Progressive Librarians Guild Statement on the Open the Government.org

The letter below was sent to the Progressive Librarians Guild Coordinating Committee by Open the Government (OTG) for co-sponsorship. PLG co-sponsors and supports many OTG  statements and signons, but this time we declined. The issue the open letter addresses, secret laws and legal interpretations governing U.S. surveillance and espionage activity, is indeed important, but the PLG-CC decided it could not endorse the weakly framed letter to President Obama as written by OTG.

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-----Original Message-----
From: Amy Bennett
Sent: Oct 18, 2013 9:23 PM

This is a reminder to email me (abennett@openthegovernment.org) by Monday, October 21 at 10 am to add your organization to the below letter urging President Obama to pledge to cub secret law in the US ‘ new round of Open Government Partnership (OGP) commitments scheduled to be delivered in London later this month. Current signatories are included.
 
Learn more about the OGP here: http://www.opengovpartnership.org/
 
-Amy
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Dear President Obama:
 
On behalf of citizens who support an open and accountable government, we are writing to urge you to pledge as part of the US’ new round of Open Government Partnership commitments to curb the secret law that enabled the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to become much broader and more invasive than it was believed the law allowed.
 
As you well know, secret legal interpretations by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowed the NSA’s surveillance programs to grow in ways that raise serious concerns about what the government is doing in our name and the extent of violations of American’s privacy and civil liberties. Documents released to the media about the NSA’s programs further raise critical questions about the scope of the US’ activities abroad, leading the President of Brazil and others to question whether the US’ programs breach international law.
 
This is not the first time that abuses of power have occurred when a government program operates in a bubble of secrecy with only limited oversight: similarly, Americans were outraged to learn that memos authored by the OLC during the Bush Administration approved interrogation methods that many equate to torture. Your release of these memos demonstrated a respect for the public’s right to know how the government interprets the law. Making a concrete commitment to the public’s right to legal interpretations would make this respect part of the administration’s legacy. While the government has an absolute obligation to protect properly and appropriately classified information, democracy does not thrive when our national security programs and the intelligence community’s actions are shrouded in secrecy. The public must, at the very least, have a shared understanding of the bounds and limits of our laws land and be able to have an informed debate about our policies.
 
During the meeting of the Open Government Partnership in London, you have a unique opportunity to address this issue head-on on an international stage. By committing to give the public access to documents that that significantly interpret laws, including – but not limited to—the Department of Justice’s legal interpretations and opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), you can both address domestic concerns about our surveillance programs, and begin to rebuild trust with our international partners.
 
Thank you in advance for your attention to this issue of critical importance to transparent and accountable government. To discuss these issues in greater detail, please contact Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, at pmcdermott@openthegovernment.org or 202-332-6736.
 
Sincerely,

ARTICLE 19
Californians Aware
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington – CREW
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Privacy Information Center – EPIC
First Amendment Foundation
Government Accountability Project – GAP
James Madison Project
Liberty Coalition
National Coalition Against Censorship
OpenTheGovernment.org
PolitiHacks
Project On Government Oversight – POGO
Sunlight Foundation
Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University
Washington Civil Rights Council

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Dear Amy Bennett,

We feel that the Obama administration needs to be forcefully admonished for its continuing violations of law under the cloak of government secrecy, practices which, while the administration professes commitment to openness, have not only continued unabated but have proliferated and become more egregious and which, moreover, are justified ,rationalized and/or covered-up by administration spokespersons.

We feel that operating under the pretense that the administration is truly committed to openness, in light of recent revelations as well as past history, and needs only to be "urged" to "curb" practices like secret laws and legal interpretations, is to provide cover for a regime of actual, on-going violations of the most basic rights not only of US citizens but of the international community through surveillance, data collection, and secret operations.

While, of course, we support the idea of ending the secret laws and legal interpretations which are inconsistent with any meaningful notion of "transparency" in democratic governance, we feel it is too tepid a response to the recent revelations of the governments virtually unchecked and cynical behavior. It does not help to allow, as Patrice McDermott does, that "the government has an absolute obligation to protect properly and appropriately classified information." An "absolute obligation" is very strong indeed while "properly and appropriately classified" is a weak concept when, as we know, the government always believes its information is "properly and appropriately" kept secret.

Hoping that you understand our reservations,

Coordinating Committee, Progressive Librarians Guild


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