Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Obama's Lack of Transparency

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”  -- James Madison
Professor Geoffrey Stone, a former colleague of the President at the University of Chicago, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week, expressing his profound disappointment in Obama's refusal to "restore the balance between government secrecy and government transparency" that was so badly skewed by his predecessor in the White House.   

As Stone reminds us, after 9/11, the Bush Administration sought to hide its more sordid policies from the public, which included "torture, surveillance of private communications, and restrictions on the writ of habeas corpus," in order to "evade the constraints of separation of powers, judicial review, checks and balances and democratic accountability."  Unfortunately, President Obama has failed to distinguish himself from Bush when it has come to promoting "openness and public accountability in government policy making." 

As I recently discussed, Obama has been particularly vigorous in cracking down on whistleblowers, which, as Professor Stone agrees, is shown by "number of high-profile criminal cases . . . [for] unauthorized leaks."

Stone also lambastes Obama for "zealously applying the state secrets doctrine, a common-law principle intended to enable the government to protect national security information from disclosure in litigation."  Just as the Bush Administration relied on this doctrine to "to block judicial review of a broad range of questionable practices," Obama likewise "has aggressively asserted the privilege in litigation involving such issues as the C.I.A.’s use of extraordinary rendition and the National Security Agency’s practice of wiretapping American citizens."

Finally, Stone notes, even though he was a sponsor of the original bill as Senator, President Obama has declined to support passage of the Free Flow of Information Act, which would enable journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources, unless the government could prove that disclosure of the information was necessary to prevent significant harm to national security.

President Obama assures us that unlike President Bush, we can trust him to do the right thing.  We don't need a reckoning of abuses by the Bush Administration because that is all in the past and the current government is different.  It won't torture and won't unlawfully wiretap, so we can simply move forward.  But, as Professor Stone says, "Those in power are always certain that they themselves will act reasonably, and they resist limits on their own discretion. The problem is, “trust us” is no way to run a self-governing society."


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