Obama proves how committed he is to transparency…

…by unleashing what the Times refers to as what “appears to be the most sweeping inquiry” in years, as FBI agents are sent on an intimidation campaign, “interviewing” “current and former high-level government officials from multiple agencies”, with the effect of “casting a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues.”

Apparently the Times itself is not getting the “anonymous officials” insider perspective it has come to rely on.

We should recall that on his first day in office, Obama’s administration claimed it would be “the most transparent administration in history.”

If by state transparency Obama actually means state secrecy, then he is on the way to fulfilling his pledge. By now, history applauds the actions of Daniel Ellsberg, whose 1971 release of secret state documents on the Vietnam War has now been judged an act of moral courage and the actions of a decent citizen.

Any comparison to today should immediately tell us how we ought to evaluate Manning [1] and Assange. Heroes, not villains, yet both risk torture, imprisonment, unlawful detention, and execution at the hands of the US state under the Obama administration.

The Obama adminstration’s record on transparency is appalling. [2]  He prosecutes Bradley Manning, torturing him in the process, and secretly indicts Julian Assange, using the full power of US diplomacy, for merely performing the sunshine functions that any healthy democracy should encourage, not prosecute.

Thus, the Economist records the irony:

Barak Obama accepted an award honouring his administration’s commitment to transparency on March 28th 2011. It was given by a coalition of open-government advocates. But the meeting was closed to reporters and photographers, and was not announced on the president’s public schedule. Occasionally life provides perfect metaphors.

On his first full day in office Mr Obama declared that “government should be transparent,” and said that his administration “is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government”.  […]

And yet in this arena, as in others, Mr Obama has been better at rhetoric than reality. David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group, says that despite Mr Holder’s promise of greater FOIA disclosures, “Those of us who file litigation in this area haven’t really seen that happen.” The NDC has made public a paltry 22.6m of the 400m pages of classified data that is currently in its backlog. The rate of document classification remains far higher than the rate of declassification.

Mr Obama’s administration is proving as fond of wartime secrecy as the administration he replaced. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing under FOIA to get it to reveal records of the use of drones by the CIA and the armed forces to kill particular people. The CIA’s response has been to “neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of records responsive to this request”.

Yet perhaps none of Mr Obama’s transparency promises has rung hollower than his vow to protect whistleblowers. Thomas Drake, who worked at the National Security Agency, was threatened with life imprisonment for leaking to the Baltimore Sun unclassified details of a wasteful programme that also impinged on privacy. […] Mr Obama has indicted six whistleblowers, including Mr Drake, under the Espionage Act, twice as many as all prior administrations combined, for leaking information not to a “foreign nation” but to the press.

All of this comes despite the fact that whistleblowers often do a great deal of good: in 2010, for instance, 77% of the $3.1 billion that America won in fraud-related judgments and settlements came from suits brought by them. […] But the prosecution of Mr Drake and others like him smacks more of vindictiveness and message-sending than justice.

I seem to recall hearing somewhere that government was “of the people” and “for the people,” and that it’s primary reason for being was “the public good.” For a government that has constantly been involved in crimes and violations of even its own laws (against torture, the execution of its own citizens by executive fiat, refusal to grant habeus corpus, to cite a only a few recent examples), its claim to need to keep secrets should be met with disdain by the public. Any government official actually interested in the honest operation of government would promote, not discourage scrutiny of its inner operations. We should want government to be constantly scrutinized by public, and the state should not have the power to protect itself from such scrutiny. Not if it’s operating in the name of the public, anyway.

****

1] On the treatment of Bradley Manning

Two leading law professors at Yale and Harvard, respectively, published in April 2011 an open letter in The New York Review of Books, describing and assessing Manning’s treatment:

Bradley Manning is the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to Wikileaks. He is currently detained under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral.

For nine months, Manning has been confined to his cell for twenty-three hours a day. [Details about Manning’s inhumane treatment.]

The sum of the treatment that has been widely reported is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against punishment without trial. If continued, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute against torture….

Unless and until [the Obama administration provides evidence to justify its treatment of Manning], there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both….

President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency….

The letter was signed by 250 University Professors as well: http://balkin.blogspot.com/2011/03/statement-on-private-mannings-detention.html

From the Guardian in April 2011:

A senior United Nations representative on torture, Juan Mendez, issued a rare reprimand to the US government … It is the kind of censure the UN normally reserves for authoritarian regimes around the world.

Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said: “I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the prevarication of the US government…

2] Obama’s record on transparency and civil liberties.

The ACLU’s president declared in June 2010 that he was “disgusted with the president [Obama]. “I’m not disgusted at President Obama personally. It’s President Obama’s policies on civil liberties and national security issues I’m disgusted by.”

“It’s 18 months and, if not now [to speak plainly], when? … Guantanamo is still not closed. Military commissions are still a mess. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There’s no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don’t see it.”

Noting a particulary egregious instance of non-transparency by the Obama administration, Glenn Greenwald compares Obama’s election rhetoric with his administration’s policy:

As Obama himself put it the day after he was inaugurated: “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”

Greenwald then goes on to cite an editorial by the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal, endorsed by the ACLU:

The Bush administration kept secrets largely for bad reasons: It covered up its torture memos, the kidnapping of innocent foreign citizens, illegal wiretapping and other misdeeds. Barack Obama promised to bring more transparency to Washington in the 2008 campaign, but he has failed to do that. In some ways, his administration is even worse than the Bush team when it comes to abusing the privilege of secrecy.

As the ACLU points out, there is now “a chorus of voices” denouncing the Obama administrations terrible and extreme policies of state secrecy, and calling for a radical reversal toward greater transparency.

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