Saturday, July 7, 2012

Transparency Ends at the White House Door

by Jacob Laksin

On his first day in office, President Obama vowed to create “a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.” But the president has not lived up to his transparency rhetoric – and now even the left is taking note.

Liberal magazine Mother Jones laments this week that the Obama administration spent a record-high $12 billion in 2011 to keep government information classified. Since the process of classifying documents is itself classified, it’s impossible to determine the individual merits of those decisions. But it’s instructive to consider the government’s sweeping classification mandate with Obama’s initial pledge that transparency would be one of the “touchstones” of his administration. As he said back in January 2009:

“The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, that it should not be disclosed. That era is now over.”

Except, plainly, it’s not. And it’s not just the “American people” who are being denied access to government-related information. The president’s cheerleaders in the establishment media have been similarly rebuffed. In June, that frustration led Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times – hardly a right-wing tribune — to blast the administration for its hostility to media coverage and its tightfisted control over information, especially on national security. Abramson revealed that Times reporters who had covered national security issues for several decades had confided in her that “the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge. One Times reporter told me, ‘The environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporting.’” So much for a new era of accountability.

Obama’s broken promises on transparency are also evident in the administration’s aggressive pursuit of leakers, on whom journalists rely for scoops and inside information. That may seem unlikely, particularly in light of the recent spate of national security leaks from the administration. But those leaks, highlighting the administration’s national security successes — such as the drone program and the foiling of a terror plot through an audacious undercover operation — have largely served to bolster the administration’s public image. By contrast, the administration has come down hard on leakers it sees as damaging to its cause. In its first term, the administration has launched six prosecutions involving such whistleblowers – double the number under all previous administrations combined. Although most of these whistleblowers have leaked information to the media rather than to a foreign government, it speaks to the severity of the administration’s position on leaks that it has gone after them under the 1917 Espionage Act. The message is clear: Transparency ends at the White House door.

Even the administration’s signature legislative initiatives have fallen short of its promised openness. ObamaCare is a prime example. When the administration first announced its plans to pursue a health-care overhaul, Obama boldly announced that the process of crafting the legislation would be the most open in history. As proof, he promised to invite C-SPAN cameras to televise the negotiation proceedings. The promise was broken almost as soon as it was made. In the event, the legislation was drafted behind closed doors and the final version was packed with sops to special interests like labor unions and the pharmaceutical industry. Sped through Congress, the bill was not subject to a thorough accounting by the Congressional Budget Office, with the result that several of the administration’s selling points – from the claim that the legislation included no new taxes to the projection that it would actually lower the federal deficit – were soon revealed as falsehoods.

The administration’s record has not improved since. Most recently, the administration’s claims to transparency were found wanting when Obama asserted executive privilege over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” operation, the Justice Department’s botched gun-trafficking sting. Executive privilege is traditionally limited to the president, but Obama went out of his way to expand it to cover Attorney General Eric Holder. Yet that notable departure from his campaign promise didn’t keep White House chief of staff Jack Lew from insisting, against all evidence, that the administration was “the most transparent ever.”

Implausible as that is, there are some who still believe that. Last March, Obama even received an award from transparency advocates. The president accepted the accolade with little public disclosure, behind the Oval Office’s closed doors.

Jacob Laksin


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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