Bush to ASNE: Access Must Be Balanced with Security

By: Joe Strupp President Bush defended his administration's tight leash on public-information access during an appearance today before newspaper editors, who grilled him about why restrictions remain so tight on many government documents and departments.

Bush reiterated his long-held claim that he is in favor of freedom of information but not at the expense of national security. "I believe in open government," he said, but added, "I don't want you reading my personal stuff. There has got to be a certain sense of privacy. You are entitled to ask questions; you are not entitled to read my mail between my daughters and me."

In response to questions from editors at the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors conference, the president also declined to comment on subpoenas for reporters in the Plame case and said that government payments to commentators, such as the "pundit payola" Armstrong Williams received, are acceptable as long as they are disclosed.

Bush also was asked if he agreed with Rep. Tom Delay that DeLay's current ethics problems should be blamed on media bias. "Of course not!" Bush boomed, with a smile that drew laughs. "I'm looking forward to working with Tom. We have gotten a lot done, I am looking forward."

During the lunchtime appearance before hundreds of editors at the J.W. Marriott Hotel here, the president also promoted his Social Security reforms, vowed to continue efforts in Iraq, and urged Congress to pass a new energy policy. But media issues dominated the editors' grilling of the chief executive.

"In processing FOIA requests, should government officials presume that information should be given or should the burden fall on the public to prove it is necessary?" asked Tim Franklin, editor of The Sun in Baltimore.

"The presumption ought to be that citizens ought to know enough about decision-making," Bush responded. "I know there is a tension now between making a decision which can be exercised without jeopardizing the war on terror. I know there is a feeling that we are too security conscious. I think we are becoming balanced."

Bush noted that 90% of a recent WMD report was declassified. "I think people following this issue were surprised that so much was declassified. If the other 10% had been declassified, it would have jeopardized our capacity to secure the country. We spent a lot of money analyzing FOIA. There are three-and-a-half million FOIA requests a year. That is a lot. I would hope that those who examine FOIA documents realize the difference between that which is necessary to release and that which would be a security risk."

Still, Bush went on to defend his position that some things, such as personal e-mails, are not public record, growing slightly more emotional with his answer. "I am worried about things getting in the press that put people's lives at risk, It is that judgment where there is tension."

But editors were not done. Another question cited some pending FOIA requests that have gone on for decades, asking if Bush would take action to speed up the efforts. The president all but punted, saying only, "I think that FOIA requests ought to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible."

Margaret Sullivan of The Buffalo (N.Y.) News tried again, asking Bush if he would support the requirement that federal officials file what she deemed an "impact statement" before they determined that large categories of information should be kept secret. The president's response: "I'll look at the idea; I don't know enough about it. The philosophical answer is that the people have a right to know so long as it does not jeopardize national security."

Editors then shifted to other media-related issues, among the many questions Bush took during about 30 minutes of Q&A. One question, related to the contempt ruling against Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time, was blunt, asking whether Bush though the two were wrong.

"Why don't we let the courts decide," he initially answered. Then he added, "You think I'm going there, you're crazy. I'm not going to talk about it. We are all under the microscope on this issue."

When the topic of Armstrong Williams and other examples of government-sponsored propaganda came up, Bush said Williams was wrong, but only in that he deceived the public, not that he took money to promote a cause.

"It is deceptive to the American people if it is not disclosed," he said. "In reviewing this issue I have been told it has gone on for quite a while, it is legal to use these video news clips, but it is incumbent upon the people who use them to disclose that it is made by the government. There needs to be full disclosure."

Asked how his position favoring the penalty fits into his vision of "a culture of life," Bush said "the difference between the case of Terry Schiavo and the case of a convicted killer is the difference between guilt and innocence. And I happen to believe that the death penalty, when properly applied, saves lives of others. And so I'm comfortable with my beliefs that there's no contradiction between the two."


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