As a candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama vowed to run an open government. He reiterated that pledge on Inauguration Day: ”Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” he said.
Nearly six months later, advocates of open government are still waiting for the president to fulfill this promise. Compared to the Bush presidency, this administration is doing better. But what President Obama has done, compared to what he said he would do, are two different things, thanks in part to the unequivocal language he used and the expections he raised.
Ended Ashcroft order
The president deserves credit for taking action on his first day in office to rescind a 2001 memo by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft giving agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests. He also revoked an executive order signed by former President George W. Bush in 2001 that limited release of former presidents’ records, and replaced it with new language aimed at more transparency.
Ending unnecessary secrecy, however, has apparently proven tougher than the president expected. He has come down on the side of keeping the public uninformed in a variety of decisions that, as a candidate, he might well have scorned.
One of the most troubling instances occurred last month, involving White House refusal to turn over White House visitor logs by coal industry executives. An organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a lawsuit, saying the Obama White House is essentially embracing the Bush administration position on the secrecy of the comings and goings of visitors to the executive mansion.
This makes for a murky transparency policy.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said lawyers were reviewing the policy regarding the release of visitor logs. They should start by reading the well-publicized ”memorandum of transparency” that President Obama signed on his first day in office.
The president said open government was a way to hold government accountable, “so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made, and whether their interests are being well served.”
Nice words, but if the White House doesn’t stop hiding the logs, no one else in government can be expected to take the disclosure policy seriously.
The president’s record of open government has fallen short of fulfillment most often on issues involving national security.
The White House agreed to release memorandums detailing the alleged torture of detainees, sparking criticism from former Bush administration officials. But in other instances the president has either embraced Mr. Bush’s positions or changed his mind about following through on promises of disclosure.
At first, the White House said it would support the release of photos of detainee abuse but later reversed course and decided to leave it up to the courts. Concerns about secrecy and repercussions are valid, but passing the buck to the courts on this issue does not add to the president’s credibility regarding disclosure.
The White House has also continued the Bush administration’s objections to the release of an interview that former Vice President Dick Cheney gave to the FBI during its investigation of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. Again emulating the Bush administration, the current occupant of the White House has moved to dismiss lawsuits seeking White House e-mails from the past several years.
Using legal tactic
Mr. Obama’s administration has not hesitated to fight disclosure in court, either. In May, it supported the ”state secrecy” doctrine in a case involving a lawsuit against a government contractor by five victims of “extraordinary rendition.”
This is the legal tactic that says the government can prevent the courts from hearing claims by those who say they were hurt by federal actions — because the need for state secrecy requires it.
That is exactly the same position the Bush administration took, a policy that allows government to evade the accountability that Mr. Obama vowed to champion. In turning down the administration’s appeal, a judge noted that the policy is often a convenient way for governments to hide politically embarrassing information.
The administration claims it has valid reasons in each of these instances to opt for secrecy, but the pattern is both disappointing and a far cry from what Mr. Obama led voters to believe during the campaign.
The government has a legitimate right to protect certain information. But the record indicates that given a choice between disclosure and secrecy, Mr. Obama is falling into the appalling habit of hiding the facts.