POLITICS

Carney: The opacity of hope: Obama's war on transparency

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Photo - In a showdown with the Obama administration, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. (AP photo)
In a showdown with the Obama administration, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. (AP photo)

"Democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency." If President Obama still believes those words from his first week in office, then he clearly values some things more than democracy.

Obama invoked executive privilege on Wednesday in refusing to turn over documents related to his Justice Department's notorious Operation Fast and Furious, which deliberately put assault weapons in the hands of Mexican drug cartels as part of a sting, and then negligently lost track of hundreds of them. A Border Patrol agent was killed in 2010, apparently by one of these guns.

Republicans in Congress have tried to investigate this program, but the administration has repeatedly stonewalled them. On Wednesday, as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee prepared for a vote to hold Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over some documents, the White House announced it would protect the attorney general from scrutiny.

Executive privilege, affirmed by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Nixon, is historically limited to the president's own discussions. Obama is now extending it to his attorney general. Expanding executive secrecy contravenes Obama's promises on transparency, but it's not the first time the president has betrayed his high-minded rhetoric.

Obama began trumpeting -- and trampling -- transparency during his transition operation. He created the position of "transparency czar," and published the names of many advisers. But the Obama team never mentioned that a telecom executive, former lobbyist and Obama donor named Gerry Salemme worked on the transition as a telecom policy adviser. At least one Obama decision benefited Salemme's company, Clearwire. The transition team never answered press queries about Salemme's role or why it wasn't disclosed.

Only after resisting and getting sued did the White House begin publishing its visitor logs. But a 2010 New York Times article reported that administration officials regularly meet lobbyists away from the White House in an apparent effort to dodge the reporting requirements and disguise lobbyist influence. "Some lobbyists say that they routinely get e-mail messages from White House staff members' personal accounts," the Times reported, "rather than from their official White House accounts, which can become subject to public review.

Politico corroborated this with a 2011 article on White House officials' use of buildings not covered by the visitor logs, saying Obama officials "get leery when an issue requires multiple visits and begin pushing for phone calls or meetings outside the White House's gates."

Officials in Obama's Department of Housing and Urban Development even demanded that lobbyists and others participating in policy discussions sign a confidentiality agreement.

Obama's boldest transparency promise regarded his health care bill. "We'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN," candidate Obama proclaimed, so that America could see who was doing the bidding of industry.

Instead, his White House hashed out the details of Obamacare in closed-door meetings with drug lobbyists and other special interests. When congressional Republicans asked last year for documents from the negotiations, the White House refused. House Energy and Commerce Committee investigators eventually got the documents only by leaning on the White House's drug-lobby interlocutors. The emails painted a picture of undue industry influence and a sweetheart deal for Big Pharma.

In the summer of 2010, Obama transferred his transparency czar to the Czech Republic, abolished the position and handed the transparency portfolio over to partisan lawyer Bob Bauer. Bauer had written in 2006 that "disclosure is a mostly unquestioned virtue deserving to be questioned."

The Obama administration has also ramped up the war on whistleblowers. It has used the 1917 Espionage Act six times to prosecute federal officials for leaking unflattering information to the media, leading the New York Times' David Carr to call it a "kind of ad hoc Official Secrets Act." In the 95 previous years, there were only three Espionage Act charges against whistleblowers.

Other transparency promises went by the wayside early. The Government Accountability Office concluded that the stimulus website failed to meet transparency standards. Obama completely failed to live up to his pledge of posting nonemergency bills online publicly for five days before signing them.

Obama's transparency promises were part of the good-government aura that made him appealing even to those who didn't share his ideology. He's broken those promises and adopted an increasingly Nixonian approach to secrecy.

Obama has promised to close the "deficit of trust" between the people and their government. But he's making that deficit larger every day.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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