The timing of the Sunshine Initiative was fortuitous, as over the course of the next year the press would face some of its greatest challenges of the Bush era. Several high-profile stories—especially The Washington Post’s piece on secret CIA prisons, The New York Times’s exposé of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping, and a series of reports in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal on government monitoring of international financial transactions—raised hackles in the Bush White House. “Those stories really fueled congressional criticism of the press and reporting of unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” says Blum, now the director of the Sunshine Initiative. “And we were spending a lot of time defensively trying to ensure that Congress did not pass new, overly broad revisions to the antispying-espionage laws.”
It was a trying time. In May 2006, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales hinted to ABC News that prosecutions were possible for journalists who disclosed classified information. That summer, seventy-one congressional representatives asked the Speaker of the House to strip The New York Times of its press credentials in retaliation for reporting on surveillance programs. Others wanted to go beyond the symbolic and pass new laws restricting publication or making prosecution easier. SGI’s members took to Capitol Hill, meeting with legislators and offering testimony. They credit this educational effort with helping to forestall legislation that would have upset the delicate legal balance that has governed reporting on national security for decades and made it harder for the press to report and publish important stories.
A lot of the Sunshine Initiative’s battles have, in fact, been defensive, but the group has been able to play offense on FOIA, as well. It worked with senators John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy, as well as many others in Congress, to help pass a bill creating an independent ombudsman for the act that could help referee long-delayed requests and improve the monitoring of FOIA compliance government-wide. Bush signed it in on New Year’s Eve 2007, but in the following year’s budget, he inserted language in a section dealing with Commerce Department appropriations that would move the FOIA ombudsman’s office from the National Archives, where it was authorized by the bill’s plain language, to the Justice Department. Since that’s the very department charged with defending the government’s FOIA decisions, it seemed designed to neuter the ombudsman. The Sunshine Initiative, and many others, have called on Barack Obama to move the ombudsman back to the National Archives; it is part of a four-point agenda on transparency that the Initiative put together for the new president—whether he wants it or not. Similar white papers are circulating in Washington from the broader transparency community.
There are signs that Obama could be an ally. He hit most of the right notes during his campaign, and his transition Web site suggests that there will be an executive order to roll back Bush’s changes to the Presidential Records Act. It also promises greater disclosure of the sort of public-private communications that Cheney fought so hard to keep secret. The mood is cautiously optimistic, but many of the veterans of the transparency movement aren’t about to let their guard down. “As we look ahead to the Obama administration,” says the ASNE’s Andy Alexander. “I’ve been in a few meetings where people almost say, ‘Happy days are here again.’ And I have to caution them and say, ‘You know, let’s wait and see.’ No one likes being overseen.”
Thanks to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for its support for this article.