Center for American Progress

John Podesta Remarks to Heinz School of Public Policy
Article

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I’d like to begin this afternoon by thanking the Heinz graduates for inviting me here to join you, your friends, and families in celebrating this wonderful achievement in your lives.

The Heinz School of Public Policy and Management has a stellar reputation and that would not be possible without students who consistently do exceptional work. You represent the Heinz name well – if the Steelers do as good a job over at Heinz Field next season as you all do here at the Heinz School, Pittsburgh may finally get that fifth Super Bowl championship it has long coveted

Today, you officially join me in the ranks of those who labor in the field of public policy – that’s right, as of today you are in danger of becoming “nameless, faceless bureaucrats.” To that, I can only offer this advice: you should never forget how valuable your contributions are to the democratic process; you and your families should always find solace in your greatest achievement: you didn’t become a lawyer.

Seriously, you should all be very proud of yourselves. With your degrees in hand, many of you will be entering a career that is not always afforded but is always deserving of the highest esteem. It’s not always the most lucrative or glamorous journey, and it’s certainly not the path of least resistance, but I can tell you first hand, there’s no more rewarding life than one spent in public service.

But don’t get me wrong, working as an advisor on Capitol Hill and as Chief of Staff at the White House wasn’t exactly all living in the shadows. Like my predecessors, I often bathed in the warm glow of the media’s affection. President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, for example, made the cover of Newsweek … Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s man, was featured in Foreign Affairs … Donald Rumsfeld appeared in the Economist. My shining moment, on the other hand, came a couple of years ago, when my picture appeared in TV Guide next to John Spencer, who plays Leo McGarry on NBC’s The West Wing. Once upon a time, there wasn’t a supermarket in America where I would go unrecognized.

Of course, people still sometimes mix me up with Rob Lowe. And it’s easy to understand why.

I do have to admit, the West Wing often captures the pace of the White House, though I will tell you that fact was often much more entertaining than fiction. Of course in the last year of the Clinton Administration, the White House began to feel less like the West Wing and more like Survivor.

But even when it's not scripted by Aaron Sorkin, public service can be a bit of a roller coaster, and you can never be totally prepared for what’s coming around the next bend. But the good news is that you’re graduating extremely well equipped for the ride. This institution trains students to take on the toughest issues in the public arena, even during the toughest of times, and it’s been doing that for thirty-five years.

In 1968, the year your institution was founded, our country was embroiled in a divisive war, student protests shook our campuses, riots rocked our cities, and assassins took the lives of two of our most treasured leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Out of that tumult came this school, founded on a uniquely American ideal: that all people, regardless of background, could come together and solve even the most difficult problems.

Your school’s mission was rooted then – and remains rooted today – in the preservation of our nation's fundamental values: individual liberty, open government, and a spirited public dialogue.

Now, thirty-five years later, the need for intelligent, well-trained individuals who dedicate themselves to preserving these fundamental values is more critical than ever.

The attacks of September 11 dramatically exposed our vulnerabilities and presented us with enormously complex questions: How do we defend our critical infrastructure – our computer networks, our power grids, our water supplies – against a catastrophic terrorist attack? How do we prevent terrorist groups from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction? Are our old alliances relevant to these tasks? What is the role of international law and of the United Nations? In short, how do we prevent this from happening again?

In responding to these questions, we have been forced to reassess the role of the intelligence community, the military, the INS, the border patrol and countless other government functions. There are public servants working hard and making sacrifices everyday as part of this reassessment. I particularly want to acknowledge all the men and women who are still on the front lines in the Middle East, helping not only to win the war but working to win the peace in Iraq. And the others who continue to wage war against terrorism around the globe. They honor all of us with their service, and I know you join me in wishing their safe return.

I am concerned, however, that we are responding to security questions without adequately debating the policy choices we face and that this lack of debate may threaten our most precious liberties.

