this. Unfortunately, without all the information regarding what went in to giving this program a stamp of approval, the American public - and all the pundits blowing smoke about how good or bad it is - can't make that determination.

For years authorities have used a similar practice in fighting drug-runners. Arguably, letting drugs go to the streets has probably resulted in many deaths as well. And earlier this year the FBI infiltrated a group of men who wanted to blow up a bridge over Cuyahoga Valley National Park as part of a May Day protest. The FBI gave the men a fake explosive device, and then arrested them before they could carry out their plan. The difference in this case, obviously, is that the explosive device was a fake. The guns flowing into Mexico are real. They shoot real bullets and, as a result, people have died.

In matters that have to do with national security, and even in some police investigations, there is a legitimate point to be made for keeping information secret. But the concept of executive privilege, whether it is the President of the United States, the Governor of Maryland or our own elected officials right here in Carroll, is one that goes against everything this country was built on.

We are a government of the people. Elected officials at all levels are supposed to be answerable to us. There are plenty of laws on the books, from the exemptions in the federal Freedom of Information Act that protect national secrets to those in the Maryland Public Information Act that elected officials can use to justify withholding information, as long as they have a legitimate reason.

Elected officials should have no special exemptions to protect them from divulging information that rightfully belongs to each and every one of us. And allowing the exemption to continue, or not challenging their use, amounts to us giving up our right to govern ourselves as we see fit.

Obama the campaigner had it right when he criticized George Bush for using executive privilege. Obama the President should keep true to his own words.

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