“My administration,” President Obama wrote on his first day in office, “is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”
Those were strong and hopeful words. Four years later, it is becoming more and more clear that they were just words.
On Monday afternoon, open-government advocates assembled in a congressional hearing room to ponder what had become of the Obama administration’s lofty vows of transparency.
“It’s been a really tough slog,” said Anne Weismann of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The lack of effective leadership in the White House, in the executive branch, has really made it difficult to have more significant progress.”
“They’ve been reluctant to take positions,” said Hudson Hollister of the Data Transparency Coalition, “and translate that to real action.”
“In the beginning of 2010, [Obama] said he made a significant mistake by abandoning some of his pledges related to transparency,” said Josh Gerstein of Politico, “and that going forward they would do things differently. Seems to me we are forward and it seems to me we’re not doing things any differently.”
It was a more-in-sadness-than-in-anger critique of Obama often heard from the political left, and the moderator, the Sunlight Foundation’s Daniel Schuman, was apologetic. “We’re placing a lot of blame at the administration,” he observed. “Or blame isn’t the right word — maybe responsibility.”
No, blame is just fine. The Obama administration’s high level of opacity, though typical of modern presidencies, is troubling precisely because the president was so clear about his determination to do things differently. As recently as early last year, some open-government advocates were still hopeful, presenting Obama with an anti-secrecy award at the White House. But even then, there were signs of trouble: The award presentation wasn’t on his schedule and was closed to reporters.
By certain measures, “overall secrecy has actually increased rather than declined,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Criminalization of unauthorized disclosures of information to the press has risen sharply, becoming a preferred tactic. Efforts to promote public accountability in controversial aspects of counterterrorism policy such as targeted killing have been blocked by threadbare, hardly credible national security secrecy claims.”
A Washington Post report from this past summer concluded that “by some measures the government is keeping more secrets than before.” Those making Freedom of Information Act requests in 2011 were less likely than in 2010 to get material from 10 of 15 Cabinet agencies, which were more likely to exploit the law’s exemptions.
Also, the National Declassification Center, which Obama established in 2009, had by the summer of 2012 reviewed only 14 percent of the pages it was assigned to review and declassify by the end of 2013.
Now the administration is maintaining silence as lawmakers prepare to pass one of the gravest threats to government transparency in years. A bill passed by the Senate intelligence committee would ban anybody but the top officials and public-relations staff at intelligence agencies from speaking to the media. The proposal, intended to crack down on classified leaks, would significantly set back freedom of the press, thwart whistle-blowers and squelch the airing of dissenting views on intelligence issues. This is part of a broader effort to make it a crime for national security officials to talk to reporters.
The Obama administration has, to its credit, made progress in a few areas: releasing more of the White House visitor logs, disseminating more information about nuclear weapons, disclosing more about intelligence spending, and declassifying more historical records.
But these don’t amount to the “unprecedented level of openness” Obama promised. The few advances that have been made are mostly administrative changes that will end with the Obama administration. “We haven’t seen that many, if any, legislative initiatives from the White House,” Weismann lamented at Monday’s gathering of the open-government advocates.
Consider the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, a bill with bipartisan support that would make it easier to track government spending by requiring agencies to report expenditures in a uniform way online. The legislation is so uncontroversial that it passed the House on a voice vote. But the Obama administration raised objections — and the transparency law has yet to see the light of day.
For more Washington Sketch columns, visit washingtonpost.com/milbank.