The Opaque Presidency

Obama promising reforms in the NSA mass surveillance program. (White House: Public Domain)

Obama promising reforms in the NSA mass surveillance program. (White House: Public Domain)

On the day that Barack Obama took office on January 21, 2009, he promised unprecedented transparency in a memo to the heads of federal departments and agencies.

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.

On February 12, 2013, Obama followed up with his own analysis on five years of transparency by his administration.

“This is the most transparent administration in history,” Obama said.

Few people agree with Obama. In one of the rare issues that crosses ideological lines, conservatives and liberals agree that Barack Obama has failed on his promises of transparency.

Obama did make some tepid steps towards openness in the early years of his Presidency. He revoked George W. Bush’s executive order limiting public access to records of former Presidents. He implemented the Open Government Directive, which was supposed to make more accessible the goals and data of agencies. It did work for some, while not so well for others. Obama strengthened access to the Freedom of Information Act, which was weakened during the Bush years. Obama also helped form the Open Government Partnership, which is an international organization that is supposed to make participating governments more open. Those lofty promises have been only that.

These were welcome steps, but they are overshadowed by more ominous events.

While running for President in 2008, Obama blasted the Bush administration for using the states secrets privilege that renders lawsuits against the federal government meaningless because the government can withhold evidence that it claims would compromise national security. Yet, the Obama administration continued to use the same defense as it defended actions taken during the Bush administration. When it came time for the Obama administration to defend itself against lawsuits, it also utilized the state secrets privilege defense. That was just the beginning.

The Obama administration has backed increased federal powers by the National Security Administration to monitor telephone and financial records of American citizens without getting a court order.

During the Bush administration, some secrecy surrounded the visitors that had the ear of the President and executive branch. Obama responded by promising that visitors to the White House would be publicly logged, vague exceptions were granted. When the exceptions weren’t satisfactory, White House officials met visitors at cafes or other non-White House sites that did not require registration. The Obama administration also often ignored the Federal Advisory Committee Act. FACA is supposed to reveal the doings of committees to the general public. In addition, information on the legal reasoning used to implement laws such as the Patriot Act has sometimes been withheld as secrets.

The Obama administration has also been tough on whistleblowers. It has used the Espionage Act more times than any previous administration against government employees who decided to reveal government secrets to the media.

Speaking of the media, odd instances of withholding information have arisen from time to time.  When the Deepwater Horizon accident happened in the Gulf of Mexico, federal scientists were constrained in their attempts to explain the severity of the situation.

Although Obama’s executive order in January 2009 was supposed to make it easier to get information from the Freedom of Information Act, the backlogged requests grew to over 200,000 in 2014 – a 55% increase from the previous year. For the last two years, the administration has denied FOIA requests more often than it has provided them. When challenged the Obama administration reversed itself, admitting that one in three of those denials were inappropriate.

Although Hillary Clinton’s email controversy has placed her as a target for being careless with confidential information, it is hard to imagine that the no one during her four years in the Obama administration figured out that she was using her personal emails instead of a proper government one. Those concerns are further enhanced when it was discovered that former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel didn’t have an official email account either.

The opportunity to publicly reveal the flow of campaign contributions to Super-PACS from corporations doing business with the U.S. government has repeatedly been stonewalled by Obama. He places the blame on a Republican Congress when an executive order would force many of the funders of Super-PACS to reveal themselves.

There is much that Obama could have done, some of it only symbolic. The President could have imposed greater lobbying disclosures. In addition, the slowness of processing paper reports would have been overcome by requiring all financial disclosure fillings to be done electronically.  Although not possible with every meeting, some cabinet meetings could have been broadcast. Even though there are safety concerns, the President’s schedule could be publicized more openly. Even something as simple as holding more press conferences would be a forward step. During his first term, Obama has held fewer press conferences than any President since Reagan.

This is not to say that the Obama administration has been the most secretive in American history. It is only to point out that Obama sought office on the promises of transparency and accountability. That is a promise that has been badly broken. When it comes to shielding the public from embarrassing information about his administration, the Obama administration is just like any other. This is extremely disappointing for a President who promised the opposite. There is no way to call the Obama administration transparent. It is like any other Presidential administration – secretive and duplicitous.

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