Pride, patriotism and military success do not necessitate that we turn a blind eye to controversial policy choices. Closing ranks doesn’t also mean closing our minds.

Since September 11, and in the name of national security, a shroud of secrecy has dampened our public discourse. Today, we are told that, in the name of national security, we must relinquish our privacy, surrender our access to critical government information and voice opposition to government actions timidly – we are told that this is the price of safety.

It’s happened before in our history. From the enactment of the sedition laws in the 18th Century, abandonment of habeus corpus during the Civil War, the Palmer Raids and the Internment Camps in the beginning and middle of the last century, threats to our national security have been translated, by well-meaning people, into excuses for stifling our most basic liberties.

Make no mistake about it; our civil liberties are again under serious attack. The substance of fundamental American values – liberty and openness – is under significant strain.

Today, the constitutional rights of any person can be waived by a unilateral determination by the executive branch that the individual is an "enemy combatant." The Justice Department has refused to release the names of hundreds of Muslim men arrested after September 11. United States citizens have been detained and denied access to counsel. Legal residents have faced deportation hearings, conducted in secret, without the right to see the evidence presented against them, or to appeal to an independent court.

The Government also has sought, and obtained, vastly increased power to monitor the activities of ordinary Americans. With the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, anyone using a computer at a public library, a public university or even on the same block as someone suspected of committing a crime can unwittingly become the subject of clandestine surveillance.

And as the government acquires more and more information about its citizens, its citizens are receiving less and less information about their government. For example, the Justice Department, formerly charged with defending the public’s right to know, has become a veritable black hole when it comes to government information. In October of 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft radically changed the Department’s interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, urging all government agencies to withhold any document if there was any possible legal rationale to keep it secret. With the stroke of a pen, the Attorney General reversed the fundamental principle behind FOIA – open government and the presumption of disclosure.

Six thousand public documents have been stripped from government websites.

Federal Depository Libraries have been ordered to destroy CDs of the US Geological Service.

Scientists have been pressured to voluntarily censor their own articles, or the government will step in and do it for them. Succumbing to this threat, the National Academy of Sciences has already agreed to censor any article that might compromise national security — even at the cost of discouraging critical new research on immunization and quarantine strategies that could protect us in the event of a biological attack.

Even access to the IRS reading room has been restricted in the name of national security.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some secrets we must protect. If certain tactical and strategic information end up in the wrong hands, it would compromise our security, jeopardizes lives, and increase the threat of terrorism. Today, we are confronted with an enemy that operates in the shadows – that not only tolerates, but also actively seeks out, civilian casualties. Just this week, they struck again in Saudi Arabia, in Morocco, and in Israel, killing scores of people, – including seven Americans.

But, that said, the need for operational security shouldn’t be an excuse for drawing the curtains around important policy debates. If there’s one thing I learned sitting on the National Security Council, it’s that you can have a first-rate military and intelligence operation without a McCarthy-era approach to governing. Our nation was built on dissent and contentious public debate; we should embrace it, not shrink from it, especially in times of crisis.

This erosion of our fundamental rights has occurred without a powerful and consistent voice rising in dissent. The counterforce in our society against the encroachments of a too-powerful government has historically been exercised by the opposition political party and by the news media – the only private sector institution explicitly named and protected by the Constitution. But the response by both institutions has been decidedly muted. Passivity has become the new patriotism.

You might be surprised to hear me say this, but I’m disappointed with the lack of leadership from the Democrats in Congress. My party is forgetting what all of you have been taught: to question, to analyze, and to speak out when you don’t agree. In fact, for fear of losing more ground in the polls, the Democrats have largely stayed out of the debate, or at best been indecisive in their criticism. They’ve offered few comprehensible alternatives about how to keep America safe without relinquishing its role as both a leader – and a partner – in strengthening democracy and respect for the rule of law. But I’m hopeful, as the presidential election heats up, that our candidates will rise to the challenge.

