Transparency vital to our democracy

Published on Tuesday, 18 March 2014 21:30 - Written by

President Barack Obama promised his administration would be “the most transparent” in our nation’s history. Not only has he failed to live up to that promise, his administration has proven to be among the most hostile to questions and accountability.

“The Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press,” that news agency found in a recent study. “The administration cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests, the analysis found.”

It’s not only bad, it’s getting worse.

“In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office,” the AP reported. “In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times. The Defense Department, including the NSA, and the CIA accounted for nearly all those. The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency cited national security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency did twice and the National Park Service once.”

The administration goes after those who spill secrets.

“Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press — compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations,” the AP reported last year. “Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way.”

That’s alienating even many of the administration’s allies in the media. Consider this quote from the chief Washington reporter for the New York Times (a newspaper as friendly as any to the Obama administration): “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”

Even a 2011 meeting that Vice President Joe Biden held on transparency in the Executive Office Building was, tellingly, closed to the press.

Why is transparency important? Because transparency is, in fact, the most effective means of keeping government power in check.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandais famously said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Sunday was the start of Sunshine Week, a yearly observance in which news organizations and good-government groups cite the need for real accountability.

Sadly, the Obama administration is falling far short of allowing itself to be held accountable. Americans deserve better than this from an administration that has pledged to be transparent.