Government secrecy in the Obama White House

Government secrecy in the Obama White House

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The Obama administration is filled with secrecy even as he promises transparency. Hillary's emails are just one more rung on that ladder

Whatever it is, it's not my fault. / White House photo used under U.S. Government Works license
Whatever it is, it's not my fault. / White House photo used under U.S. Government Works license

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2015 — As a candidate for president, Barack Obama promised that his would be the most “transparent” administration in American history. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, it may be the most secretive, threatening the very fabric of representative democracy, which depends upon the American people and their elected representatives in Congress knowing  exactly what government is doingin our name and with our taxpayer dollars.

For the second consecutive year, the Obama administration censored government files or outright denied access to them under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to an analysis of federal data by the Associated Press, released in mid-March.

The government took longer than other administrations to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law, but only when challenged. Its backlog of unanswered requests at year’s end grew by 55 per cent to more than 200,000.

These government figures covered all requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2014 under the Freedom of Information law, which is heralded globally as a model for transparent government. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The government responded to 647,142 requests, a 4 per cent decrease over the previous year.

The government more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 39 percent of all requests. According to the Associated Press, sometimes the government censored only a few words or an employee’s phone number, but other times it completely marked out nearly every paragraph.

At the same time, it has been revealed that as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton used a personal email account rather than a government one for all her official business. The finding came through the Republican-controlled House Select Committee on Benghazi, which has been investigating why American missions in Libya were left vulnerable when they were attacked in 2012.

Federal rules require all emails sent for government business to be stored by the departments involved, in this case the State Department. Mrs. Clinton’s, we now know, were not. Instead, they were stored on a personal server set up in her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.  As the Economist notes, “That looks suspicious because only Mrs. Clinton possesses physical access to her e-mails, she can be selective about which ones she turns over.”

Mrs. Clinton has never wanted the light of day to shine upon her various activities. During her husband’s 1992 campaign, she resisted releasing records about the Whitewater land deal. In 1993, she rejected the recommendation of White House adviser David Gergen that she turn over all records.

Her Rose Law Firm billing records were mysteriously lost for two years and then turned up in the White House residence. Her failed 1993 health-care task force gave critics a major opening with its secrecy. The task force would not even provide the names of all the consultants it brought in for advice.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank reports, “Clinton justifiably criticized George W. Bush’s administration in 2007 for its ‘secret White House email accounts’—but then she became a key figure in an administration that, in its zeal to limit disclosure, pursued more leak cases under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.

“The administration’s efforts to conceal its eavesdropping programs, including false testimony to Congress by the director of national intelligence, ultimately backfired by leading to Edward Snowden’s reckless dump of government secrets.”

Both the White House and the State Department kept from congressional investigators a damning 2012 State Department email about administration talking points following the Benghazi attack. The withheld email, when released later, made it appear that the administration had something to hide.  Now, we learn of Hillary Clinton’s “” domain. a repeat of  the 2007 news that Bush administration officials were conducting official business using the “” domain. She is clearly in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Federal Records Act. Since amendments to the law were adopted in 2014, Clinton’s actions, if taken today, would be clearly illegal.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified under oath before Congress that U.S. intelligence agencies were not spying on Americans. This, of course, was not the truth. President Obama and his attorney general did not prosecute Clapper for perjury for, apparently, his commitment to secret government is the same as their own.

More recently, in February, Clapper released a set of principles that amounts to a formal acknowledgement that intelligence agencies had tilted so far in the direction of secrecy that it actually undermined their work by harming public trust.

Andrew Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey and an analyst for Fox News, asks these questions, the answers to all of them being in the affirmative:  “What if President Obama came up with a scheme to make spying appear to be legal?

“What if the scheme involved using secret judges in secret courts to issue general warrants?  What if the Obama  administration swore those judges to secrecy? …What if both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have argued that their first job is to keep America safe, and they will twist, torture the plain meaning of and even break laws in order to accomplish that job? …What if Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have been wrong about the priority of their constitutional duties as president?  What if the president’s first job is to preserve the Constitution?”

Secret government makes it impossible for representative democracy to work. We have seen secretive and abusive government from both parties in recent years, from the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident to Watergate to Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” to name only a few examples.

Barack Obama seemed to understand the dangers of secret government when he promised that, if elected, he would provide the most “transparent” administration in our history. Once in power, however, he seems to be exceeding his predecessors in secrecy.

All of us are losers in this exercise of secret power, most dramatically the very idea of representative government itself.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.