John Podesta, President Clintonís former Chief of Staff

Remarks at a press conference sponsored by the SCI FI Channel
Oct. 22, 2002 at the National Press Club

I thought I might start with the famous line by Admiral Stockdale: ďWho am I; what am I doing here?Ē Or maybe I should start with who I am not: Iíve never been followed by a tractor beam; Iíve never been bathed in the glow of a white light coming from the sky; I certainly have never been taken; and while my obsession (which for some of you was well known while I was in the White House) with the XFiles earned me the title of First Fan, I think I always understood the difference between fact and fiction. So I guess you could call me a skeptic.

But Iím skeptical about many things, including the notion that government always knows best, and that the people canít be trusted with the truth. Thatís why Iíve dedicated three decades of my life, both in private practice on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in my work at the White House, to the fundamental principle of protecting openness in government. As Harold Cross, the father of the Freedom of Information Act and a well-known journalism professor at the University of Missouri, said, ďThe right to speak and the right to print, without the right to know, are pretty empty.Ē

I believe that the notion of open government - the fundamental tenets of the Freedom of Information Act - are really part and parcel of our First Amendment rights. And I think itís worth going back and reminding you just exactly what those tenets really are that form the basis of that Act: that disclosure is the general rule, not the exception; that all individuals have equal right of access; that the burden is on the government to justify the withholding of a document, not on the person requesting it; and that individuals improperly denied access to documents have the right to seek injunctive relief in the courts. Thatís why Iím here today to add my voice to Bonnie, Leslie, and Leeís. I think itís time to open the books on questions that have remained in the dark; on the question of government investigations of UFOs. Itís time to find out what the truth really is thatís out there. We ought to do it because itís right; we ought to do it because the American people quite frankly can handle the truth; and we ought to do it because itís the law.

Let me explain what I mean by that: in 1995 President Clinton signed Executive Order 12958, which set tough standards for classifying documents, and led to an unprecedented effort to declassify millions of pages from our nations diplomatic and national security history. Before President Clinton signed that executive order, a tiny minority of classified documentsóonly 5%-- had a fixed classification date. Since the signing of that order, more than 50% of those documents are now marked for declassification in ten years or less. But even more significantly: during the five years that the executive order was in place, its policies resulted in the declassification of over 800 million pages of historically valuable records, with the prospect of many hundreds of millions more pages to be declassified in the next few years. To give you a bit of a comparison: in the previous fifteen years, the government had declassified a total of 188 million pages. So I think that was a singular accomplishment of the Clinton Administration. For future generations our history books will rely on the information contained in those declassified documents. Scholars, historians, journalists, everyday researchers around the world (not just in the United States) will explore the past and help guide our future.

But the work is not done: that order requires the automatic declassification of records that are twenty-five years or older, subject to a very narrow set of exceptions. And I want to note two of those: one is that the automatic declassification rule doesnít apply if it reveals the identity of a confidential human sourceóand I underline the word human. And I think that weíre not talking about that in the cases that ought to be looked at, reviewed and declassified. The other is that they would seriously or demonstrably undermine ongoing diplomatic activities of the United States. And unless we have ongoing diplomatic activities with people who are extraterrestrials that I am unaware of, I think that exception doesnít apply either. So, there are these cases in which documents havenít been made available to the American public. The American public is quite skeptical about the fact that the government wonít make them available for public inspection. These are records that are more than twenty-five years old. They ought to be declassified; they ought to be released; and we ought to be able to see for ourselves whatís included in them.

This morning, Dana Millbankís story in the Washington Post notes that our government does not always reveal the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and that even the highest leaders of our government donít always tell the facts just as they are. Thatís why freedom of information is so important, and the information that is included in the requests that we are discussing is so critical to be put in front of the American public, so that they can make their own judgments about the conduct of the program of investigation as well as the facts there that the Air Force and others have discovered.

 

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