Obama's Secrecy Fixation Causing Sunshine Week Implosion

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When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his pledges of openness and transparency were not ancillary to his campaign but central to it. He repeatedly denounced the Bush administration as “one of the most secretive administrations in our nation’s history”, saying that “it is no coincidence” that such a secrecy-obsessed presidency “has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight.” He vowed: “as president, I’m going to change that.” In a widely heralded 2007 speech on transparency, he actually claimed that this value shaped his life purpose:

“The American people want to trust in our government again – we just need a government that will trust in us. And making government accountable to the people isn’t just a cause of this campaign – it’s been a cause of my life for two decades.”

His campaign specifically vowed to protect whistleblowers, hailing them as “the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government” and saying that “such acts of courage and patriotism. . . should be encouraged rather than stifled.” Transparency groups were completely mesmerized by these ringing commitments. “We have a president-elect that really gets it,” gushed Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, in late 2008; “the openness community will expect a complete repudiation of the Ashcroft doctrine.” Here’s just one of countless representative examples of Obama bashing Bush for excessive secrecy – including in the realm of national security and intelligence – and vowing a fundamentally different course:

Literally moments after he was inaugurated, the White House declared that “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history”. Obama continues even now to parade around as a historically unprecedented champion of openness. In a 2010 speech, he said “I will not stop fighting to open up government” and then praised himself this way: “we have put in place the toughest transparency rules in history: in history.” Right this very minute, on the White House website, Obama is quoted this way: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” because “transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”

This week is Sunshine Week, created by transparency and civil liberties groups and media outlets as “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information”. The White House blog on Wednesday said that ”we celebrate Sunshine Week – an appropriate time to discuss the importance of open government and freedom of information” and quoted the president this way: “Openness will strengthen our democracy, and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Along with others, I’ve spent the last four years documenting the extreme, often unprecedented, commitment to secrecy that this president has exhibited, including his vindictive war on whistleblowers, his refusal to disclose even the legal principles underpinning his claimed war powers of assassination, and his unrelenting, Bush-copying invocation of secrecy privileges to prevent courts even from deciding the legality of his conduct (as a 2009 headline on the Obama-friendly TPM site put it: “Expert Consensus: Obama Mimics Bush On State Secrets”). Just this week, the Associated Press conducted a study proving that last year, the Obama administration has rejected more FOIA requests on national security grounds than in any year since Obama became president, and quoted Alexander Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney for its national security project, as follows:

“We’ve seen a meteoric rise in the number of claims to protect secret law, the government’s interpretations of laws or its understanding of its own authority. In some ways, the Obama administration is actually even more aggressive on secrecy than the Bush administration.”

Re-read that last sentence in italics. Most of those policies have been covered here at length, and I won’t repeat them here. But what is remarkable is that this secrecy has become so oppressive and extreme that even the most faithful Democratic operatives are now angrily exploding with public denunciations.

Let’s begin with John Podesta, who was previously the chief of Obama’s transition team as well as Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House, and now runs the highly Obama-loyal Center for American Progress. During that 2008 transition, Podesta vowed that the Obama administration would be “the most open and transparent transition in history.” Perhaps out of embarrassment that his own vows have been so flagrantly disregarded, Podesta has anamazingly scathing Op-Ed in the Washington Post this morning about Obama’s refusal to release even the legal memoranda purporting to vest him with assassination powers. This language is striking indeed given Podesta’s central role in the Democratic establishment:

“The Obama administration is wrong to withhold these documents from Congress and the American people. I say this as a former White House chief of staff who understands the instinct to keep sensitive information secret and out of public view . . . But protecting technical means, human sources, operational details and intelligence methods cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions. . . .

“In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justifications governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days. And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important. . . .

“The law that directs our government’s activities should not be kept secret. All branches of the people’s government have the right to know the rules and standards under which the other branches act. Congress has the power to oversee the conduct of the executive branch, and lawmakers must be permitted to use it. As Woodrow Wilson wrote: ‘The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.’ . . . .

“[W]e cannot lead if the American people are kept in the dark. We cannot lead if the world does not know the principles and laws that guide us, or if others can credibly say that our commitment to a government of the people, by the people and for the people is simply window-dressing, or that we sacrifice our constitutional principles when it is expedient.”

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