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:
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:
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 an amazingly 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:
March 15, 2013
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