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Why has the president turned away from transparency? Theories abound. One transparency advocate I spoke to in January blamed security hawks in Congress, Democrats and Republicans who “won’t let” Obama open up government. When I asked him why he thought Obama didn’t just buck the objections and do what he promised, the transparency advocate said it would be “politically risky.”
Thomas Drake has another theory. A former NSA official, Drake became a poster boy for the transparency movement in 2005 after exposing the NSA’s Trailblazer project, an overpriced data collection program that he felt was tantamount to domestic spying. In 2010 a grand jury indicted Drake under the odious Espionage Act of 1917 for giving information about Trailblazer to a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. The Obama administration’s prosecutors did everything they could to keep the Drake case quiet. Invoking the Classified Information Procedures Act, they asked U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to prohibit Drake’s legal team from mentioning overclassification or whistleblowing, tried to limit cross-examination, and demanded that jurors be forbidden from reading the Sun’s Trailblazer stories.
In June 2011, after Drake said he would not “plea bargain with the truth,” federal prosecutors threw out all the charges save one: a single misdemeanor count of “exceeding his authorized access to government computers.” Drake took the deal and was sentenced to community service.
In the fall of 2011, I heard Drake speak after a screening of All the President’s Men at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland. “If I hadn’t said something about the wrongdoing that I became aware of, then I would’ve been condoning the very activity I discovered and found out about,” Drake told the audience. “My responsibility as a senior executive in the national security community, and assigned to the National Security Agency, was to honor the oath, which is to support and defend the Constitution and make sure I faithfully executed the law of the land. That included all statutes; that included all regulations.”
After the event, I caught Drake in the hall-way to ask him about Obama’s failure to uphold his transparency promises. “Obama’s been co-opted by the national security community,” Drake said. “People hoped he would take them on, but he became enamored by all the secret stuff. He’s getting all these cool briefings. It goes to his head. I can send drones anywhere! It’s very powerful stuff. It becomes pathological.”
Tall, gaunt, and worried-looking, Drake added that “if this had happened in too many other countries, I would’ve been disappeared.” As it stands, he is doing his community service at the Library of Congress, perhaps the only silver lining in Obama’s war on transparency.
‘You’ll Notice That It Is an Empty Chair’
While many of Obama’s transparency failures concern national security, not all of them do. In October 2011 a panel of science journalists convened at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss the transparency record of federal agencies. After introducing six science journalists, panel moderator Seth Borenstein, a writer for the Associated Press, introduced the representative from the Obama administration. “You’ll notice that it is an empty chair,” Borenstein said.
That last seat had been offered to three different federal agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Each agency had declined, said Curtis Brainard, the science editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, “despite my best efforts, which came out to dozens of emails and phone calls.” After two months of “begging and pleading” with agency officials, Brainard made “a last-ditch effort to reach out to the White House itself, explaining the fact that their agencies and departments have declined this invitation, and why I believe this event is so important to addressing some of these issues in media relations.” The result of Brainard’s efforts could serve as an epitaph for Obama’s transparency record: “I never heard back from them.”