BROOKE GLADSTONE: Secrecy, a mainstay of FBI and CIA operations, became a liability after September 11th when we learned that both agencies had kept vital secrets from each other. John Dean, one time counsel to President Richard Nixon, says White House secrecy poses similar risks. In a recent open letter to Bush advisor Karl Rove, Dean wrote that "the continuing insistence on secrecy by your White House is startlingly Nixonian. I'm talking about everything from stiffing congressional requests for information and witnesses to employing an executive order to demolish the 1978 law providing public access to presidential papers." But what particularly irks Dean is that President Bush and Vice President Cheney defend their actions by saying they're doing it to protect the power of the presidency.
JOHN DEAN: There's a claim, for example, by this administration that during the last 30 years, which really makes it the post-Watergate years, there's been a, a lessening of presidential power. Well I don't think they're reading from the same history I'm reading from, because if anything to the contrary Watergate did not result in the Congress becoming significantly more powerful. Yes, they did flex their muscles on misbehavior, but they certainly haven't taken any of the presidential power away, and-- you know I've often thought maybe the Congress should. What we're talking about is preserving the checks and balances, because that's the genius of our system; that's been the, the safety of our system if you will. So the argument for secrecy in a sense is a way to get around the checks and balances.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't buy the protecting the power of the presidency argument at all.
JOHN DEAN: I don't at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So let's talk about the practical advantages of secrecy. [LAUGHTER] It gives the administration, as I said, more room to act, more room perhaps to misbehave. Nixon, for instance, lied consistently to prosecute the war in Vietnam. Can you speculate on what the Bush administration may be wanting to do below the radar of Congress and the media?
JOHN DEAN: Well we can, we can all imagine; we can all speculate. We don't know for a fact what he wants to do. We do know that he doesn't like Congress putting its nose in what he thinks is his business. The Bush White House is very upset with the investigations into the pre-September 11th intelligence -- what went wrong and why did it go wrong which is currently very much in the, in the, in the focus of the Congress. Well I - you know that, that to me again is, is silly not to have that kind of examination. If you look at every time our country has been in crisis, from the Civil War to World War I to the Great Depression of 1933 to the years of, say, '41 to '45 during World War II you'll see that the Congress is constantly on the executive. In fact-- it's often the president's own party, and this whole sort of approach of this administration to secrecy or even calling it unpatriotic for critics to be examining what he's doing really is contrary to the trends of history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And, and one thing that seemed to particularly alarm you, you wrote to Karl Rove, was that "as he was looking into the mistakes of previous presidents like Hoover and Wilson and Andrew Johnson in order to learn from them, he said explicitly that he had nothing to learn from the mistakes of Richard Nixon!" What do you think Watergate should have taught subsequent administrations about secrecy?
JOHN DEAN: Well, it certainly should teach them that ultimately the secrets do surface. The Nixon White House really wrote the book on what not to do; it really wrote the book on how to abuse the powers of the presidency in a way that are unacceptable to the American people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how do you think that the current Bush administration is reading Nixon's book?
JOHN DEAN:It appears to me that the plays they're taking out of Nixon's handbook are not the ones that they should be taking -- the effort to keep homeland security secret; the effort to stiff the Congress; to try various ploys to keep information from becoming public -- those are the pages they should be re-examining and not relying on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You wrote that "secrecy is the stuff of dictatorships; not democracies" but do you really believe that the Bush administration is moving toward a dictatorship?
JOHN DEAN: No, I don't, but I've - I must say there is a-- a very interesting history on what is called "constitutional dictatorships," and it's something that has been a part of democracy in almost all democracies from ancient Rome through the modern states have had democratic dictators if you will to deal with crisis. It's something we've never had happen. We've gotten very close to it with Lincoln, with FDR, and it worries me that if we don't look at this, because they're -- even a constitutional dictatorship is a very dangerous place to go -- that's the stuff of secrecy, and the Bush administration strikes me as going really away from the trend of history which is to let the sun shine in -they're trying to pull the shades.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well John Dean, thank you very much.
JOHN DEAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Dean served as Richard Nixon's White House lawyer. You know Watergate started 30 years ago this month!
JOHN DEAN: [LAUGHS] Time flies doesn't it? [LAUGHS]