Seeking to assuage concerns about the administration's record of opacity, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest unctuously assured the Society of Professional Journalists last month that Obama is transparent because he is transparent:
The president has set an historically high standard of transparency that is part of the legacy to which future presidents will aspire and the president and his administration are justifiably proud of these accomplishments.
And earlier this week, on the same day we learned the Obama administration demands the right to edit White House press pool reports, the president promised that The Most Transparent Administration™ would continue to work towards open governance:
Speaking at a meeting of the Open Government Partnership at the United Nations, the president said the U.S. would "lead by example" with a series of new initiatives to promote open government.
So what is the actual transparency record for the Obama administration?
Not good. After all, these are the folks who won't even disclose what coffee the president drinks. From going after whistleblowers to restricting reporter access to obfuscating his foreign policy, Obama is about as open as the front door of the White House.
Tooting the Whistleblowing Horn
Columbia Journalism Review writes that "the Obama administration has prosecuted more people as whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined." Journalism heavyweights Leonard Downie Jr. and James Goodale have been some of the loudest in warning about the current administration's heavy-handedness towards reporters and their sources. Goodale describes the president's stance on press freedom as "antediluvian, conservative, backwards. Worse than Nixon. He thinks that anyone who leaks is a spy!"
Phone records of an A.P. journalist have been seized, a Fox News reporter was specifically targeted, and other journalists have faced intimidation from the government for their reporting. Nor are sources of government information safe: last year the Obama administration launched an "Insider Threat" program in response to the Edward Snowden leaks. The program encourages government employees to snitch on colleagues suspected of leaking information.
Giving Reporters the Run-Around
But even run-of-the-mill reporters are having an increasingly difficult time as the Obama administration tightens its grip on information access. Diluting and filtering what information is released and how it is presented has become the modus operandi for the administration. Journalists are being shut out of meetings normally open to the press. The administration has also clamped down on photography of the president and official events. The restrictive policy has been described as "Orwellian" and White House chief photographer Pete Souza has been called a "propagandist." Veteran New York Times political correspondent David Sanger said that "this is the most closed, control-freak administration I've ever covered."
Bush by Any Other Name
But nowhere is this restriction of information more apparent than with respect to the administration's foreign affairs and national security policies. Access to photos and information about the ISIS engagement is tightly controlled. Despite promises of transparency, the Department of Homeland Security's no-fly list continues to operate in the dark. The administration is also notoriously reluctant in disclosing information on the ongoing drone program in the Middle East—although it loves bragging about its accomplishments in a program that didn't until recently officially exist. FOIA requests are consistently denied or ignored—apparently often enough to justify an "FOIA Denial Officer." Even the government's use of torture—that quintessentially Bush-era bugbear—falls under the administration's cone of silence.
Sometimes it seems like the only thing we do know about the administration is that it will continue eloquently praising its own unprecedented transparency. We would do well to put pressure on Obama to make good on his promises. Or at the very least point out to him that "least" is not spelled m-o-s-t.