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August 04, 2012

The Washington Post on the Most Transparent Administration Ever™

Posted in: Freedom of Information,Press Freedom,Secrecy,Whistleblowers,WikiLeaks

The Washington Post Building/Flickr photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

The Washington Post has published an article on an analysis of annual reports from government agencies the Post did, which is further proof—despite President Barack Obama’s promise of unprecedented transparency in government—he has presided over a government that in some ways is more secretive than ever before.

The newspaper looked at his commitment to seemingly enhance the Freedom of Information Act, proactively release certain documents and establish a new agency that would “declassify more than 370 million pages of archived material” and found many of the Obama administration’s “high-profile transparency measures” have stalled.

Key statistics from the Post‘s analysis are the following:

Media organizations and individuals requesting information under FOIA last year were less likely to receive the material than in 2010 at 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level departments, according to an analysis of annual reports of government agencies by The Washington Post.

The federal government was more likely last year than in 2010 to use the act’s exemptions to refuse information. And the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start, due largely to 30,000 more pending requests to the Department of Homeland Security.

Other figures in the report include numbers on “requests denied in full due to exemptions.” The number increased “more than 10 percent last year, to 25,636 from 22,834 the previous year.” The “pledge” to “declassify archived material” to have the National DeClassification Center (NDC), which the president established in 2009, has been delayed. Of 371 million pages that Obama setup the NDC to review and declassify by December 2013, “51.1 million pages, less than 14 percent of the total,” have been reviewed and, of the pages reviewed, “41.8 million have been made available” for release to the public.

Ball notes, “In 2010, response rates to FOIA requests increased and the use of exemptions to refuse requests fell. Federal departments also reduced the backlog of pending requests. Since then, the Post analysis shows, progress has stalled and, in the case of most departments, reversed in direction.” This reverse just happens to have occurred during the same year that WikiLeaks released its biggest sets of documents from the US to date.

One might ask what effect the WikiLeaks releases had on Obama’s transparency agenda. What did he run up against and/or go along with at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011?

The Pentagon recently announced measures to clamp down on unauthorized disclosures of classified information. The Pentagon was comfortable with the press and public believing this might have something to do with the phony and overblown bipartisan offensive against “leaks” in Washington right now, but, upon examination, the measures appear to have been implemented as a response to the fact that Pfc. Bradley Manning allegedly disclosed classified information to WikiLeaks and the military was unable to detect Manning’s activity before he allegedly transmitted the information.

Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News argued in December 2010, when diplomatic cables began to be released by WikiLeaks, that the release would likely “lead to a new clampdown, new restrictions, more secrecy,” instead of more transparency or openness in government. In retrospect, Aftergood seems to have been right (though he made this argument while opposing WikiLeaks’ release and other releases of previously classified information on the basis that it would not change anything, which is a vapidly pragmatic position to take).



The Post article, written by former WikiLeaks staffer and defector to The Guardian James Ball, characterizes this evidence as proof  ”administration officials have struggled to overturn the long-standing culture of secrecy in Washington.” This may be a fair characterization. Intelligence agencies were probably pretty resistant to policies of openness, which the administration wanted to implement, but it amounts to tepid criticism when the Obama administration has clearly taken action that reinforces the culture of secrecy in Washington.

As a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just over a year ago detailed, the administration has embraced the Bush Administration tactic of using overly broad “state secrets” claims to prevent the declassification or exposure of information. It has fought court orders to release photos depicting the abuse of detainees held in US custody and supported legislation to retroactively exempt the photos from release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It has threatened to veto legislation to reform congressional notification procedures for covert actions. It has  refused to declassify information on Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a section believed to allow for the collection of information not relevant to espionage or terrorism investigations. It also has aggressively pursued a war on whistleblowing by prosecuting whistleblowers or so-called leakers to a greater degree than any previous president.

The report also included the following statistics on over-classification and improperly classified records:

According to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), the government made a record 76,795,945 classification decisions in 2010, an increase of more than 40% from 2009.” It notes “derivative classification” has “exploded,” which means “99.7% of classification decisions are not made by the government’s trained ‘original classification authorities’ (OCAs), but by other government officials or contractors who may have received little or no training and wield a classification stamp only because they work with information derived from documents classified by OCAs.’ And, document reviews by ISOO showed that 65% of the documents examined had been improperly classified.

Last year, the amount of information that was classified rose 20%. However, the systems of record-keeping has been in such disarray that it is tough to tell if some of these numbers that show escalations in secrecy are just a result of the ISOO finally getting an accurate counting of classified information.

