Obama and Transparency: Judge for Yourself

(updated below)

"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

* * * * *

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

[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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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.

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