BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week President Bush defended the decision to classify 28 pages in the Congressional Report on September 11th despite requests from several members of Congress to release the deleted portion. This follows efforts in the past few weeks from Democrats in Congress to begin demanding more information from the notoriously secretive administration. Well, perhaps "demanding" is too strong a word. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart had this observation while watching Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [CLIP FROM JON STEWART SHOW PLAYS]
JON STEWART: After he got through telling the Senate Committee that the military budget that he'd submitted for next year did not include costs for the operation in Iraq.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Whoa! [CLIP PLAYS]
SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN: Gimme a break, will ya--? When are you guys starting to be honest with us? Come on! [LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE]
JON STEWART: Come on! [LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE] G--Guys! [LAUGHTER]
JON STEWART: So that's what -- here is what the reticence of this administration is causing -- a United States Senator--: "Come on! Please?!?" [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Despite the fervent insistence we heard from Senator Joe Biden, Wolfowitz did not cave in, and partisan voting has blocked six separate amendments to the defense appropriation bill that called for the White House to supply some basic facts. The simplest provision merely asked the administration to detail the projected costs of maintaining a military presence in Iraq during the upcoming year. Scott Armstrong is founder of the National Security Archive. He says Congress should already have had access to the information that was requested.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well it's pretty remarkable when the only way there can be communication between the legislative branch and the executive branch is by putting forward these amendments, and they're rhetorical by that point. These are pieces of information that they have the right to have, and they seem to have forgotten in Congress that the principal responsibility for the Army and the Navy for the intelligence community in general is given under Article 1, Section 8 to the Congress -- not to the president. And they just aren't doing it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can they do it without access to this kind of information?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG:They really can't. I've never seen this degree of deference. Part of it is definitely due to 9/11. After 9/11, they definitely concluded that they had to let the executive act quickly, firmly -- defer to the president. But that's one thing to do that in public. It's another thing behind the scenes not to get answers to these questions. They don't have to make public the sources and methods, but Congress has to be comfortable that the Army and Navy are being regulated, being operated in the right way. If they aren't responsible, then you really have a king without any accountability to the people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And the natural impulse here would be to blame the Bush administration for being too imperial. Can Congress extract information from the president if the president doesn't want to give it?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: In the past, it can because there are people in the administration that understand their constitutional duties. If the president orders them not to speak, they won't. But you can't simply go to just the head of a department and say "Well, is this true? Is that true?" I mean this is kind of drive-by oversight. The train comes by and the conductor waves and says "We're on the tracks. Everything's fine. Goodbye." And you don't get to stop them, you don't get to ask them questions. But mainly you don't get to ask the other people that are on the train. Normally, staff or members would go to the lower level people and get the answers they needed, and they would insist on getting them. They would stop Congress until they did. It's just not happening yet, but they're getting very close to the point where they're going to have to do something like begin to filibuster one of these defense bills before they're going to be able to get the proper amount of attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Right. But I'm wondering whether the Congress even knows which questions to ask. I mean let's take the example of this recent "futures market" which was supposed to be a kind of research tool proposed by a group within the Pentagon. Members of Congress finally got on their high horses about this, but I guess only after they read about it in the press!
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well the irony is, I went back to look at the issue when it first came up a year ago, and sure enough the details were there on the public web site. So Congress acted shocked that what was in a, in a report that was available to them a year ago -- not just in classified briefings, but on the web -- that they're now finding it out. There's always been a sense that people can, in the Congress, can go to a secret briefing and they can listen to somebody brief them in very polite language, a very sterile environment, about what's going on. The same information can leak to the press and the press can get some more information from the Executive Branch, and suddenly Congress will pick up the newspaper and they'll see that there's public outrage or concern or the material'll be organized in a way that raises further questions, and they suddenly spring to life. That's pretty common over the years. But right now it seems like the press is the only group of people getting the information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And how is this playing out with the 9/11 Report and all of those pages that have been blacked out? Senator Bob Graham is pushing to give the Senate power to vote to declassify information over the wishes of the administration. All those other Democrats were unable to get their disclosure bills through. Do you think he'll be able to muster enough votes to actually go explicitly against the wishes of the White House?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: I think it's quite possible he will. There will be a negotiation about what it is that will then be released, but I think he's got some significant Republican support, and these are questions of Senate rules more than they are statutes about how you get things declassified and into the public domain. A senator can pretty much read classified information into the public domain subject to being internally censured, but he can't be prosecuted for it. So eventually you get into a situation like the Pentagon Papers which, when they were banned initially by the Nixon administration, a senator got up and started reading them into the record, and we're going to get very close to that if we don't get considerably more cooperation between the two branches.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott, thanks a lot.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Armstrong is the founder and director of the National Security Archive.