The Obama administration has refused to release legal memos that outline the administration’s legal justification for targeting and assassinating people it suspects of being part of al Qaeda, the Taliban or any so-called associated groups. The Justice Department under Obama has argued in the courts that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can neither confirm or deny whether the CIA has a targeted killing program that involves predator drones. While they’ve made this argument to prevent documents detailing the program from becoming public, the administration has selectively leaked details on the CIA program to authors or journalists.

The National Security Agency (NSA) under Obama would not inform two United States senators “how many Americans have had their communications picked up by the agency” because,” according to Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman, it would “violate” their privacy. Additionally, in the war on whistleblowing, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake says the administration made him the only person to date, who was ever prosecuted because of a story on warrantless wiretapping New York Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen put together. The “irony” is that he never had anything to do with the New York Times and was not a source. He did not talk to them before the article was published or to any reporter until February 2006 when he informed the Baltimore Sun of government malfeasance, fraud and waste happening in the agency.

The Justice Department under Obama used improperly classified information to prosecute Drake. Former classification czar J. William Leonard was ready to testify to this fact for Drake so he could escape prosecution (but then the government’s case collapsed and they let Drake plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve no jail time). Leonard has said the classification system is “becoming dysfunctional” and “lacks the ability to differentiate between trivial information and that which can truly damage our nation’s well-being.” This dysfunction only contributes to hysteria around “leaks,” as people share information all the time that should not be classified but just so happens to be (even though it could never pose a risk to the nation’s security).

Now, shifting focus just a bit: The Senate Intelligence Committee has proposed anti-leaks measures that only contribute to the culture of secrecy in Washington. The Washington Post has published articles and op-eds that demonstrate clear opposition to these proposals and, just today, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton called the proposals “bad for journalism, bad for the public”:

…[T]his bill would be an administrative nightmare, and it wouldn’t do much, if anything, to deter leaks. As Doug Frantz, The Post’s national security editor, told me, “It will crimp the flow of information.”

Everyone leaks in this town — the White House, members of Congress, their staffs, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department — everyone. Leaks lubricate the gears of foreign and defense policy. Leaks are part of the dialogue over policy…

For an extensive and detailed examination of the proposals, here’s some of the coverage that was published to Firedoglake this past week. The peak of absurdity is the fact that these proposals from the Senate panel exempt Congress, the State Department, other parts of the Executive Branch and—the source of the three “leaks” that have had politicians in a frenzy for months now—the White House. It targets intelligence employees, who “leak” way less than officials in Congress or the White House. This is but one of the many signs that the heads of intelligence agencies are taking advantage of a politically manufactured crisis to advance a regime it would like to impose upon government employees to dissuade employees from reporting abuse, corruption, fraud or waste.

Finally, while the ombudsman’s editorial is a solid piece against the anti-leaks measures being pushed by one of the biggest leakers in Congress, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the main arguments against the proposals should be considered an affront to the tradition of investigative journalism in America:

The New York Times and The Post waited over a year, for example, at the request of the government, before publishing details on the government’s warrantless wiretapping program that the George W. Bush administration launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Frantz, who worked at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before coming to The Post, said, “If anything, the media errs on the side of caution, not recklessness.”

That any newspaper or media organization would celebrate this cautiousness, which is really willing subservience to power, is troubling. It, however, is indicative of the gatekeeper culture that pervades the media. They go to the White House and ask permission to publish classified documents that WikiLeaks plans to release. They go to government officials and inform them they are going to do a series of articles and have an online database on “Top Secret America” and, if they have any concerns or problems with what is to be published, they have an opportunity to see this information and prepare talking points or a public relations plan they can roll out when a major investigative journalism project goes public. Obviously, this stunts the impact of the investigative journalism work that has been done and makes it easier for government officials, especially politicians, to shrug off the most striking revelations and do nothing.

When one pauses to consider this gatekeeper culture and how proud editors of these establishment media institutions are to guard the nation’s secrets and share them “responsibly,” one can see why the anti-leaks proposals are so obscene to the staff of the Washington Post. Feinstein and others want to make it harder for the Post to be gatekeepers for government, which they almost always do when it comes to national security matters. This they cannot allow, and, primarily, they cannot allow it because they have become so used to functioning as an institution that amends its editorial agenda to fit government. It would not know how to handle itself if it had to engage in journalism that was less dependent on the relationship it has to those in power.

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