Obama Pledges Open Government (But We've Heard That Before)
WASHINGTON -- President Obama has promised an administration that is open and transparent. I'll believe it when I see it.
At a swearing-in ceremony for top officials of the new administration, Obama said: "For a long time now there's been too much secrecy in this city. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."
In executive orders and presidential memoranda, the president is trying to overturn the Bush administration's tight-fisted control over government information that belongs in the public domain.
Obama quickly reversed Bush's post 9/11 measures that made it easier to deny requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. He also blocked Bush's policy that permitted former presidents or their heirs to claim executive privilege to keep records secret.
In a far-reaching statement, Obama said, "Every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."
If carried out, we will know a lot more than we do now about foreign and domestic issues, especially how taxpayer money has been spent to bail out big banks in recent months.
I've heard such presidential pledges before -- starting with Lyndon B. Johnson -- and the thought keeps running through my mind: "That'll be the day."
Johnson told wire service reporters after he became president in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: "I want you to know everything that is on my desk."
Of course, that far-fetched promise was never carried out. All the administrations I have covered -- dating back to Kennedy -- have been secretive and shown little respect for keeping the people informed of what is being done in their name -- unless a president wants to brag about an accomplishment. Then the government's giant information machine whirls into action.
But secrecy goes with the White House turf.
One dodge used by executive branch officials is that concerns about "national security" forbid the release of information. The "national security" label is enough to inhibit the free flow of information in many areas.
Few administrations have hidden as many undercover activities as the Bush-2 administration.
To this day, former President Bush has not given a credible reason for invading and occupying Iraq in March 2003. All the reasons he has offered -- especially Iraq's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaida terrorists and threats against the U.S.-- turned out to be bogus. Where was the public outrage?
Bush's cohorts collaborated by making false statements in the run-up to the war against Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney said on several Sunday talk shows, "We know where they are," referring to Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Then former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned ominously that a failure to invade Iraq could result in "a mushroom cloud."
Have they no shame?
Truth is called the first casualty of war but unfortunately the American press played along with the Bush administration's duplicity.
A few years ago when I asked the Pentagon why U.S. military officials were withholding the death toll of Iraqi civilians killed, a Pentagon spokesman replied: "They (the Iraqis) don't count."
With fewer investigative reporters these days, news outlets are relying too much on government handouts which are usually self serving for the administration in power.
The concept of an open administration is great. Now let's put it to a test.
© 2009 Helen Thomas