The White House’s Sunshine Week decision to provide for the exemption of the Executive Branch’s Office of Administration from the Freedom of Information Act should make all Americans nervous. Although the OA’s exemption from FOIA requests has been official policy for both the Obama and Bush administrations, the new decision makes that exemption official policy.
The exemption comes as a continuation of President Obama’s pledge to maintain “the most transparent administration in history,” a line repeated by his Press Secretary Josh Earnest as recently as last week. A well known step taken to provide for “the most transparent administration in history” has been an unprecedented and selective war on whistleblowers, the details of which should be familiar at this point to even the most aloof observer of American politics. In the context of the war on unauthorized leaks the administration has waged, the implications of the official refusal of FOIA authority over yet another branch of the executive is highly problematic and disturbing.
When this administration has been faced with the types of leaks it doesn’t like- those which expose government mismanagement and waste, or those that shine a light on the bulk surveillance of American citizens- the administration hits back and hits hard. Chelsea Manning languishes in prison, Stephen Kim was jailed for an innocuous comment to a reporter about North Korea, and Edward Snowden cannot return to the US for fear of a promised zealous government prosecution. Not to belabor the point, but the Espionage Act has been used to prosecute government leakers 11 times in our history, and 7 of those times under this administration.
Conversely, the leaking of information that benefits the administration is unaddressed as a criminal matter. The administration itself routinely leaks beneficial information to the press in attempts to manage news stories or to promote the image of the President as a strong leader and warrior. Similarly, the unprecedented access of the journalist Bob Woodward to both Presidents Bush and Obama to write his series of serious books about serious wars has led to Woodward having his hands on very sensitive documents. And when David Petraeus leaked classified documents to his girlfriend/biographer, he was given a slap on the wrist and is now advising the White House on Iraq. The administration has different rules when the leaks come from the top and don’t have the potential to educate the public on stories that don’t glorify the presidency.
The White House’s declaration of ineligibility for FOIA for the Office of the Administration also comes at a curious time, given the auspices of the office. The OA controls email archiving, a hot topic today given the current predicament of former Secretary of State Clinton in the line between her private and professional emails. Furthermore, the OA has oversight for the “operational activities that maintain and run the physical.. aspects of the EOP complex,” which though it does not include the Secret Service, works alongside them to protect the President. The Office of the Administration is an important part of the Executive Branch, and its exemption from FOIA requests is highly problematic.
The Office of Administration was one of a dwindling number of divisions within the Executive Branch subject to the FOIA until it joined such venerable company as the National Security Council, the Office of the Vice President, and, of course, the President’s White House Office in the departments which are beyond the ability of mere citizens to request information on. By closing off yet another department of the executive from direct public scrutiny, the administration has ensured that more information from the executive branch can be filtered by the state and not open to dissemination by the public at large.
The administration has shut the door on another of increasingly few avenues by which the American public can become informed on all the government does, not just what it wants us to know. That the Obama administration has been so aggressive on the behalf of government secrecy, especially in the face of its pledge to provide historic transparency, is not only disheartening, it is incredibly dangerous. It’s a lesson of the past that when the state takes away power and information from its citizenry, it is loath to give it back. Whatever you may think of the Obama administration, there is no question that some day in the future, there will be a President who will take the secrecy farther.
It’s Sunshine Week in DC, the week where government transparency is celebrated. The irony of this latest assault on openness in government falling on the Tuesday of that week has not been lost on many commentators, too few of whom are on the left. When Barack Obama promised to give the American people “the most transparent administration in history,” many Americans believed him. Instead of that promise, this administration has delivered a more insular and secretive state that reserves the right to look at everyone, while not being seen, and to whisper select secrets in friendly ears, while cutting the tongues out of those who shout out the wrong secrets in public.
Eoin Higgins has a master’s degree in history from Fordham University. He lives in New York.