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Uncovering Presidential Secrets, From Washington To Trump

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this President's Day, we're going to talk about presidential secrecy and transparency. My guest Mary Graham writes, Americans are right to worry about presidents' secrets. Congress cannot challenge policies that secretive presidents do not reveal. Courts cannot protect the rule of law if presidents are inclined to hide injustices. Citizens cannot judge how well their government is doing if leaders are lying. Secrecy nurtures arbitrary power and squelches debate.

Of course, she acknowledges that some secrets are essential, like the nuclear codes, the specifics of military operations, the identities of intelligence agents and confidential negotiations. Graham is the author of the new book "Presidents' Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power." She co-founded and co-directs the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and is the author of three earlier books on the politics of information.

Questions about secrecy and transparency have surrounded the Trump administration. One of the issues he hasn't been transparent about is his health, which relates to a recurring theme in her book, health problems that presidents have kept secret and the resulting consequences.

Mary Graham, welcome to FRESH AIR. So President Trump is the oldest person to be elected in a first term. And the only health records he's released was a one-page letter from his doctor with lots of superlatives about how great his health was, including he will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency. But there were no actual details about the status of his health. What should we know about the mental and physical health of a presidential candidate and a president, in your opinion (laughter)?

MARY GRAHAM: So that's one of our biggest problems with presidential secrecy. There is no requirement now that the president reveal anything about his health. We have a requirement that Congress has put in place. Presidents have to do an annual financial disclosure, but they do not have to do any annual health disclosure.

President Trump actually did issue a second statement from his doctor that had some more detail in it but not very much detail. And he clearly doesn't like talking about his health. As you said, he's the oldest president that we've ever elected. There should be a requirement, in my view, that is just the same as financial disclosure. It would require an annual disclosure by the president based on an independent physical exam by doctors, probably at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where presidents tend to go.

GROSS: So in other words, it wouldn't be by the candidate or the president's own doctor. It would be by, like, an impartial doctor.

GRAHAM: You know, presidents' physicians have a checkered history. They have an obligation to their patient, surely, but they also have an obligation to the public. But Franklin Roosevelt's doctor, for example, when his heart was failing, said that Roosevelt had just a little touch of bronchitis. And a year after that, Roosevelt was dead. He died three months after he was elected to his fourth term, making Harry Truman president. President Wilson, of course - his doctor tried to keep his incapacitating stroke secret. So these need to be independent physicians, and it's a real gap in our democratic governance.

GROSS: And so you're talking about physical health. Are you including mental health in that?

GRAHAM: Apparently, there are neurocognitive tests that are generally agreed on. I think there'd have to be a consensus about what tests were needed. But mental incapacity is just as important as physical incapacity.

We had the experience of President Wilson being completely irrational for a year and a half of his presidency after he suffered an incapacitating stroke. He spoke diatribes against people who disagreed with him. He fired his secretary of state for holding Cabinet meetings without the president there - this was when the president was bedridden. And he refused to negotiate with the Senate about the League of Nations or authorize anybody else to do so. So we've lived with presidents who have mental incapacity, and it's a serious problem.

GROSS: And there are questions about when President Reagan had Alzheimer's.

GRAHAM: That's right. I don't think those were ever settled. Some of his staff said that he had good days and bad days. President Reagan had his own way of working in any case. And so I don't know that those were ever settled. Certainly, President Kennedy, who denied that he had Addison's disease, was taking strong medications that had both physical and psychological effects.

GROSS: So what does the Constitution and what does the law have to say about how to define if a president is physically or mentally unfit for the position?

GRAHAM: That's an important question. The Constitution doesn't say anything. It simply says that when the president is unable to serve that the vice president shall become the acting president. Congress, in 1967, added the 25th Amendment to the Constitution in an effort to deal with this problem. That amendment has failed to provide a reliable way to be sure that a president who is incapacitated can be removed from office. It's tricky of course because you don't want...

GROSS: What does it say?

GRAHAM: That amendment says that the president himself can declare that he's temporarily or permanently incapacitated or the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can say that the president is incapacitated temporarily or permanently. But if the president disagrees with that, under the amendment, then it takes a vote of two-thirds of both houses of Congress to overrule him.

