While the Obama administration invested big money in redesigning old government websites and launching flashy new ones such as recovery.gov and federalregister.gov, it continued to behave like its predecessor on transparency issues of consequence. In the first year of Obama’s presidency, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury were sued by Bloomberg News, Fox News, and The New York Times for withholding documents related to the Wall Street bailout. The CIA and the National Security Agency were sued by the Electronic Freedom Foundation for refusing to release documents detailing internal lawbreaking. Agencies across the executive branch recorded 466,872 FOIA denials, an increase of 66 percent over Bush’s last year in office.
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And what about FOIA policy, the battles for which are fought largely in the trenches of agencies, and not the White House? Even on that front, the Obama administration has chosen opacity over transparency time and time again.
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Under Obama, transparency groups have received unprecedented rhetorical support from the White House. As a result, they are understandably reluctant to open fire on the president and have him abandon their cause altogether. As the Project on Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian wrote on her organization’s blog just after Obama’s transparency award, “If we take for granted a sitting President who has used his bully pulpit to emphasize the need to change the way we think about access to government information, our cause is likely to be forgotten among the many other presidential priorities. And some progress has undeniably been made in the past two years.”
Other organizations are less cagey. On June 14, 2011, a group led by anti-war activist David Swanson published an open letter in the London Guardian calling for the award to be rescinded. “If the ceremony had been open to the press,” the letter said, “it is likely that reporters would have questioned the organisations’ proffered justification for the award, in contrast to the current reality.” Signatories included former American intelligence analysts, former high-ranking DOJ officials, and retired military officers as well as dozens of watchdog groups and international nongovernmental organizations.
Citing data provided by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration that tracks the cost and scope of classification, Swanson et al. reported that “the cost of classification for 2010 has reached over $10.17 billion. That’s a 15 percent jump from the previous year, and the first time ever that secrecy costs have surpassed $10 billion. Last month, ISOO reported that the number of original classification decisions generated by the Obama administration in 2010 was 224,734—a 22.6 percent jump from the previous year.”
In 2011 the reported cost of classifying government information jumped again, to $11.36 billion, though the true cost is higher, since the ISOO’s figures do not include spending by the CIA and the NSA. These cost hikes suggest that Obama reneged on yet another of his transparency promises, made on December 29, 2009. Executive Order 13526 held that “information shall not be considered for classification unless its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security.”
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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.”
Few things are more characteristic of business as usual in Washington, D.C., than closed doors. Nothing will do more to end business as usual than opening them to C-SPAN cameras.
With the “fiscal cliff” of sequestration approaching, now is the perfect time to establish a precedent: The bigger the deal, the more important it is that negotiations be done in public.
It took about 12 seconds after the 2012 campaign winners were declared for the maneuvering toward a “grand bargain” to begin among President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner.
Everybody professes to favor compromise, but without open negotiations there is no way to know who actually offers concrete compromises and who merely talks about them.
The essential antidote is to let C-SPAN’s cameras cover the negotiations gavel to gavel, with open news conferences after every bargaining session.
The only reasonable alternative to the cameras would be making public a complete transcript of every word said during the talks, with no opportunities for participants to “revise and extend” their remarks.
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But negotiations among elected officials seeking agreements on federal tax and spending policies are at the heart of the public interest. They ought to be the last place we would ever accept secret deals.