Barack Obama promised transparency: The White House is as opaque, secretive, and hostile to open government as George Bush’s administration.
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March 12 2013 5:23 AM

Where the Sun Don’t Shine

President Obama promised transparency and open government. He failed miserably. So why do Washington watchdog groups look the other way? 

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The storyline is classic Washington: Whistleblowers run to Congress about bad behavior; Congress demands answers; the White House throws up a wall. But where is the outrage, especially from the very groups who are supposed to be holding the government accountable? It doesn’t exist. Writing about Fast and Furious for the Huffington Post, Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight mused whether the entire inquiry being led by Republicans was merely “partisanship” run amok. Wouldn’t it have been more logical for her to ask why Democrats hadn’t joined Republicans in demanding that the White House respond?

Such a poor grasp of the facts could be caused by the involvement of Rep. Darrell Issa, who was ordered years ago by the Republican leadership to turn the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into a war machine against the White House. However, in this case, Issa was in the right.

As the administration continued to insist they had no involvement or knowledge of the ATF program, Issa released several Fast and Furious wiretap applications with signatures of top Justice Department officials. Rather than attacking the administration’s stonewalling, Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, attacked Rep. Issa for releasing the sealed documents.


Never mind that every investigative committee releases sealed documents. (I cannot tell you how many times my Senate Finance Committee colleagues and I released documents that were under seal.) It’s how Congress functions and does its job. However, CREW’s close ties to ethics czar Eisen might explain why Sloan was so quick to go on the partisan attack.

Tired of stonewalling, House Republicans threatened Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt, forcing Obama’s hand. In 2007, presidential candidate Obama told the Boston Globe, “My view is that executive privilege generally depends on the involvement of the president and the White House.” He must take a different view of it now, as Obama declared executive privilege to protect the Department of Justice as well, compelling the House to vote for contempt.

Most Americans don’t care about arcane legal battles over separation of powers between the White House and Congress. On election night, it was obvious that the issue had not resonated outside right-wing media circles. When it became clear that Obama was going to win, an employee with one of Washington’s watchdogs tweeted, “Now am I allowed to criticize Obama on drones & assassination & military commissions & secret memos expanding secret surveillance powers??” Maybe it’s a bad joke, but the implication is that she and her cohort had been withholding criticism of the president until it became clear that he had beaten Mitt Romney.

The ATF whistleblowers who brought the issue to Congress faced years of harassment from their agency but were ignored by Washington’s collection of good-government groups, who typically rally around whistleblowers. Only the Washington Times reported that Agent Peter Forcelli later resolved his disputes with the agency. After the election, Agent John Dodson was also cleared of any wrongdoings and was even praised by the ATF for taking the “courageous step of going to Congress to ensure that the public learned of the flawed tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious.”

Only Fox News covered the matter.

Kiriakou says that it’s time for people to acknowledge the facts about the Obama administration’s attitude toward whistleblowers and transparency in general:

“I think these groups are stuck in a 2008 mentality where, ‘Oh my gosh, we have President Obama. He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he’s promised greater transparency, and he really wants to do that but he just can’t yet. It will come. It will come. We should trust him.’ ”

The occasion is not yet ripe for many in Washington to admit that the Obama administration is no different from those who have come before it. But time will come when the cognitive dissonance between what Obama says and what he does will be too much.

“We should judge him by his actions,” Kiriakou says. Hopefully, it won’t take another four years.

Paul D. Thacker is a journalist and consultant to nonprofits. Supported by a grant from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, he is working on a book about the lives of congressional staffers. Follow him on Twitter.