And it’s not just the Democrats who refuse to question the Administration – it’s also the media. Turn on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or any of the networks. Like ducks in a line, the press has stopped asking the tough questions that guarantee accountability. It’s been replaced by video flag waving and Geraldo embedded in Iraq. It’s clear that some in the media have actually come to believe that dissent is disloyal, that opposition is unpatriotic, and that criticism is counterproductive.

This lack of analysis and debate does a disservice to our country. America can only fulfill its mission through open institutions, where citizens are involved in, not excluded from the governing process. Where the government conducts its policy work in the light of day and exposes itself to scrutiny and criticism, it eventually creates a system that citizens will accept and abide by.

James Madison, a founding father and framer of the Bill of Rights, wrote, “A popular government without popular information … is but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.” Today, we’re living at a time where Madison’s belief in an informed citizenry is under tremendous strain. But when tackling the challenges of war, international terrorism, and homeland security, we must look to our history and remember the virtues of an open government and informed debate.

I believe it is possible to protect our national security and preserve our civil liberties if we focus on the following:

We need more work from our best scholars and more energy invested in the next generation of policy ideas capable of unifying a new popular majority around an agenda that strengthens our country while preserving our values.

We need to make a concentrated effort to improve the strength of the analytic capacity of our institutions, especially within government.

We need to harness America’s great technological prowess and free exchange of scientific information, not only to the cause of national security and public safety, but also to the world’s other great challenges – global poverty, the spread of infectious diseases and environmental degradation.

We need to strengthen – not undermine – the rule of law, both at home and abroad. Terrorists need to be caught and punished. Critical infrastructure needs to be secured. The laws at our airports, seaports and borders need to be strictly enforced. But these tasks have to be done with respect for our constitution, our laws, and our global responsibilities.

Ultimately, the rule of law can only flourish in the context of a transparent government. To have a functioning system of checks and balances, the American people need to have information about the activities of the government. Without information, the ability to address grievances in the courts or the halls of Congress is meaningless.

Today you are graduating as public policy professionals of the highest caliber – and you will play no small part in shaping our institutions into the future. I challenge you, whenever it is possible, to conduct your work in the light of day, to encourage scrutiny and criticism, to facilitate a dynamic public debate.

A commitment to open government and the rule of law has nothing to do with whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. It is about creating an environment that facilitates ideas that transcend partisanship.

No one understood this idea better than John Heinz. I had the privilege of working on the Senate staff during his service in the Senate. Senator Heinz was an innovator in using the marketplace to achieve environmental preservation – including restructuring Latin American debt to promote rain forest preservation. Shortly before his death, Senator Heinz helped draft legislation to help prevent global warming by creating market-based incentives to recycle used oil, newsprint, tires and lead-acid batteries. For Senator Heinz, it wasn’t either a commitment to the free market or a clean environment. It was about working hard and thinking big to achieve both.

Likewise, the questions before us today are not how many civil liberties we will sacrifice for safety or how much secrecy we will tolerate for security. Rather, the question we all should be asking is – what are public policy solutions that allow us to continue to preserve all of our values without relinquishing any more of our freedoms?

As the graduating class of the Heinz School you are exceptionally qualified to formulate answers not only to the question I just posed – but to the essential public policy dilemmas that have yet to present themselves to us. Despite the enormity of this task, if you go about your work with commitment, honesty, integrity and an open-mind – the very qualities exhibited by the late-Senator Heinz – I have no doubt that you will achieve success.

Let me close with the words of a great American who believed deeply in public service –and whose life ended the year this school’s life began.

Bobby Kennedy said:

"Democracy is no easy form of government. Few nations have been able to sustain it. For it requires that we take the chances of freedom; that the liberating play of reason be brought to bear on events filled with passion; that dissent be allowed to make its appeal for acceptance; that men chance error in their search for the truth."

I hope you will remember those words and live by them as you serve the public=

Thank you, congratulations, and best of luck in the years ahead. I’ll see you in Washington.

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