The U.S. appeals court for the District of Columbia Circuit dealt a serious blow to openness in government and pretty much gutted the Federal Advisory Committee Act in a ruling last week.
In siding with the administration that it did not have to reveal the names of those Vice President Dick Cheney consulted with while his National Energy Policy Development Group was coming up with energy policies early in the first Bush term, the court simply made up new criteria for deciding when citizens have a right to know what the government is up to.
The Cheney task force met with mostly energy industry experts while developing administration policy (that still hasn’t been passed). The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch sued to find out which energy industry experts participated in the deliberations.
In allowing the administration to keep the information secret, the circuit court noted that “neither Judicial Watch nor the Sierra Club … claimed that any nonfederal individual had a vote on the (energy policy group) or had a veto over its decisions.”
However, as Chris Farrell, director of investigations for Judicial Watch, said, “Nowhere in the statute, the legislative history, or in previous court decisions has the issue of formally having a vote on a policy panel been the key issue. We had no objection to the task force consulting with industry people. We simply believed it should disclose which people it talked to.”
The default position of a government of free people is openness. This decision subverts that idea and gives power to the secret keepers.