It appears to be an inherent risk of the presidential office that its occupants prefer to avoid public accountability for their actions. President Eisenhower coined the term “executive privilege” to avoid revealing government information to Congress and the public. Bill Moyers recalled that President Johnson so despised the ramifications of the Freedom of Information Act that “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony,” and threatened a pocket veto. Nixon was notoriously secretive, often deliberately keeping members of his administration out of the loop, and vigorously opposed the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the release of the white house papers and recordings. The policy of the Reagan administration was to classify information at the highest level possible (a reversal of Carter’s policy to classify information as low as possible). Reagan also issued Executive Order 12356, increasing the longevity of information classification, and advocated the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, restricting the original FOIA. While some administrations have been more forthcoming than those—the Carter and Clinton administrations both acknowledged to have taken steps towards greater transparency and access—Phillip Melanson notes in Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Publics Right to Know that virtually all presidential administrations have resisted full compliance with the FOIA and public accountability.
The recent Bush administrations hardly broke that mold. Denying the public information on key meetings on energy policy in which energy industry executives participated; covering up executive actions regarding detention, torture, and public wiretapping; attempting to keep presidential records private indefinitely with Executive Order 13233; administration memoranda encouraging bureaucratic obstruction to confound FOIA requests; a vice president who insisted he was exempt from accountability because he supposedly outside all three branches of government: They seemed to have a absolute passion for secrecy (excepting, of course, when it came to releasing classified identities for political purposes)—not particularly surprising given the illicit nature of their agenda.
Obama made quite a point of transparency during his presidential campaign, as a contrast to the Bush administration. Early in his administration Obama issued a memorandum about “transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” During his short term in office, is he on track to produce the change he promised?
Early results are not encouraging. I suppose one might forgive the administration for declining to release the FBI interview with Dick Cheney regarding the Valerie Plame incident. While I’d prefer to see the key members of the previous administration held to full account for their misdeeds, perhaps Obama is sincerely trying to avoid the appearance of partisanship by protecting Cheney from “embarrassment,” or believes that a Gerald Ford strategy of letting bygones be bygones and moving on is the best way for the nation to get over the past eight years.
But the Obama administration has also adopted the Bush administration’s policy on secret wiretapping. In a strange case of deja vu, Obama is refusing to release information on administration an energy policy meeting with coal executives. And most recently, he has denied an FOIA request for information related to meetings with health care industry executives. Obama’s repeated rebuff of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and his general reticence to live up to his memorandum show a distressing lack of concern or understanding for the change we needed.
Whether you take Obama to be the messiah or a commie-muslim-criminal mastermind is irrelevant. Government secrecy is dangerous to the nation irrespective of which party or what person is in power. Sunlight is the best protection against even the potential for corruption. Our democratic republic can only function effectively to the extent that the public has access to the data necessary to make informed judgments and hold our government representatives accountable. If Obama thinks we should simply trust him because of his integrity and of his commitment to change, then he is not the agent of change he claims to be.