One Step Forward? Three Steps Back

By Greg Dooley

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing. My administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.”

President Obama’s lofty rhetoric and sweeping campaign promises are now infamous in American campaign efforts. However, since ascending to the presidency, the man who made this ambitious commitment now faces mounting criticism for his inability or even unwillingness to deliver on his pledge. Now, four months into his second term, President Obama is plagued by four major shortcomings in his promise to lead the most transparent administration in United States history. Yet he has only half-heartedly committed to resolving one, while fighting exposure in relation to three others.

In some respect, President Obama could be commended for signing a presidential policy guidance intended to elaborate on US use of unmanned drones in combat scenarios. While this act has been celebrated by many as a ground-breaking example of progress towards clarifying the legality of drone strikes, it was hardly comprehensive enough to be categorized as truly transparent. It is no doubt comforting to believe the president is clarifying the United States’ policy on the use of this new military technology simply because it is morally necessary to do so, however, there is certainly an alternative motive. As the race for drone technology levels the playing field for access and use of the new tools of war, more and more countries are acquiring their own fleets. As the potential use of drones spreads to nations or actors that may not keep the well-being of Americans as a priority, it is in the best interest of the US to use its position as superpower to dictate the legality of their use. As China or Russia or even North Korea and Iran gain access to these weapons, the United States will not be able to prescribe the edict to ‘do as I say and not as I do’.

President Obama was not completely transparent about his policy on the use of unmanned drones.
President Obama was not completely transparent about his policy on the use of unmanned drones.

Thus, President Obama, in this particular case, is indeed working to make the legality of drone strikes a more transparent issue. He is not, however, shedding light on the issue purely to demonstrate that his administration is righteous and accountable.

Yet, in comparison to his numerous additional shortcomings, the issue of drone strikes seems like genuine altruistic governing. Another scandal involving the Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to hang over the White House and State Department since the Arab Spring uprising in Libya. On September 11, 2012, four US citizens, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in an attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi. In the aftermath of this horrible incident, President Obama failed to issue a response as he was actively campaigning for re-election. Instead, the task was assigned to UN Ambassador Susan Rice, despite the diplomatic crisis having nothing to do with the United Nation’s operations. Obama’s slight can be excused as the American electorate is used to presidential duties taking a back seat during campaign season. Instead, it is the content of the statement issued by Ambassador Rice that conflicts with the presidency’s pledge for transparency.

UN ambassador Susan Rice was assigned to issue a response to the attack in Benghazi, despite having nothing to do with the crisis.
UN ambassador Susan Rice was assigned to issue a response to the attack in Benghazi, despite having nothing to do with the crisis.

Ambassador Rice’s initial statement advised that the attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration taking place near the Embassy. It has subsequently been revealed that the Obama Administration was aware of a premeditated coordinated attack. It is difficult, particularly in this case, to separate the anger and emotional desire to seek to blame someone for the security lapse in Benghazi. It is certain that the individuals who lost their lives were let down; more should have been done to protect American citizens carrying out their jobs in a hostile environment. The point in my case is not to play the blame game or blow the event into a political scandal. The important lesson this tragedy has exposed is that the fact that there is indeed evidence that the White House and other executive agencies twisted the facts in their account, proving either a distrust or disinterest of the American people’s right to know the whole truth.

The narrative of an even more recent ‘scandal’ proves there may be a pattern within the Obama Administration’s handling of crises. The recent revelation that the Internal Revenue Service has been inappropriately targeting conservative grassroots political groups is in itself outrageous. However, the fact that it is unclear under whom the direction to administer the additional scrutiny was given, makes the entire issue opaque at best. Furthermore, it is now well known that these organizations were founded and run by citizens likely to be supporters of Republican candidates. The fact that they were singled out by a Democrat-led government during a time when Mr Obama was seeking re-election, is beyond coincidence. Using government agencies for targeted attacks against your political enemies conjures memories of disgraced President Richard Nixon, about as far from idyllic, honest, and transparent as a national leader can be.

Finally, it has recently been reported that the Justice Department has been seizing phone records of reporters in order to track down the origins of leaked classified information. This deliberate attack on journalism and free speech is not only the opposite of President Obama’s own pledge of transparency, it is also completely unprecedented in the United States. To date, the Obama Administration has prosecuted more US citizens for unlawful release of classified information than all previous presidents combined. Of course there is, and always will be, the need to classify sensitive information, however, the fervor by which this administration is pursuing the issue sends a secretive, if not oppressive message, rather than one of openness, honesty and trust.

In all, each issue can obviously be judged in further detail independently as to whether they qualify as scandalous, immoral or illegal. What cannot be overlooked, however, is the fact that, when considered comprehensively, the conclusions drawn are anything but supportive of President Obama’s promise to usher in an age of transparency. As I have alluded to above, the fact that these are political scandals is only a minor point; every US president has had some less than ideal blight on their legacy. However, I do believe elements of this string of examples are extraordinary and annihilate any illusion that President Barack Obama has worked to increase the transparency and accessibility of his executive administration.

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