The problem with that is that the decision by the Cabinet and the vice president is unlikely to occur. Those are the people who are most likely to be loyal to the president. So it leaves us really without a reliable way of removing from office a president who is truly unable to do the job. I should say there is one other clause in the 25th Amendment which says, or any other group that Congress may choose. So there is the opportunity for Congress to say, the Cabinet and the vice president are not the right people. And Congress can choose another group of people who would be appropriate to make that judgment.

GROSS: So we talked a little bit about your concerns about President Trump and presidents in general not being required to disclose actual details about their medical health, mental and physical. What are some of your other concerns about President Trump and transparency?

GRAHAM: So it's still early, but we do have President Trump's track record. We know that he doesn't make the usual disclosures about his taxes. We know he's not at all eager to talk about his health. In part, I think that shows his inexperience with government, and we'll see. Presidents have the ability to learn in office. It's great on-the-job training. But he also has shown a particularly dangerous kind of secrecy in issuing the immigration order that barred refugees and people from seven countries temporarily from coming to the United States.

That kind of secrecy, where he not only did not consult with many of his advisers but did not consult with the government's lawyers and did not consult with the agents who had to carry out that order, really making it impossible for them to do their job - that kind of secrecy is extremely self-destructive. But in this case, it was also destructive to thousands of innocent people. So that's an indicator, I think, that he is going to be very inclined toward secrecy. Also, I think we're seeing that it doesn't work very well in the digital age. That's a theme of my work - that this isn't the Cold War anymore when you could have two sets of policies - one that people debated and the other set that, at that time, included assassination plots, bribery and other illegal activities that the public was never supposed to know about and that the public would probably not have approved. But that isn't true anymore because too many people are watching. So I think that President Trump is showing us again that it's not possible to keep policies secret in the digital age.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Graham. She's author of the new book "Presidents' Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Graham, author of the new book "Presidents' Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power." She's also the co-founder and co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

In your book, you describe President Truman as, more than any other peacetime president, having shaped the character of secrecy in American government. And President Truman is the president who approved the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and then he shaped post-World War II policy. So what were some of the ways that he shaped the character of secrecy in American government?

GRAHAM: President Truman took office at a very difficult moment in our history - when World War II was not entirely over, when the Soviet Union, which had been a wartime ally, was uncertain to be a peacetime friend. And at first, Truman believed that Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, could be an ally. But as events unfolded and it was clear that the Soviets intended aggression, Truman began to form the architecture of secrecy that we still have today.

He formed a small group, at that time called the Central Intelligence Group, with the limited idea that he just needed a daily summary of intelligence. He was frustrated with all the military cables, the conflicting advice that the military figures were giving him, so he borrowed 15 employees from other agencies, and every morning, they would give him a detailed summary of the intelligence of the day.

That small group, within a year or two, became what we now know as the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, involved in covert operations all over the world. And that happened not because of bad intentions on Truman's part or on his very capable advisers' part, it happened because thinking about the issue of the moment, the CIA was empowered to avoid all usual government restraints. Its budget was secret. Congress wasn't told what it was doing. Even the president wasn't always told what it was doing.

And what happens in those situations is that secret activities grow in the dark. The people who ran the CIA were patriots. They were told to do a single job and that was to try to defeat communism through what they called political warfare, short of military conflict. But it did include bribery and election-fixing and other activities that were not allowed under domestic or foreign law. A couple of years later, during the Korean conflict, he signed a short memo creating the National Security Agency, which is the agency we still have. The creation of that agency was kept secret. And there again, there was no attempt at oversight.

GROSS: So you co-founded the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. What was going on at the time that led to the founding of this Transparency Policy Project?

GRAHAM: You know, it was founded at an optimistic moment by me and Archon Fung and David Weil, a political scientist and an economist, because, for the first time, important health and safety information for people in their everyday lives was beginning to appear on the web - drinking water quality, the kinds of toxic chemicals in neighborhoods that citizens should be aware of. And what we wanted to know was, was that really helping people make decisions?

