Gopvernment Secrecy

Obama came to office in 2008 riding a wave of hope and expectation that Obama would usher in a new golden era of government openness, transparency and honesty.  Instead we have too often just gotten a version of the 3rd term of the Bush Administration with corruption, abuse of power and secrecy far more than it should be.  Some reforms have been made, but there has also been too much back sliding.

This from POGO which does good work in this area.

Although there have been more proactive disclosures than ever before, the larger theme of the testimony centered on the inherent tension between the President’s pledge for a new era of unprecedented openness and a record of invoking “threats to national security” to keep the public in the dark time and again. The written testimony states:

There seems to be two Obama Administrations—two American governments, really. One looks like a democracy in which an open government accountable to the people is an ideal and a priority; and the other is a national security state, where claims of national security often trump democratic principles such as the people’s right to know, civil liberties, freedom of speech, and whistleblower protections. Of course, this is not an approach exclusive to this President. But the unchecked secrecy of Obama’s national security state is at cross-purposes with many of his Administration’s openness objectives, and it raises doubts about the President’s commitments and declarations about transparency.

Click here to see our government secrecy infographic

One illustrative example is the Administration’s record on whistleblower protections. President Obama was the first to support the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which finally passed after a 13-year campaign by POGO and our good government allies.

At the same time, the Administration’s appeal in Berry v. Conyers and Northover resulted in a federal circuit court decision that effectively removed existing whistleblower protections for all federal employees labeled “sensitive” despite the fact that these workers do not have access to classified information. In addition, the President’s recent signing statement to the national defense authorization bill asserts limits to unclassified disclosures to Congress.

During the hearing, Canterbury referred to the Associated Press’s findings that the Administration cited national security exemptions for withholding information under FOIA more often in 2012 than in any year prior. In reviewing 33 agencies and departments, the AP found that agencies invoked national security exemptions in over 5,200 cases in 2012, compared with just over 4,200 such cases in 2011, and only about 3,800 during President Obama’s first year in office. This is yet another example of the swing toward secrecy in what Canterbury referred to as the national security state.

During yesterday’s hearing, Representative Danny Davis (D-Ill.) questioned Canterbury on the AP’s findings that last year the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) denied every request to waive FOIA fees and every request for expedited FOIA processing. She responded that the CIA’s secretive behavior certainly does raise concerns, and although there are legitimate national secrets that should be kept for national security reasons, the CIA is not immune from the public interest.

The AP’s analysis indicates that the national security state is indeed growing, and this trend is troubling because, in Canterbury’s words, “the more it grows, the more illegitimate secrecy threatens our basic rights and our democracy.”

POGO’s written testimony refers to a host of other examples of extreme secrecy in the name of national security that require the Committee’s attention:

We have objected to administrative action and proposed legislation to plug leaks of classified information that threaten free speech, freedom of the press, civil liberties, and whistleblowers. We also have raised concerns repeatedly about the aggressive prosecutions of so-called leakers. There have been more prosecutions for disclosures of alleged wrongdoing under the Espionage Act under this Administration than all others combined.

These actions are cause for alarm. Congress must ensure that the executive branch does not overstep its bounds, and Congress must strive to balance the need to protect U.S. security with public’s right to know.

The written testimony also directed the Committee’s attention to egregious problems at certain agencies, cover-ups to evade accountability:

The Department of Defense (DoD) has repeatedly withheld records to hide the extent of the water contamination at Camp Lejeune that poisoned an estimated million Marines, family members, and civilians for 34 years. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has spied on whistleblowers, prompting the Office of Special Counsel to issue a reminder to all agencies not to violate the rights of whistleblowers to make disclosures without retaliation.

POGO’s testimony also highlighted problems and possible solutions regarding the public’s access to government information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The delays, bureaucratic foot-dragging, outdated regulations, outrageous fees, backlogs, and unlimited loopholes (hundreds of statutory exemptions that lack oversight) are all obstacles to transparency. Some of the worst FOIA practices have been by the very agency tasked with issuing FOIA policy guidance to other agencies—the Department of Justice (DOJ):

Last year, the National Security Archive even gave DOJ its annual Rosemary Award for worst open government performance. As one of the contributing factors, the group cited Justice’s “‘FOIA-as-usual mindset’ that has failed to transform decades-old FOIA policies within its department, much less throughout the government.” When it did propose updating its FOIA regulations, we were alarmed by the ways in which FOIA would be undermined, including its proposal to lie to requesters, which was finally withdrawn after public pressure.


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