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Politics: A Spat Over Secrecy

After months of trying out various lines of attack against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton seems to have found one that resonates with voters: raising doubts about whether Obama has the experience to be commander in chief. Obama has responded by hammering Clinton's penchant for secrecy. The Obama campaign criticizes Clinton for her refusal to disclose her tax returns, expedite the release of her White House records from the National Archives and share the names of donors to her husband's Presidential Library. Obama's charges got a boost last week when the Archives confirmed (in response to a USA TodayFreedom of Information request) that it withheld 1,114 pages of White House documents on President Bill Clinton's controversial pardons of Marc Rich and others—including two felons who hired Hillary's brother Tony Rodham to get their pardon requests approved. The Clinton Library Foundation says the Archives made the decision. But an Archives spokeswoman says it did so based on a 2002 letter from Bill Clinton, who asked that documents involving confidential legal advice be "considered for withholding." "What the American people don't need is more George Bush secrecy in the White House," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe says.

Obama claims that his administration would be "open" and "transparent." To prove the point, his campaign released e-mails his Senate office exchanged with U.S. officials on behalf of a man imprisoned in Iraq. The intervention had the potential to cause trouble for Obama because the man, Aiham Al-Sammarae, was a business associate of Antoin (Tony) Rezko, the political fund-raiser now on trial for corruption in Chicago. Obama has taken heat for his murky relationship with Rezko, a political fixer who had a part in Obama's purchase of a house. (Obama now calls that transaction "boneheaded" and says he has given Rezko-related campaign donations to charity.) Conservative bloggers have played up the Al-Sammarae connection as a key to the Rezko story. Despite requests from NEWSWEEK, the Obama camp initially declined to release the e-mails. Late last week they did, and the e-mail exchange appears routine.

On Oct. 16, 2006, Obama's Senate office received a faxed plea from Al-Sammarae's son. A onetime Iraqi exile, Al-Sammarae returned to Iraq after Saddam's fall to serve as Iraq's Electricity minister but was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. Al-Sammarae's son claimed in the fax that his father was railroaded for exposing Iraqi government incompetence, and feared his life was in danger in prison. (Neither Al-Sammarae nor his family responded to requests for comment.) Obama's office sent an inquiry to the U.S. consul in Iraq expressing the Al-Sammarae family's concern and requesting "an update on the status of this case." The consul responded with an e-mail explaining that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had monitored the case to ensure that Al-Sammarae was "being treated in a humane manner." Obama spokesman Bill Burton says the inquiry about Al-Sammarae "was based on a request from a constituent." Obama's office marked the file "no further action." Al-Sammarae escaped from prison and reportedly headed back to Chicago.

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