On his first day in office, President Barack Obama pledged to run "the most transparent administration in history." As he prepares to move out of the White House, the phrase will probably be remembered as a sarcastic punchline.
It was hard not to snicker when one of the beleaguered White House press secretaries would stand in front of the journalist corps and claim that the executive branch was blazing new trails in openness. Despite some promising open data initiatives, the executive branch under Obama was, on the whole, more secretive than ever. Since 2009, press access to the White House has been notably restricted, whistleblower prosecutions have spiked, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits against the federal government have reached an all-time high.
In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a scathing report, written by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., on the Obama administration's obsession with controlling media coverage and burnishing its image, drawing comparisons to the pathological tendencies of one of the White House's previous occupants.
"The Obama administration's aggressive war on leaks, and its determined efforts to control information that the news media needs to hold the government accountable for its actions, are without equal since the Nixon administration and in direct conflict with President Obama's often-stated goal of making his administration the most transparent in American history," Downie said when the document was released. "Parenthetically, I'm old enough that I was one of the editors on the Watergate story, so I make that comparison with knowledge," he continued.
But unlike Tricky Dick, who provided future presidents with a cautionary tale about how dirty tricks can come back to bite them, Obama leaves a blueprint on how to suppress information and get away with it.
The most immediate change was a sudden clampdown on unauthorized comments and interviews. The Obama administration made sure the word got out: The only people who talk to journalists are public affairs officers. In 2014, 38 national press organizations and transparency groups—including Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Poynter Institute—called on him to end "politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies."
"Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees," the letter read. "We consider these restrictions a form of censorship—an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear."
This overwhelming urge to manage its image sometimes manifested in bizarre ways, like the time in 2011 when one of the vice president's staffers forced a reporter to sit in a closet during a fundraiser.
Long-running fights between the press and the government underscored the deep, pernicious reach of the secrecy state. Media organizations and civil rights groups were forced to file time-consuming, expensive lawsuits to pry loose information on the Obama administration's expanded use of targeted drone strikes and the legal justification for the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Although part of Obama's day-one transparency pledge directed federal agencies to adopt a "presumption of openness" when dealing with public records requests and never to withhold information solely because it would be embarrassing, the directive was rarely enforced.
Instead, agencies delayed, stonewalled, and redacted as much as they could get away with (and often more than they were supposed to be able to get away with), forcing accountability groups and media to sue them if they wanted public information.
When a bipartisan cohort of federal lawmakers attempted to codify the directive, along with significant improvements to the Freedom of Information Act, Justice Department pressure effectively killed it. The Obama administration's work to torpedo the effort remained secret, until it was revealed a year later—through a FOIA lawsuit, naturally.
The bill was reintroduced in 2016, passed by Congress, and sent to President Obama, who of course was happy to sign it. He was, after all, running the most transparent administration in history.
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