Richard Nixon doesn’t have anything on Barack Obama.
That’s not only an opinion shared by many open government advocates, it’s simply a fact. It may not be a widely known or shared fact because with more pressing issues like the economy or a war or even guns. And, it’s pretty easy to let the somewhat arcane subject of government documents and transparency slip by.
And yet Richard Nixon, when it comes to transparency and government secrecy, is not a name to be invoked lightly. Remember, before the infamous Watergate scandal there was the leak of the Pentagon Papers which tested how far a president could go to thwart the freedom of the press.
Two recent reports demonstrate how abysmal Barack Obama’s record has been on openness and both provide a dim view of the administration moving forward. That is, there’s little to suggest that Obama might somehow have a change of heart and start releasing more information about the federal government.
The first report comes courtesy of the Associated Press which conducts a yearly survey of censored or denied public information requests. More records were denied during 2012 than in any other year of Obama’s presidency. More than one out of every three requests was denied last year. The reasons ranged from security and national intelligence to a citizen who simply couldn’t pay for the copies.
Obama was voted into office for who he wasn’t as much as who he was. In other words, in wake of the substantial shortcomings of George W. Bush, Obama promised a change in the way government would be run. One of the pillars of that change included an openness and transparency which would, in turn, inspire confidence of the public and a government that would act more responsibility because of increased scrutiny.
Obama isn’t George W. Bush. He’s much worse. But it doesn’t stop there. He may be even worse than Richard Nixon, the arch-villain and presidential poster child for government run amok.
In a recent interview in Columbia Journalism Review, James Goodale, former chief counsel to the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers leak, pointed out that the Obama administration has prosecuted more alleged leaks under the 1917 Espionage Act than all other presidents combined. The result, Goodale tells the review, is that Obama will have succeeded where Nixon only tried. That is, Nixon never found an “end run” around the courts to stop leaks of information that put the federal government in a negative light. Obama might have found his loophole.
The problem, of course, has nothing to do with whether the government wins its cases and proves that some leaks pose a threat to national security. Instead, the federal government’s aggressive prosecution of any perceived leaks is tantamount to witch hunting journalists and government employees. The effect, to put it in both legal and real terms, is chilling. Prosecuting those who might leak vital information to the public isn’t designed to punish wrongdoers as much as it is to instill fear. It is a bully tactic and it is a policy that has the endorsement of Obama himself — prosecutions of this magnitude cannot happen without presidential permission.
Obama should be a better student of history, though. He might win a momentary battle but lose the war, just like Nixon did. In the end, the harder the federal government tried to crack down, the more the appearance that something was wrong grew. This only caused more scrutiny and the public spotlight only intensified. The more the Obama administration tries to restrict information, the more officials will believe there is an agenda that must be exposed. In other words, treat something like a secret and the temptation grows exponentially to share or leak it.
But there’s another reason why we believe this policy of aggressively targeting leaks and denying public information will fail — there are simply too many media which can all too quickly disseminate information. True enough the Obama administration may have Julian Assange’s Wikileaks in its crosshairs, but shutting Wikileaks isn’t going to stop the leaks. Instead of trying to stomp out information, the administration should do a better job of explaining it. Let’s be clear: Not all of the information Assange’s organization wants should be released, and he’s not a journalist. However, there is a difference between stopping confidential information and zealous prosecution.
The problem is: Who holds the administration responsible for openness? We’d suggest that if the executive branch cannot do a better job of being transparent and responsive, then this should be an opportunity for Congress to examine the ways in which more teeth can be put into the Freedom of Information Act. We believe our Wyoming lawmakers could play a key role in strengthening laws. After all, how many times has our congressional delegation asked questions of the Obama administration, never to receive answers? And that’s the thing about government transparency — it doesn’t just benefit politicians or journalists or citizens. It benefits everyone.
Government isn’t so different from the individuals who work for it. A government will act differently and probably better if it knows it could be watched and held accountable.