Obama's open government: He feels strongly both ways

2013-06-17T00:00:00Z Obama's open government: He feels strongly both waysThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

WASHINGTON - It's as if the United States has two governments, one open and one very much not. President Obama leads both, trying not to butt heads with himself.

Since becoming president, Obama has churned out an impressive stream of directives flowing from his promise to deliver "the most transparent administration in history."

He established a center devoted to declassifying records and making them public. He announced an open-government initiative. Dizzying quantities of information poured into public databases. New ways were devised to show taxpayers how their money is spent. Allegiance was pledged to the rule of law.

Then there's the other government.

It prosecutes leakers like no administration before it. It exercises state-secrets privileges to quash court cases against it. It hides a vast array of directives and legal opinions underpinning government actions - not just intelligence and not all of it about national security.

Now it's known to conduct sweeping phone-records and Internet surveillance of ordinary people in programs kept on the lowdown until an employee of a National Security Agency contractor revealed them.

Dick Cheney said this would happen.

Known as the master manipulator of power behind the scenes as George W. Bush's vice president, Cheney predicted at the dawn of Obama's presidency that the relentless campaign criticism of shadowed government would not come to much.

"My guess is, once they get here and they're faced with the same problems we deal with every day, that they will appreciate some of the things we've put in place," he said. "They'll need all the authority they can muster."

The empire of secrets lives on.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says the U.S. has both the most open government in the world and arguably the most closed. Daily it publishes an unmatched avalanche of information. But daily its national security secrets also grow by staggering amounts.

Early on, there were signs Obama would not upend the fundamental balance of this parallel universe despite his pledges to take the government in a new, open direction.

One sign: Obama's 2009 marching orders for classifying documents closely resembled those of his predecessors at least back to Ronald Reagan.

Also, a 2011 review of the Obama administration's handling of public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act noted the many positive words from the president and his people about striving for a culture of disclosure. This included an executive order on his first day in office. But the review came to this jarring conclusion when actions were measured against words: "Most indicators of openness have not even returned to the average for the Bush years, a period known for secrecy." The report was by OMB Watch, now called the Center for Effective Government.

On the bright side, Aftergood says, the government puts more and better information online than ever before. But at the core, "classification activity is very high. Secrecy has become an obstacle in many areas of public policy."

"It's my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Some other Democrats, too, are proving hostile to the administration on this. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado have challenged its claims that the telephone and email monitoring programs helped stop specific acts of terrorism.

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