By now, the self-description of the Obama administration as the “most transparent in history” is regarded as a joke by the press. To the contrary, whether it is photographic access, freedom of information requests, civil answers to legitimate questions or any other aspect of openness, President Obama and his advisers seem to believe less is more and none is best.
When concerns about transparency and access come up in an administration, it usually concerns domestic policy, but this administration is often astonishingly unforthcoming when it comes to foreign policy. And I’m not talking about national security leaks intended to make the president look good (be it on the Osama bin Laden operation or “kill lists” or other anti-terror activities).
This is no truer than with Iran policy. Not only does he not tell the American people what is going on, but he also has an annoying practice of keeping critical allies — Israel and Saudi Arabia — out of the loop. Hence the negative reaction when he finally announced our behind-the-scenes (and backs) negotiations that seemed to change the entire framework for a deal (e.g. allowing Iran’s “right to enrichment”) He has, let’s remember, told Congress and the American people to trust him. Give diplomacy and peace a chance, and all that. But the interim agreement is still being closely guarded. The Israel Project reports:
“Controversy swirled yesterday regarding the Obama administration’s decision to withhold from the public the text describing how the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) with Iran is to be implemented. . . . Top Iranian figures have repeatedly and explicitly accused the White House of mischaracterizing the degree to which Iran committed to making concessions on its nuclear program under the JPA. Analysts and journalists have been unable to evaluate the Iranians’ claims because the White House has refused to allow the text to be publicly scrutinized.”
The agreement is not classified, but the Obama team is acting like it is, even setting up rules in which “no photocopies are allowed, no photos can be taken, and remember, your Blackberry or iPhone is sitting outside.”
Constitutional expert David Rifkin acknowledges there is nothing unconstitutional about hiding the ball, but it is very bad practice. He tells me that the president can operate by executive action (as opposed to treaty power), but he notes this isn’t in keeping with historical practice “wherein matters of great importance were negotiated as treaties. It would be also a very bad idea as a matter of policy, since treating it as an executive agreement would not be conducive to fostering a domestic consensus on our policy.” He calls refusing to disclose a critical foreign policy agreement “unprecedented” and “remarkable.”
Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the deal fuels the suspicion the president is willing to make a bad deal to get out of making good on his own policy (all options on the table, Iranian nukes are “unacceptable,” etc.) Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton observes, “If it is innocuous, why not release it? If it is not innocuous, what have we given up?”
The media covering the State Department historically are better informed, less biased and more persistent than their White House counterparts. They should stay on the case, asking each and every day if need be the pertinent questions. How can we trust diplomacy if the president won’t show us the results? How do we know if the Iranians are interpreting the deal if we can’t see it? Why can’t it be released? Has Israel or other allies been given the agreement while the American people have not?
In any other administration, this would be a scandal. In this one it’s par for the course.