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?
Courtesy of Pete Souza/White House
President Obama has failed to deliver on few promises as miserably as his vow to create a more transparent and open government. Shortly after being sworn into office, he sent a memo to federal agencies promising, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”
At the time, I was a staffer on the Senate Finance Committee for Republican Charles Grassley and couldn’t help but laugh.
Before I worked on Capitol Hill, I was a reporter and broke a story about how Bush administration officials had silenced federal scientists who had tried to speak up about climate change after Hurricane Katrina. I based the article on documents and email messages I had uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act. Even though the Department of Commerce handed over the emails, I was disappointed to discover that portions of them had been illegally redacted to hide the involvement of specific political appointees.
After seeing years of heavy-handed secrecy and incessant White House claims of national security to hide the ball from Congress, I supported President Obama’s efforts to clean things up and restore some balance. But like most reporters, I am suspicious of these types of promises, especially from politicians. Regardless of who occupies the White House, I understand that power wants power. Scrutiny just gets in the way.
President Obama is no different. Whether it’s responding to Congress, media questions, or FOIA requests, this administration is no better than its predecessor. The big difference: Obama is a Democrat. And because he is a Democrat, he’s gotten a pass from many of the civil liberty and good-government groups who spent years watching President Bush’s every move like a hawk.
No one knows this better than John Kiriakou, the CIA agent who reported to federal prison two weeks ago for blowing the whistle on the agency’s use of torture. During an interview at an Arlington, Va., coffee shop, Kiriakou said the time has come for Washington watchdog groups—organizations like Public Citizen, Project on Government Oversight, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and others—to admit that President Obama hasn’t come close to making good on his promise to make government more transparent and accountable.
“Dan Ellsberg. He called me again last night,” said Kiriakou, referring to the man who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers and opened the world’s eyes to the United States’ long involvement in Vietnam. “We talk about this all the time. He keeps asking me, ‘Where is the outrage? If this were a Republican administration, people would be in the streets, right? We would be marching in the streets. But people cut Obama a break to the point of irrationality.’ ”
Indeed. Soon after he was sworn into office, Obama appointed an “ethics czar” named Norm Eisen, a successful attorney, who had been one of the president’s classmates at Harvard Law School and later became a major fundraiser to his campaign. Eisen was likely handed the ethics portfolio for a specific reason: He was steeped in the world of Washington watchdogs. (Eisen is one of the co-founders of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.) With Eisen on board, the administration was able to make cosmetic changes and neutralize harsh disapproval with a classic Washington maneuver—inviting potential critics to the White House for meetings. The administration understood that many of these groups would be satisfied by getting meetings with the ethics czar, and would calculate that if they became too critical of the president that their newfound “access” would be in peril. So the watchdogs have scampered up to the White House time and again, hopeful that maybe with the next election, the next initiative, maybe even the next meeting, something would change.
The most absurd example came a couple years ago when a group of Washington watchdogs went to the White House to give the president a “transparency” award, and the president refused to accept the award in public. The meeting wasn’t even listed on the president’s public schedule.
The watchdogs shouldn’t be fooled so easily. In March 2010, the Associated Press found that, under Obama, 17 major agencies were 50 percent more likely to deny FOIA requests than under Bush. The following year, the presidents of two journalism societies— Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Professional Journalists—called out President Obama for muzzling scientists in much the same way President Bush had. Last September, Bloomberg News tested Obama’s pledge by filing FOIA requests for the 2011 travel records of top officials at 57 agencies. Only about half responded. In fact, this president has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all prior administrations combined. And an analysis released Monday by the Associated Press found that the administration censored more FOIA requests on national security grounds last year than in any other year since President Obama took office.
Even when members of his own party ask questions, the Obama White House throws down an iron curtain. After demanding answers about the government response to the BP oil spill, Democratic Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva sent a long letter to Obama expressing disappointment with the “unjustifiable” redactions he received, “including entire pages blacked out in the middle of pertinent e-mail conversations.”
One of the most glaring examples of Obama’s failure on transparency is his response to the “Fast and Furious” fiasco—the botched attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to find Mexican drug lords by tracking guns smuggled from the United States into Mexico. The debacle came to light when ATF whistleblowers met with investigators working for Sen. Grassley. Grassley sent a letter to the Department of Justice demanding answers; not realizing Grassley already had documents that laid out the operation, officials at Justice responded with false and misleading information that violated federal law. When Grassley pressed the issue, the Justice Department retracted its initial response but refused to say anything more, which has resulted in multiple hearings and subpoenas.
Paul D. Thacker is a former Senate investigator. He is a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where he is working on a book about the lives of congressional staffers. Follow him on Twitter.