When it came to divulging basic information, it was Richard Nixon’s administration that became infamous for the phrase, and practice, of “modified, limited hangout.” Now the Obama administration has abandoned all but the “limited” part. The candidate whose most identifiable promise was to provide open and transparent government instead is leading an administration rife with secrecy, stonewalling and prevarication.
The administration repeatedly has stiff-armed Congress, the media, outside organizations and even a prestigious independent government commission. It has raised “none of your business” from an adolescent rejoinder to a public policy - to keep the public in the dark.
Before examining examples of this alarming trend, let’s remember what newly inaugurated President Obama said in a big press conference on Jan. 21, his first full day in office. His words and tone could not have been more clear:
“The way to hold government accountable is to make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made [and] how they’re being made. … Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known. … The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it.”
Fine sentiments. But this is the same president who promised to abide by campaign spending limits - until the time came actually to do it. Likewise, these pledges were quickly tossed into the sewer of power politics.
Consider the president’s unfathomable decision to support the radical leftist, anti-American, would-be dictator Manuel Zelaya when all the lawful authorities in Honduras removed him from office for subverting the clear text of the Honduran constitution. Even the American Law Library of Congress concluded that the Honduran Legislature and courts acted lawfully, yet the Obama administration actually has imposed sanctions on the Honduran people, who long have been our allies.
Since July 8, 16 senators have been asking the State Department to explain the legal rationale for its stance. They received no substantive response. When Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, and three House members traveled to Honduras, U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens urged them to read a memo by State Department counsel Harold Koh explaining the administration’s analysis. On Oct. 6, the senator’s staff specifically requested that memo from the department. No response.
Twice this month, I requested the memo. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley refused, saying the memo officially is “classified” because of “the nature of the information used in the analysis” and that it also is subject to “attorney-client privilege.” Finally, he said it is privileged because it is a “pre-decisional” and “internal deliberative document.”
This is poppycock. It doesn’t take classified intelligence to interpret the Honduran constitution, and the attorney-client privilege shouldn’t be necessary for such basic policy questions. Congressmen want to know why the administration has sided with a radical against the entire rest of Honduran officialdom. They, and all of us, deserve an answer.
The same evasive tactic was used when the Justice Department under the ethically challenged Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. decided to drop an already-won case against members of the New Black Panther Party for blatant voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place. Respected Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia and Lamar Smith of Texas requested explanations. So did The Washington Times. The Justice Department first said the decision was made by “career prosecutors” without political appointees weighing in. That was untrue. As for the further requests for information from Mr. Wolf and Mr. Smith - no dice.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, with statutory authority to examine such issues, also requested an explanation. Sorry, Charlie. Ignoring the law giving oversight rights to the commission, the Justice Department basically told the commission to take a hike.
Similarly, when the White House fired Gerald Walpin, the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service, without proper notice or explanation, Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley demanded documents. Mr. Grassley long has been praised widely for his efforts to protect whistleblowers and IGs. Yet the administration continues to jilt him as well.
The administration has refused to honor a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the Chicago Tribune for Freddie Mac board minutes from when White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was a director. It has ignored multiple FOIA requests for White House visitor logs, including one from its pet network, MSNBC. It denied an FOIA request for documents on a treaty on intellectual property rights. It refused an FOIA request for documents related to the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout. And as far back as June, Newsweek featured a headline saying “Obama Closes Doors on Openness” because of loopholes making its disclosure guarantees “astonishingly weaker” than those under President Clinton.
Infamously, the administration also tried to punish the Humana insurance company for the sin of communicating with its own customers. It told an Arizona sheriff he couldn’t tell the press about his roundup of illegal immigrants. It has declined to cooperate with bipartisan congressional requests for hearings with its policy “czars.” And of course, it is participating in closed-door negotiations on health care despite Mr. Obama’s famous pledge to work out the details in front of TV cameras.
Mr. Obama promised us the most transparent administration in history. That pledge looks transparently phony.
Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times.