Obama and transparency: judge for yourself

There are ample facts to assess in determining the authenticity of his pledge for "a new era of transparency"

By Glenn Greenwald

Published June 17, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

"My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government" -- Barack Obama, January 28, 2009


Promising "a new era of openness in our country," President Obama [said]: "Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency" -- CNN, January 21, 2009


"A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.  As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.'  In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.  At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike. . . .

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government" -- Barack Obama, January 21, 2009

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Has Obama fulfilled those pledges and lived up to those commitments -- even remotely?  Just examine the facts and judge for yourself:

February 9, New York Times:

In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture [Mohamed v. Jeppesen Data], a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.

February 21, Huffington Post:  

The Obama administration, siding with former President George W. Bush, is trying to kill a lawsuit that seeks to recover what could be millions of missing White House e-mails.

February 27, Associated Press:

The Obama administration has lost its argument that a potential threat to national security should stop a lawsuit challenging the government's warrantless wiretapping program. . . . The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, claimed national security would be compromised if a lawsuit brought by the Oregon chapter of the charity, Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, was allowed to proceed.

April 7, The Atlantic:

The Obama Administration still wants to keep its secrets. Yesterday, the Justice Department [in a case brought against Bush officials for illegal spying] embraced the argument that the state secrets privilege . . . should shut down any litigation against the National Security Agency for its arguably illegal warrantless surveillance program.

April 28, New York Times:

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit brought by five men who say they were tortured as part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s “extraordinary rendition” program could proceed, dealing a blow to efforts by both the Bush and Obama administrations to claim sweeping executive secrecy powers.

May 12, Washington Times:

The Obama administration says it may curtail Anglo-American intelligence sharing if the British High Court discloses new details of the treatment of a former Guantanamo detainee. . . . In February, the British Foreign Office claimed that the U.S. government had threatened to reduce intelligence cooperation if details of the interrogations and treatment of Mr. Mohamed were disclosed.

May 14, Washington Post:

President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure, saying he will seek to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees held by U.S. authorities abroad.

May 22, San Francisco Chronicle:

A federal judge on Friday threatened to severely sanction the Obama Administration for withholding a top secret document he ordered given to lawyers suing the government over its warrantless wiretapping program. . . . The National Security Agency has also refused the judge's previous orders to provide security clearances to two of the charity's lawyers so they can view the top secret document.

June 1, Washington Post Editorial page:

The [Graham-Lieberman] measure, supported by the White House and passed May 21 as an attachment to a Senate funding bill, would put beyond the reach of FOIA any photographs taken between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 22, 2009 . . . [W]hat makes the administration's support for the photographic records act so regrettable [is that in] taking a step aimed at protecting the country's service members, Mr. Obama runs the risk of taking two steps back in his quest for more open government.

June 9, Washington Post:

The Obama administration objected yesterday to the release of certain Bush-era documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees at secret prisons, arguing to a federal judge that doing so would endanger national security and benefit al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts.  In an affidavit, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta defended the classification of records describing the contents of the 92 videotapes, their destruction by the CIA in 2005 and what he called "sensitive operational information" about the interrogations.

June 12, Associated Press:

The Obama administration has decided to keep secret the locations of nearly four dozen coal ash storage sites that pose a threat to people living nearby.  The Environmental Protection Agency classified the 44 sites as potential hazards to communities while investigating storage of coal ash waste after a spill at a Tennessee power plant in December.

June 16, McClatchy:

Defense Department officials are debating whether to ignore an earlier promise and squelch the release of an investigation into a U.S. airstrike last month, out of fear that its findings would further enrage the Afghan public, Pentagon officials told McClatchy Monday.

June 16, ABC News:

After being briefed today on President Obama’s firing last week of Gerald Walpin, Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the president did not abide by the same law that he co-sponsored – and she wrote – about firing Inspectors General. . . . “The legislation which was passed last year requires that the president give a reason for the removal," [McCaskill said]. McCaskill, a key Obama ally, said that the president’s stated reason for the termination, “Loss of confidence’ is not a sufficient reason.”

June 17, Washington Post:

President Obama has embraced Bush administration justifications for denying public access to White House visitor logs even as advisers say they are reviewing the policy of keeping secret the official record of comings and goings.

Balanced against all of that, Obama complied with a court order directing the release of Bush-era OLC memos on torture; issued an Executive Order creating additional procedures before executive secrecy under FOIA could be asserted; and ordered his agency heads to interpret FOIA with a "presumption" in favor of disclosure.  It should also be noted that -- as Think Progress documented yesterday -- Obama's position in denying access to visitor logs is a direct violation of his statements about the Bush administration's practices in doing the same, and the same is true for his use of the Bush-era version of the state secrets theory.  

Finally, it's worth emphasizing that the above excerpts pertain only to transparency issues.  None of this has anything to do with what The New York Times in May -- referring to Obama's Bush-replicating policies on detention, rendition, denial of habeas rights, military commission and the like -- described as "how he has backtracked, in substantial if often nuanced ways, from the approach to national security that he preached as a candidate, and even from his first days in the Oval Office."  No matter how you look at it, this is quite a record.

* * * * *

I'll be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman this morning at roughly 8:30 a.m. EST to talk about Obama and issues of transparency and secrecy.  Live video feed is here.


UPDATE: On Twitter, Sen. Claire McCaskill says the Obama administration has now provided additional information about its reasons for firing the Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service and that the information provided now fulfills Obama's legal obligations.  So that is one case where pressure from one of Obama's closest Senate allies compelled additional disclosure.


UPDATE II: Via Dan Froomkin, here is an animated cartoon from Ann Telnaes mocking Obama's behavior on transparency issues.  Independently, here is Froomkin on what looks to be another item to be added to this list:  attempts by the CIA to keep suppressed a 2004 CIA Inspector General report detailing what a failure the Bush torture program was.

Finally, here is the video of the segment I did this morning on Democracy Now regarding Obama and transparency.   It begins at roughly 35:50:


UPDATE III: From Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo (h/t sysprog):

OBAMA: I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. (Applause.) . . .

Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Barack Obama, we love you!

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.)


UPDATE IV:  The transcript for the Democracy Now segment on Obama and transparency is here.

Glenn Greenwald

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