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February 13, 2013

Waning Commitment to Government Transparency Evident in Obama’s ‘State of the Union’ Speeches

Posted in: Freedom of Information,Secrecy

Obama Biden Boehner

In President Barack Obama’s first days as president, he pledged to have his administration create an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” His chief of staff, Jack Lew, has contended the administration is the “most transparent administration ever.” At a rally in 2010, he told the public, “We have put in place the toughest ethics laws and toughest transparency rules of any administration in history.”

Despite the stated commitments and professions on transparency, the Sunlight Foundation found talk of “government integrity, transparency, and influence” was mostly absent in his “State of the Union” speech last night.

The single mention of transparency came in a reference to counterterrorism efforts, when he said they would be ”even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” Such talk would lead one to believe there has been some level of transparency on counterterrorism efforts. The Obama administration has worked to conceal what it is doing to fight terrorism just like President George W. Bush’s administration. It has actively fought to keep details on the targeted killing program, including drone warfare, secret from the public. So, this is purely good-sounding rhetoric.

The Sunlight Foundation, however, was not surprised, “since Obama’s visionary rhetoric and action on government transparency have largely been replaced with rhetorical defenses.” The Foundation noted, if one looks at previous speeches, emphasis on transparency decreases from speech to speech.

In his 2010 “State of the Union,” he spoke about being transparent about who visits the White House. He said, “We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve.” He declared, “It’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my Administration or Congress.” And he also urged Congress to ”publish all earmark requests on a single website before there’s a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent.”

The following year, Obama did not repeat his call for transparency on earmarks in his “State of the Union” address. He instead issued a veto threat:

…[B]ecause the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it… A 21st century government that’s open and competent.

While he had spoken about campaign finance disclosure in his 2010 speech, he said nothing about this issue in 2011.

Obama said, “Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online.” And, “Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history.” (If he was referring to, which provides details on government contracts and grants, the Foundation said the data was “largely unreliable.”

In 2012, Obama did not talk about campaign finance disclosure, earmark transparency or lobbying disclosure. Obama used his “State of the Union” to call for an insider trading ban. He went after “bundlers,” saying,”Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress,” but said skirted the general issue of transparency on lobbyist activity.

The Foundation rightfully commented, “It’s good to have a President willing to raise transparency and money in politics in the State of the Union. But when insider trading and an ill-fated lunge at bundlers are all the vision he has to offer, we have to wonder whether Obama sees his old transparency platform as a political liability, rather than a vision to be perfected and implemented.”

It is not like he accomplished the goal of earmark transparency so there was no reason to bring it up the following year. The Earmark Transparency Act passed out of committee in the Senate and had lawmakers in the House and Senate working to develop the legislation. The White House let it flounder in Congress and the bill never passed.

The Obama administration fought the disclosure of White House visitor logs. It was sued twice by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) before it agreed in 2009 to post visitors’ logs “voluntarily” online. But, reported the administration would only “release names of most visitors to the White House, starting at the end of this year.” Any “information on visitors in the first eight months of his administration” would “remain secret” (though “narrow and specific requests” would be considered).

They maintained the release was “voluntary” and argued the “Bush administration’s position that full disclosure is not required by the Freedom of Information Act.” The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reported in 2011 the visitor logs disclosed were missing “thousands” of visitors, including celebrities, “lobbyists, government employees, campaign donors, policy experts and friends of the first family.” The Obama administration also appealed a ruling that same year ordering the White House to disclose “Secret Service records of visitors to the White House complex.” So, when he boasted, “This is the first administration since the founding of the country where all of you can find out who visits the White House,” he was taking credit for a development that happened because of the work of pro-transparency nonprofit groups, not his administration.

Recently, when Obama was inaugurated for his second term, CPI covered how corporations were donating millions to his inauguration to influence government. The group mentioned a ”roughly 1,000-name online list” that had been posted online but added it “provides significantly less information than a similar list published online by Obama’s 2009 inaugural committee, which wrote of its desire to ‘provide the most open and accessible inauguration in history” and the president’s “commitment to change business as usual in Washington.’”

His Justice Department also fought the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and New York Times in court as they fought to have the legal basis for the government’s targeted killing program disclosed. The judge ruled in favor of the government. A Justice Department “white paper” was leaked last week. The Justice Department chose to officially disclose the “white paper” to those who had submitted FOIA requests for it, making it even harder to argue the nine Office of Legal Counsel legal memos known to exist should continue to be kept secret from the public. (The Justice Department also agreed to begin granting senators on the intelligence committee access to the memos after senators threatened to make a scene at John Brennan’s CIA confirmation hearing.)

The reality is President Obama wants his administration to appear to be open and transparent without taking the steps to actually be open and transparent. Since many are now critical of the president’s record on transparency, the president has chosen to reference it less and less so his record can fly under the radar, but rhetoric like “the most transparent administration ever” can still seem true to citizens.

Obama has come to the full realization as president that secrecy is not only necessary but a cultural virtue among the powerful. This has made even the smallest acts or pledges for transparency difficult to maintain.

Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

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