President Barack Obama has relied on state secrets and secret laws to make national security decisions with little congressional or public oversight much as his predecessor did, according to a report being released Sunday by a liberal government watchdog group.
The Center for Effective Government’s study on transparency finds that Obama has issued important open government policy reforms in his first term, but that implementation is inconsistent across federal agencies despite his claim of being the most open president in history.
“While the Obama administration deserves praise for the important work it has done to build a platform for open government in its first term, the job is unfinished,” according to the report.
The center, formerly called OMB Watch, issued the report at the start of Sunshine Week, an effort by civics groups, governments and newspapers to promote transparency in government across the nation. A copy was sent to the White House, but officials there did not respond to a request for comment.
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The 50-page study says the area most in need of improvement is national security. The White House has withheld decisions and documents that have the force of law, labeled documents as classified even if they do not need to be and aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers, bringing six cases against employees for leaks compared to only three known previous cases since 1917.
And the administration, like the George W. Bush administration before it, has sought the dismissal of cases against the U.S. government claiming entire topics are privileged, not just specific records. For example, it invoked the privilege to dismiss a case challenging the targeting of U.S. citizen and alleged terrorist Anwar al Awlaki, killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011.
Bush was criticized for authorizing a secret domestic spying program and military tribunals without court involvement after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Obama has been questioned for authorizing the military’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, including Americans. After pressure, the White House recently released to lawmakers justifications for the killings.
Obama acknowledged that the administration had work to do in providing information about the killings last month during a White House “fireside hangout” hosted online by Google. “I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants whenever they want just under the guise of counterterrorism,” he said.
On his first day in office, Obama offered a sweeping promise of transparency, issuing a number of executive actions to provide more openness at every level of federal government and greater disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act
“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Obama wrote at the time. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
The center praised the administration for its use of technology to make information more available and more user-friendly through social media and websites that provided, among other things, more information about federal spending and White House visitors.
But while some agencies have embraced open government, others have failed to provide basic information or write concrete goals. Some have erected new hurdles such as more fees for those seeking records, the report said.
For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wrote a plan with more than 80 goals with deadlines while the Department of Justice offered no significant expansions in transparency, instead focusing primarily on preexisting policies.
“The Obama administration established an impressive array of important open government reforms,” said Sean Moulton, the center’s director of open government policy. “However, implementation has lagged at many agencies.”
During the first two years, several high-level White House employees were involved in the effort. But after several departures, no single person is in charge of implementing the president’s vision. An interagency group devoted to open government convened by the White House meets regularly, but does not provide records on those meetings, according to the report.
For Obama’s second term, the center recommends the administration require agencies to implement plans and appoint officials to manage open government, better respond to requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act and work with Congress to pass bills about transparency.
In the area of national security, it urges the administration to halt the inappropriate classification of public documents, allow whistleblowers to speak freely and look for legislation that will provide more checks and balances.
Said Katherine McFate, center president: “The Obama administration has four more years to ensure that its policies are embedded in the operating practices of federal agencies and deliver meaningful, lasting results for the American people.”