updated 4/14/2005 8:48:02 PM ET 2005-04-15T00:48:02

President Bush said Thursday that the public should know as much as possible about government decision-making, but national security and personal privacy — including his — need to be protected.

“I believe in open government,” Bush said at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “I’ve always believed in open government. I don’t e-mail, however. And there’s a reason: I don’t want you reading my personal stuff.”

Bush once was a prolific e-mailer. But he signed off from cyberspace just before taking office in 2001 after lawyers told him that his presidential e-mail communications would be subject to legal and archival requirements.

“There’s got to be a certain sense of privacy,” Bush said. “You’re entitled to how I make decisions and you’re entitled to ask questions, which I answer. I don’t think you’re entitled to read my mail between my daughters and me.”

White House not subject to FoI
White House records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which allows reporters and others to obtain unclassified government records that officials would not otherwise release.

Official presidential documents are subject to eventual release under the federal Presidential Records Act unless they are classified or otherwise exempt for reasons, including personal privacy.

Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy Project, said, “Protecting the president’s personal e-mail does not in any way justify the pattern of withholding that we’ve seen.”

Aftergood said classification activity is increasing, records are being withdrawn from government Web sites and access barriers are being put in place at reading rooms at federal agencies.

“Information which used to be easy to obtain is now difficult or impossible to get,” he said. “Trivial things such as the Pentagon phone directory have been marked for official use only and are no longer public.”

Sept. 11 was threshold
Claiming national security concerns, the Bush administration clamped down on declassification of government documents after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The trend toward keeping more government information secret began even before that and those who advocate for openness in government are worried that the freedom of U.S. citizens is eroding with every file they are not allowed to read.

Just a month after the terrorist attacks, the administration set a higher threshold for releasing information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the Clinton administration, federal agencies were urged to resolve disclosure decisions by releasing, not withholding, government information. In October 2001, however, former Attorney General John Ashcroft changed that policy.

In a memo, Ashcroft required federal agencies to carefully consider national security, law enforcement concerns and personal privacy before releasing information. Ashcroft reassured the agencies that the Justice Department would defend their decisions not to release any information there was a “sound legal basis” for withholding.

Bill on FoI requests to be reviewed
Bush said he knows there is “tension” about how the government decides what can be released without jeopardizing the fight against terrorism and that there’s a “suspicion” his administration is too security-conscious.

He said he will review a Senate bill to create a 16-member panel that would recommend ways to speed FOIA requests, which can drag on for years.

“We look forward to analyzing and working with legislation that would help put a free press’ mind at ease that you’re not being denied information you shouldn’t see,” Bush told the editors.

“I will tell you, though, I am worried about things getting in the press that puts people’s lives at risk. It’s that judgment about what would put someone’s life at risk and what doesn’t is where there’s tension,” the president said.

The Plame case: No comment
Bush refused to discuss a high-profile case about a news column that disclosed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Her name was first published in a 2003 column by Robert Novak, who cited two unidentified senior administration officials as his sources.

The White House has been criticized for outing Plame’s identity. Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times have refused to disclose their sources, which federal prosecutors say has stalled their case into who leaked the information.

Asked whether he thought the reporters were right not to reveal their sources, Bush said: “You think I’m going there? You’re crazy.”

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