Upon assuming the office of the presidency, Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Nobody asked him to do that, but given the unpopularity of the secrecy of the George W. Bush administration, it was a safe bet that such a promise would be received warmly. President Obama laid out his rationale in a memorandum which included the following key points (emphasis in original):
Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.
Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.
Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government.
Accountability, engagement and collaboration: all hallmarks of good government which bring to mind the phrase attributed to Obama's friend, Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), that government is "things we choose to do together." As a senator, Obama introduced popular bipartisan legislation aimed at improving government transparency, most notably the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, but the trappings of power led President Obama to preside over an administration of unprecedented secrecy and outright hostility to journalistic inquiry.
Some of the secrecy is merely image control, such as the lack of access once routinely granted to reporters when the president meets with foreign dignitaries. Under Obama, the press is merely given photos of such meetings from the administration's official photographer.
Of greater import is the lack of transparency with regards to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. According to the Associated Press, despite President Obama's admonition to the agencies that answer to him that they be less stingy in sharing information, the government withheld documents under a deliberative process exception 81,752 times, a new high water mark in government secrecy. The AP added:
The government's responsiveness under the FOIA is widely viewed as a barometer of its transparency. Under the law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. It cited such exceptions a record 546,574 times last year.
A great deal of the withheld information deals with vital national security issues such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the legal rationale for killing Americans on foreign soil, and the mass surveillance of American citizens. The public has a right to know the details behind these questionable practices being executed in its name, but it at least makes sense when the government invokes "national security" as a reason for stonewalling.
Other barriers to transparency defy explanation, such as the NSA's reply to a FOIA request from an MIT grad student seeking information on the U.S.'s role in the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, "To the extent that you are seeking intelligence information on Nelson Mandela, we have determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter." Mandela was arrested in 1962, served 27 years in prison, then won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as South Africa's president. He died last year at the age of 95. What possible justification could there be to keep this matter "properly classified"?
That's not the only bit of ancient history being kept from the public. The CIA has fought to keep secret a definitive internal history of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Though the report was completed 30 years ago, the Obama administration still feels the public can't handle the truth of what went down in Cuba more than half a century ago.
Attempts at reform within the government have been made, most recently with the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, which was passed unanimously by the Senate and was expected to cruise through the House, but died after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to bring it to a vote before the legislative session ended. The bill was far from perfect and left many exemptions for the government to use at its discretion, but it did include several key improvements to the FOIA, summarized here by the Sunlight Foundation:
1. It establishes a stronger presumption of openness, prohibiting withholding of information only if "the agency foresees that disclosure would harm an interest" protected by an exemption.
2. It adds public interest to the b(5) exemption, which is an obtuse provision of FOIA that is abused nearly as much as it's used. Indeed, some call it the "Withhold It Because You Want To" Exemption.
3. It puts a 25-year time limit on the b(5) exemption (!). This is huge, for all of the reasons described in bullet two above, but let's add more flavor: According to the National Security Archive, b(5) was "used 81,752 times in 2013," meaning it was "applied to 12 percent of 2013's processed requests." Its usage is at an all-time high, and it is frequently summoned in national security contexts. This means that, for instance, the CIA couldn't block the release of internal reports on the Bay of Pigs invasion simply because the decades-old document is still marked "draft."
We will never know if the bill would have salvaged the final two years of Obama's quest to be the "most transparent administration ever," but we do know that a job exists specifically to break the news to citizens (and journalists, who are often citizens as well) that they are not entitled to peak behind the curtain at "things we all do together." That job is the FOIA Denial Officer.
Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote about a letter posted to Twitter from the Department of Education's FOIA Denial Officer and somewhat cheekily asked, "Is there a FOIA Approval Officer? Do they hate each other? Do they share an office?"
It's not as crazy a question as it might seem at first glance. The public could use an advocate, someone who works within the government but on behalf of those outside of government, to argue against the government's prediliction for secrecy. In practical application, this person would probably be paid about as well as a public defender, but at the very least a recorded debate could be had over the merits of keeping particular information classified. Surely this beats the status quo of "withhold it because you want to."
Secrecy breeds mistrust among the public, an assumption that the government is doing things it shouldn't. As President Obama has said in word but not shown in deed, "transparency promotes accountability" and encourages "collaboration" with government.
In his introduction to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, "Secrecy," Richard Gid Powers wrote of the corrosive effect on faith in government caused by the U.S.' obsession with secrecy during the Cold War:
In the short term, secrecy may have made it easier for Washington to mobilize the country during the postwar crisis with Stalin. But the government's reliance on secrecy raised doubts about the wisdom and morality of policies that might well have been more solidly supported had the issues been fully aired in debate. What secrecy grants in the short run-public support for government polices-in the long run it takes away, as official secrecy gives rise to fantasies that corrode belief in the possibilities of democratic government.
If you want to convince Joe and Jane Q. Public that the "things we choose to do together" are in their interests (and that they have some say in the matter), don't operate from behind impenetrable walls. Don't fear press pool photographers might run a photo of the president with a foreign dignitary from an unflattering angle. Don't hide government-authored histories of failed military operations from 50 years ago. What you might lose in short-term vulnerability, you will gain in long-term confidence that ours is a government for the people and by the people.