Some things just aren’t cool. One of those, according to our no-drama president, is ignorance.
“It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about,” President Obama said during his recent Rutgers University commencement address. It was a swipe clearly intended for he-who-didn’t-need-to-be-named: Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president.
Okay, no argument there.
But the Obama administration itself has been part of a different know-nothing problem. It has kept the news media — and therefore the public — in the dark far too much over the past 7 1/2 years.
After early promises to be the most transparent administration in history, this has been one of the most secretive. And in certain ways, one of the most elusive. It’s also been one of the most punitive toward whistleblowers and leakers who want to bring light to wrongdoing they have observed from inside powerful institutions.
That’s why I’m skeptical about the notion that Americans will soon know what they need to know about drone strikes — the targeted killings that have become a major part of the administration’s anti-terrorism effort in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
How many of the dead were terrorists or militants? How many were civilians, killed as collateral damage? The administration’s accounting — promised three years ago — will arrive when it hardly matters anymore for holding this administration accountable. But, as The Washington Post reported on Monday, it’s also going to be incomplete, omitting what has happened in Pakistan, where hundreds of strikes have taken place.
Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer for the international human rights organization known as Reprieve, made this pointed statement: “Excluding the vast majority of drone strikes from this assessment means that it will hardly be worth the paper it is printed on.” Reprieve and another British organization, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have long challenged the administration’s accounting of drone deaths, using their own research to insist that there are far more fatalities, and a higher percentage of civilian deaths, than the U.S. government admits.
Meanwhile, the most transparent administration in history continues doing transparency its own way.
Call it Transparency Lite. On Monday, during a visit to Vietnam, the president spent some quality time with the media — in the form of Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef. A couple of years ago, he did a heavily publicized interview with the comedian Zach Galifianakis on the faux talk show “Between Two Ferns,” and last year he made a visit to podcaster Marc Maron’s garage for a chat about fatherhood and overcoming fear.
But his on-the-record interviews with hard-news, government reporters have been relatively rare — and, rather than being wide-ranging, often limited to a single subject, such as the economy.
Remarkably, Post news reporters haven’t been able to interview the president since late 2009. Think about that. The Post is, after all, perhaps the leading news outlet on national government and politics, with no in-depth, on-the-record access to the president of the United States for almost all of his two terms.
I couldn’t get anyone in the White House press office to address this, despite repeated attempts by phone and email — which possibly proves my point.
But a thorough study from Martha Joynt Kumar, a retired Towson University professor, describes the administration’s strategy. The president does plenty of interviews, she writes — far more than any other president in recent history. But these interviews are tightly controlled and targeted toward specific topics, and, it seems to me, often granted to soft questioners. (All of this is a major shift from a time when news conferences and short question-and-answer sessions allowed reporters to pursue news topics aggressively and in real time.)
More interviews, less accountability. Feet kept safe from the fire.
Meanwhile, on media rights generally, the Obama administration hasn’t walked its talk. It has set new records for stonewalling or rejecting Freedom of Information requests. And it has used an obscure federal act to prosecute leakers. It continued the punishing treatment of a National Security Agency whistleblower, Thomas Drake (dismaying new details have emerged recently in book excerpts by John Crane, a former Pentagon investigator), and threatened to send the New York Times investigative reporter James Risen to jail for his good-faith insistence on protecting his confidential source.
Promising transparency and criticizing ignorance, but delivering secrecy and opacity? That doesn’t serve the public or the democracy. And that’s deeply uncool.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan