An opaque transparency

John Keane, Fran Townsend, Mitchell Silber of the New York City Police Department, Juan Carlos Zarate and terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins attend a Senate committee hearing on the Fort Hood shootings along with . . . no administration members.
John Keane, Fran Townsend, Mitchell Silber of the New York City Police Department, Juan Carlos Zarate and terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins attend a Senate committee hearing on the Fort Hood shootings along with . . . no administration members. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

As the first congressional investigation of the Fort Hood massacre began Thursday, a curious collection of witnesses assembled in the committee room.

There was Fran Townsend, White House homeland security adviser -- to President George W. Bush. There was Jack Keane, vice chief of staff of the Army -- during the Clinton and Bush administrations. And there was Juan Carlos Zarate, a deputy national security adviser -- in the Bush White House.

Conspicuously absent: anyone from the Obama administration. They declined a request for their testimony by Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate homeland security committee.

It was a familiar trope of the Bush years: A congressional committee would try to investigate the administration's actions -- over intelligence failures in Iraq, for example -- but the administration would stiff the committee and then set up its own internal inquiry to preempt the lawmakers' probe and keep embarrassing details quiet. On Thursday, the Obama administration followed every element of the script, short of hiring Ari Fleischer.

At 10 a.m., Lieberman began his hearing with a vow to search out "errors or negligence" to help ensure that attacks such as the killing of 13 at the Texas Army base this month "never occur again." The chairman added a reminder that "it will be very difficult to fulfill our committee's responsibility without the cooperation of the executive branch."

At 1:30 pm, Robert Gates, defense secretary to President Obama -- and Bush before that -- walked into a hastily arranged news conference at the Pentagon. "Today, I am announcing that the Department of Defense will conduct a separate review," he said, promising to seek out "weaknesses or procedural shortcomings in the department that could make us vulnerable in the future."

For those waiting for the new White House to make good on its vow to bring transparency to the executive branch, it was another disappointing brush with Obama opacity.

Earlier in the week, the president angrily denounced leaks from his administration about Afghanistan policy and threatened to fire anybody found to be leaking. Days before that, the administration, securing an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, blocked the release of photographs said to show prisoners being abused in U.S. military custody. Two weeks earlier, in the first big test of what the administration said would be a less restrictive "state secrets" policy, Attorney General Eric Holder invoked the state secrets privilege to block a case from proceeding in court.

"There have been steps forward here and there," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, but so far "the basic patterns of government secrecy are unchanged." On Thursday, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee began work on a compromise media shield measure that the administration had accepted -- an expansion of press protections. But later in the day, military officials declared that they were banning reporters from covering Sarah Palin's appearance at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, even though the event was open to the public.

At a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), an advocate of open government, scolded Holder over the administration's secrecy. He called Holder's responses to his requests for information "completely unacceptable," and told the attorney general that "you're not upholding your pledge" to provide information. "I wanted to save President Obama any embarrassment for what the previous administration didn't do right in responding to proper requests. So why are you and the department not willing to answer these questions?"

The transparency tension has become particularly pronounced over the Fort Hood investigations. Obama, in his radio address last Saturday, cautioned that "all of us should resist the temptation to turn this tragic event into the political theater."

The Senate Armed Services Committee obediently canceled its hearing on the shootings. The House intelligence panel chairman told reporters that the administration had requested that he not begin an investigation. But Lieberman went to the Senate press gallery on Wednesday and pushed back at Obama: "We are not interested in political theater. We are interested in getting the facts and correcting the system."

Lieberman was good to his word. His hearing was so untheatrical as to be downright boring. But his Bush administration witnesses did have some useful thoughts for their successors. "I worry about a sense of political correctness," said Townsend (who, naturally, resisted such appearances before Congress when she worked for Bush). Military officials may not have heeded warnings about the alleged killer, Maj. Nidal Hasan, because of "a reluctance for them to pursue a senior, uniformed-military member, a doctor who was Muslim."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed that "this political correctness" may have been a problem, and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) considered "this whole idea of political correctness" to be an important insight.

It was an intriguing theory. Hopefully, somebody at the White House was watching on C-SPAN.

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