By DANIELLE BRIAN
There is currently a petition circulating asking POGO and other groups to withdraw the award we participated in giving President Obama this spring for his commitment to open government. There is no doubt that the petitioners, many of whom I respect, are right that there are many things to bemoan in the Obama Administration’s implementation of its open government goals. We share many of the reform objectives as the petitioners. While we may at times disagree on how to best achieve those objectives, we shouldn't lose sight of our common goals.
It's undeniable that the Obama administration has achieved more openness than any other recent president. As Tom Blanton of the National Security Archives points out so articulately:
President Obama got that award from us because he produced the best ever – hands down – orders for open government of any president in U.S. history, and he did so on his first day in office. He revoked the regressive Bush order holding up release of presidential records. He threw out the Bush policy that I called “withhold whenever you can” and commanded a “presumption of disclosure” on Freedom of Information releases. He directed agencies to produce open government plans that proactively put their information online so folks like me didn’t have to ask for it anymore. He set an entirely new tone for the entire U.S. government.
And he didn’t stop on the first day. At the end of his first year, he produced an executive order on national security classification that adopted almost all of our reform recommendations, including ordering a fundamental review in every agency of their secrecy decisions. He issued another executive order – against the recommendations of his agencies – that prevented them from setting up an alternative classification system for “sensitive but unclassified” information.
He settled our lawsuit over the White House e-mail by installing a digital archive of all his own and White House staff email, by turning over evidence on the Bush decision not to archive the email, and by preserving the 220 million White House e-mail messages from the Bush years. He settled CREW’s lawsuit over the White House visitor logs by posting them online after 6 months. No other government in the world has achieved this level of transparency. . . .
When we sat in the Oval Office on March 28, Danielle Brian of POGO directly reminded the President that his support of the whistleblower bill was undermined by prosecutions like the Thomas Drake case at the National Security Agency. From the President’s reaction, and that of his staff, I suspect that the problem is not at the White House, but rather at the level of the career prosecutors, like the guy William Welch who is the lead on the Drake case.
If you are circulating petitions, please do not use generalities like “the Obama administration.” Surely you know that in a government as huge as the U.S., the idea that the President actually controls this vast flotilla of agency “ships” ranging from aircraft carriers to rowboats is a myth. The White House likes to say it has turned the wheel all the way over on the supertanker of government, and if government was such a single vessel, maybe so. Yes, Obama has done excellent declaratory policy; the challenge for us as openness advocates is to focus on the people in the agencies who are stopping the change. The people in the agencies who are not following the policy. The people in the agencies and in the courts who are just doing the Bush policies as if the 2008 election never happened. The people who are using inertia and all the bureaucratic impediments in order to prevent what Obama has ordered.
The main reason for the increase in the reported cost of government secrecy is that the government has now developed better means to measure that cost. Not because Obama ordered more secrecy. He did not. In fact, the opposite.
The main reason for the increase in leaks prosecutions is that cases developed under the Bush administration “ripened” last year and this year, and the career prosecutors (abetted by one or two Obama appointees) dared the White House to intervene and risk the Nixon-era opprobrium for “political interference in prosecutions.”. . .
Come join us. Do something concrete to force government to open up. Don't just carp and blog and petition.
Petitions are not going to change the iron law of bureaucracy that all governments will default to secrecy to protect their turf, no matter what.
Please pitch in to the openness battle with some tactics that will actually make a difference to the government.
Don’t spend your precious time and energy attacking other open government advocates.
Those who question POGO’s motives in participating in this meeting should understand that we sat around our conference table as a staff and weighed the consequences. We gave the award for the President's commitment to transparency knowing that we had significant differences with the President and that many challenges remained. We knew there were pros and cons to participating: Did the President’s commitment to more openness need recognition in order to shore up ongoing transparency initiatives? Would having the first-ever Oval Office meeting with transparency NGOs elevate our issues within the White House? Or would giving the President an award let the agencies just rest on their laurels? We fought hard to ensure the meeting was an actual dialogue with the President where we would be pointing to the issues we cared about. But how well would we be able to control the situation? Was the chance to tell the President to his face that we thought his prosecutions of national security whistleblowers were counter to everything he had said publicly about his support for whistleblower protections worth it? I suspected no one had said this to him before, and perhaps more importantly, done so in front of his staff. So we knew this was a calculated risk. But one we decided was worth taking.
Obama himself joked during the meeting, saying something to the effect of “I know how this game works. Yes, you are giving me an award, but you want to use the opportunity to talk to me about what I’m doing wrong.” I was able to highlight not just the pattern of prosecutions, but specifically the Tom Drake case. It was after this meeting that the Justice Department backed down on both the Thomas Tamm and Drake cases. Of course this meeting wasn’t the only reason for the change of course in these cases—but I believe it might have been one of many pressures that came to bear on the over-zealous prosecutors.
My colleagues in the meeting were also able to raise other concerns in our community: Tom Blanton talked about the problems with FOIA implementation and about the need for a cultural change at the agencies to get more information out to the public that helps hold the agencies accountable. Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press talked about the need for a shield law that allows reporters to protect their sources. And Patrice McDermott, of OpentheGovernment.org, raised concerns that the use of the States Secrets Privilege still needs to be far more surgical in order to allow people who had been wronged by the government to be able to seek redress.
Of course, the fact that this rescheduled meeting wasn’t on the President’s calendar made it an easy joke. When we discovered this, we described it as “crazy stupid.” But the fact that the meeting wasn’t open to the press didn’t strike me as unusual—I have meetings all the time with policymakers that are not open to the press. I had announced the meeting on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, and several of us blogged about the meeting immediately afterwards—this was no secret meeting.
So no, I do not regret taking the opportunity to meet with the President and get him to discuss the prosecutions of national security whistleblowers, and I am not going to withdraw our support for the award. I do, however, understand and respect the right of others to draw different conclusions from ours. And I look forward to continuing to work with those who care so deeply about government transparency and whistleblower protections in actually working on these issues.
The issues are far better battled if energy is focused on opportunities to fix the ongoing, critical problems we collectively face. Our community needs help pushing the Department of Justice to end prosecutions of whistleblowers and limit the use of states secrets. We need help passing the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act—including the provisions that will give protections to national security whistleblowers. We need to support the promising appointees now running the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in their efforts to rehabilitate and strengthen those whistleblower protection bodies. We need help to push to fill the empty Inspector General seats with aggressive, pro-whistleblower watchdogs. We need to improve FOIA and access to information. We need help to fight off secrecy measures that are regularly proposed. We need help to ensure that OMB’s over-reaching post-Wikileaks guidance to agencies focuses on the ongoing rampant overclassification of information and does not violate federal employees’ basic civil liberties and free speech rights. These are the efforts where added personnel and energy would be productive. Public debate and discourse is often healthy. But there is so much to be done to safeguard our rights and expand openness—our community just doesn’t have the luxury to waste time on distractions.
Danielle Brian is POGO's Executive Director.