Obama's Transparency Problem
Editor's Note: The following is adapted from Ari Melber's opening remarks at "Obama@100," a Nation panel of writers and members of Congress that assessed different aspects of President Obama's first 100 days in office, on April 22 in Washington.
I think the best headline for the first 100 days is that Dick Cheney is criticizing President Obama on transparency. That's not the Onion--that's real. Dick Cheney is experiencing what most of us feel every day--information is not power, but information asymmetry is a type of power. And Cheney wants to make arguments about public policy, but as a citizen he feels he doesn't have all the information he would like to govern his democracy.
And the news today is: Dick Cheney is right about this one. The administration should declassify the rest of the OLC memos. According to ProPublica, about twenty-eight are still classified, and, within reason, they should do a scrub and declassify what they can from the documents Cheney is referring to regarding the outcome of torture. It's interesting to see a once very powerful and secretive person thrust into the role of citizen-activist, asking for declassification. But he's right; we need it.
The transparency agenda we've seen from Obama has been very good in a number of areas. I define transparency of government as being open to the public, the press and the other two branches of government.
On the public side, we have seen swift reform of the Freedom of Information policies. We've seen cooperation with a FOIA lawsuit from the ACLU, releasing the torture memos; and we've seen a new standard--what the administration is calling a presumption of disclosure standard--which is different from what we had under the previous administration, for a whole range of FOIA requests. So for the public, if you want that information from the government, it's a very strong and swift improvement.
For openness to the press, we're at least seeing a broader conception of the press that is finally catching up to the evolving media landscape we have in this country. The president, at press conferences, has called on a wider array of journalists. That included, in one instance, someone who writes for an online-only website. (That shouldn't be a big deal, but it was a big deal in DC. It is a step.) And it included calling on more African- American media that cover the White House, and hosting the first real live citizen town hall--taking questions from the real citizen media, the public.
While I give basically an A or a B on those first two categories of transparency, Obama gets an F on being open to the other two branches.
In being open to the courts, we have seen the invocation of the same hypersecretive Cheney state secrets doctrine in a range of cases. It basically tells the courts, You cannot even oversee what the government defines as secret. And if you apply the state secrets privilege in that way--without even private court review, without any third branch oversight--then you are basically letting the government wall-off whole areas by just stamping it "security," stamping it "state secrets."
That is wrong. That is not the way the state secrets privilege operated most of the time before the Bush administration. And the Obama administration is wrong to make those arguments (which are being made in cases about rendition and illegal surveillance).
So what we start as a conversation about secrecy, or information power, turns very quickly into a conservation about whether the government can render people and torture them. Or whether the government can spy on people--whether that's people in this room or people down the block in Congress, who are supposed to be doing oversight of those same intelligence operations, because we have reports of that kind of political wiretapping right now. But we won't get to the bottom of any of those questions if don't have openness toward other branches of government. So transparency in this administration in the first 100 days: A, B and F.