President Obama is getting a mixture of ridicule and contempt from some pundits over the revelation yesterday that he accepted an award for transparency in secret. From Forbes:
“President Obama was scheduled to receive an award from the organizers of the Freedom of Information Day Conference, to be presented at the White House by “five transparency advocates.” The White House postponed that meeting because of events in Libya and Japan, and it was rescheduled…That meeting did take place – behind closed doors. The press was not invited to the private transparency meeting, and no photos from or transcript of the meeting have been made available. The event was not listed on the president’s calendar…Nor is the award mentioned anywhere on the White House website, including on the page devoted to transparency and good government. Were it not for the testimony of the transparency advocates who met secretly with the president, there wouldn’t seem to be any evidence that the meeting actually took place.”
I can guess why the President didn’t want to publicize the meeting: the same day, he had to go on television and explain why he hadn’t been transparent to the U.S. Congress about his military plans in Libya. Or perhaps he knew that the news was about to leak that the Fed had secretly sent billions in loans to foreign banks during the financial crisis, not telling the public because it would make them worried and angry. Or maybe it was the just the dawning realization that transparency in government is often neither wise nor safe, and that he was sick of being embarrassed by awards that only point up the yawning chasm between Obama’s idealistic words and reality. (See: 2010 Nobel Peace Prize)
The signature effort of Obama’s administration so far, health care reform, was accomplished with a blatant absence of transparency, producing a law that nobody, even the Senators and Congressmen voting for it, fully understood. Much of the Wikileaks material showed that in foreign diplomacy, Obama officials often say one thing to the public and do something quite different behind closed doors. There were the unemployment figures that slyly used temporary census workers to hide the bad news. The President, far from making himself more accessible to the press than previous presidents, has allowed the fewest number of press conferences of any Chief Executive.
Reporters Charles Ornstein and Hagit Limor listed examples of the administration’s stinginess with information in the area of science, writing,
“…After last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists and environmental groups accused the administration of hiding or underreporting the extent of the spill and its impact on the environment. Federal officials frequently deferred to BP in providing data on issues from cleanup workers’ health problems to oil spill flow estimates. The government also placed restrictions on airspace for weeks, keeping media photographers from seeing the scope of the spill….The Food and Drug Administration placed an unusual restriction on reporters when announcing changes to its medical device approval process this year. In exchange for providing the information to the media ahead of time, reporters were told they could not seek insights from outside experts before the formal announcement. This ensured the first version of the story contained only the FDA’s official position and ran counter to the way medical journals handle such embargoes…In more than a third of requests made for public records last year, the administration failed to provide any information at all, the Associated Press reported. Despite an increase in requests, the Obama administration is releasing fewer records under the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did. And when a response is provided, it often is incomplete or comes years later. The AP noted ironically that the Obama administration even censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive. Our members have seen this phenomenon day in and day out, impeding their ability to give readers a complete picture of their government’s actions and omissions…”
President Obama’s famous pledge, made his second day in office, that…
“We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” he wrote in one of his first memos to federal agencies. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
…has not, based on his Administration’s actions and policies, been either honored or taken as a serious commitment. This undermines public trust, creates more cynicism about our leadership and government, and is an indictment of his administration’s integrity. The President should either start honoring the pledge, admit that he was naive about the complexities of governing when he made it, or at least stop pretending that transparency is a high priority for his government, when it obviously is not.
And he should definitely stop accepting awards for transparency, secretly or otherwise.