And it was when I was looking at one piece of information, which was there were finally maps of oil and gas pipelines being put on the web so that construction crews wouldn't run into them when they were digging a new house for a new housing development - as I was looking at that information, it disappeared. And that was shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and President Bush began taking information off the web.

He did it because he feared that if there was information about water reservoirs, about the risks of chemical plants that were in residential neighborhoods, about pipelines and where they were located, that it was conceivable that that information might be used by terrorists. But it was the same information that was useful to Americans in their daily lives. So it was perplexing to me, and it started me thinking about what kind of power a president has to keep secrets or take back public information in a time of emergency.

GROSS: Well, you write about a lot of things that became secret during the W administration. You write he inaugurated new kinds of military commissions, secret programs to detain and interrogate terrorist suspects, domestic surveillance by the NSA, the use of armed drones, the development of offensive cyberweapons, and he did this without congressional or public debate.

So can you sum up some of your concerns about what happened to transparency during the administration of George W. Bush?

GRAHAM: Bush contended with a true national emergency. But he also came to the office with an intention to show that the president could act unilaterally and secretly when he needed to. He was one of the many conservative Republicans, as was his vice president, Richard Cheney, who felt that the 1970s' reforms after the Watergate scandal had gone too far. They had hampered the president by creating the intelligence committees in Congress who would look over what the president was doing behind closed doors.

They had created the foreign intelligence court that was going to question whether the president's proposed wiretaps for intelligence purposes were truly needed. And many people came out of those reforms delighted with the restraints. But there were some, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who thought that they had gone too far and that the president's power, as they would have said, needed to be restored.

So when 9/11 happened, President Bush took secret actions because - in part because he needed to act quickly but in part because he was proving a point. He was re-instating the kind of presidential power that he felt was needed all along. In fact, it didn't work. The secrecy cut him off from consultations that would have told him that the courts were likely to reverse what he was doing or Congress was likely to reverse what he was doing. So President Bush's attempts at secrecy kind of backfired.

GROSS: So you described President Obama as being the first president to fully confront the challenges of openness and secrecy in the digital age. Explain what you mean by that.

GRAHAM: President Obama came into office determined to bring the digital age into government. But he followed 20th-century rules and got in trouble for it. He followed the 20th-century rule that secretive oversight of secretive programs was OK. So when he started to expand drone strikes, he kept the guidelines secret. He told Congress that was secretive oversight of a secretive program. The same thing was true of what became known later as the phone records program, which President Bush had started.

President Obama told appropriate people privately about that program, but he did not tell the American public, even though it changed our ideas of privacy. So he was following the old rules. And what I - he didn't perhaps realize was that those rules no longer worked. Americans expected to be involved in debates about policies that altered their rights or their values.

So I think what we're learning is that secret policies no longer work - secret operations, yes. There's probably never been a time when it was more important for the intelligence agencies to be certain that their operations can remain secret. But the policies today for the president's own political interests have to be debated in public.

GROSS: So President Trump tweets a lot. And for some people, that might be seen as a sign of his transparency. He's, like, talking directly to the people. So from your point of view, what does it mean to have a president who tweets so much?

GRAHAM: (Laughter) Well, I don't - I think tweets are not transparency, although he may be the first president to get in trouble for putting too much information out there. He - when he talks about the Muslim ban or he talks about his views of federal judges, that harms him. So that's a case of putting his biases out there in a way that is harmful.

I think that he hasn't yet found a way to talk with the American people about serious matters. If he's going to change immigration policy, he needs to do a fireside chat or the kind of talk that President Obama did and that President Bush often tried to do, seriously engaging the public in the conversation, explaining what he's planning to do and why he's planning to do it.

I - so far, he does not have a way of doing that with the public. But he'll have to find a way because people want full and accurate information about important subjects. And if he doesn't find a way to do that, he's leaving the explanation, again, to his opponents or to the media. It's really in his interests to find a way to talk seriously with the American people.

GROSS: Mary Graham, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRAHAM: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Mary Graham is the author of the new book "Presidents' Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power." She co-founded and co-directs the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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GROSS: After we take a short break, we'll hear from Sebastian Barry whose new novel is about an Irish immigrant who fights in the Indian Wars and the Civil War and falls in love with one of his fellow soldiers. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.