Transparency Ends at the White House Door

On his first day in office, President Obama vowed to create “a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.” But the president has not lived up to his transparency rhetoric – and now even the left is taking note.

Liberal magazine Mother Jones laments this week that the Obama administration spent a record-high $12 billion in 2011 to keep government information classified. Since the process of classifying documents is itself classified, it’s impossible to determine the individual merits of those decisions. But it’s instructive to consider the government’s sweeping classification mandate with Obama’s initial pledge that transparency would be one of the “touchstones” of his administration. As he said back in January 2009:

The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, that it should not be disclosed. That era is now over.

Except, plainly, it’s not. And it’s not just the “American people” who are being denied access to government-related information. The president’s cheerleaders in the establishment media have been similarly rebuffed. In June, that frustration led Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times – hardly a right-wing tribune — to blast the administration for its hostility to media coverage and its tightfisted control over information, especially on national security. Abramson revealed that Times reporters who had covered national security issues for several decades had confided in her that “the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge. One Times reporter told me, ‘The environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporting.’” So much for a new era of accountability.


Obama’s broken promises on transparency are also evident in the administration’s aggressive pursuit of leakers, on whom journalists rely for scoops and inside information. That may seem unlikely, particularly in light of the recent spate of national security leaks from the administration. But those leaks, highlighting the administration’s national security successes — such as the drone program and the foiling of a terror plot through an audacious undercover operation — have largely served to bolster the administration’s public image. By contrast, the administration has come down hard on leakers it sees as damaging to its cause. In its first term, the administration has launched six prosecutions involving such whistleblowers – double the number under all previous administrations combined. Although most of these whistleblowers have leaked information to the media rather than to a foreign government, it speaks to the severity of the administration’s position on leaks that it has gone after them under the 1917 Espionage Act. The message is clear: Transparency ends at the White House door.

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