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Pure Onsense

Give transparency another try

Scott Zuke

(6/2013) May is the start of the summer Hollywood blockbuster season, but for political news junkies the best popcorn show in town was the endless stream of scandals erupting in Washington. First, the never ending investigation of the September 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi somehow picked up steam again. Then the IRS clumsily broke the story that it had improperly targeted Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. The kicker appeared to be the revelation that the Department of Justice secretly acquired phone records for over 100 Associated Press reporters as part of an investigation into a national security leak. But this seems to have given way to a drip, drip of fresh stories about federal investigations of even more journalists, sparking a fierce discussion in the press about the Administration's attitude toward the First Amendment.

The spectacle of outraged politicians and journalists, and Congressional oversight hearings that jumped between topics so quickly that they were sometimes hard to follow, was certainly entertaining to watch (if that's your thing). But like any other summer blockbuster, the May scandals were mostly a barrage of deceptive special effects lacking a plot to string them all together.

What we had were not really White House scandals at all, and, contrary to what President Obama's critics on the right said, or wished, they did not uncover any pattern of abuse of power or come anywhere close to Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post put it, "...Absent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high donít seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing donít reach high enough."

If anything, the hysterics of a handful of Republicans who started talking about impeachment before knowing the basic facts of the cases somehow managed to look worse than the President in what would have been a very challenging few weeks for him if they had shown more restraint.

The more reasonable critics argued that, even if Obama was not directly involved or knowledgeable of things like the IRS scandal, he shares responsibility for setting a tone that allowed the behavior to continue without drawing the proper level of scrutiny. This is not an impeachable offense, but it may be a valid critique of his management style.

Where those detractors went wrong is in saying that the President set a hostile, offensive tone against his "enemies." Columnist Jonah Goldberg, for example, said of Obama that, "Heís made it clear that people who disagree with him are fevered, illegitimate, weird, creepy, dangerous, stupid, confused, ignorant, or some other adjective you might assign to a revamped version of the Seven Dwarfs." I don't blame him for feeling this way, but I don't think that's the message coming from the President.

Instead I see a defensive stance from the Executive Branch, a vain attempt to control the flow of information in a political and media climate so volatile that--no joke--even the President requesting a Marine to hold an umbrella over him during a rainy outdoor press conference sparks a firestorm of angry tweets and blog posts.

The Obama Administration developed a reputation for being tight-lipped going all the way back to the 2008 Presidential Election, where the candidate earned the moniker, "No-Drama-Obama," for the disciplined, leak-devoid nature of his campaign. But some of this anti-leaking tone is also a result of the decade-old War on Terror.

With operations in Iraq finished and those in Afghanistan winding down, the War on Terror has evolved into the nebulous, borderless, mainly covert war that it always sounded like. Drones have replaced boots on the ground, and the lines between military and CIA operations often remain a blur. The counter-terrorism strategy employs a broad umbrella of secrecy over everything from drone policy to handling of detainees, and has long incurred criticism from the left.

At the same time, the Administration has earned the dubious distinction of having indicted twice as many individuals (six) for leaking classified information to the press than all previous administrations combined, and has alarmingly gone so far as to consider at least one journalist a co-conspirator in a criminal leak investigation.

Explanations for why this has happened are not all sinister in nature. Rather than any top-down policy, some experts argue that the investigations were pursued by separate prosecutors working independently. It has also become easier to track down the sources of leaks electronically. But the underlying reason there are so many leaks to begin with could have something to do with just how much information is classified these days.

The culture of secrecy in Washington is routinely justified on the grounds of national security, and this is usually a legitimate explanation. But it may have also inadvertently set an example for other federal agencies that, when the public and the media cannot be trusted to correctly interpret certain information that could reflect poorly on the Administration, it is okay to keep it secret in order to avoid confusion. As the past month has shown, such thinking ends up causing more harm than good.

Contrary to claims made by President Obama, Eric Holder, and others, this administration has never impressed anyone with its efforts to promote transparency. Obama's May 24 speech at the National Defense University, covering a huge swath of foreign policy and beginning to define an endgame for the War on Terror, was an important step in the right direction, and one that felt a couple years overdue. With the bulk of the goals set forth at the War's outset now realized, it's time to refocus on fully restoring the open, democratic society that the 9/11 attack disrupted. The questions will be whether this administration has the right temperament to shift in that direction over the next three years, and whether the people are patient and trusting enough in their government at this point to allow it to do so.

Read other article by Scott Zuke