nsa-transparency

The Obama administration has continually promised to be more transparent about the government’s activities, but those promises hide an administration that withholds and classifies more documents than any of its predecessors, according to the Associated Press.

Despite repeated calls for the government to be more honest with the public after reports based on the Edward Snowden documents were published, the Associated Press report says that the administration withheld or censored more documents in 2013 than any other year in Obama’s two-term presidency. The administration censored or “fully denied access” to some 36 percent of the Freedom of Information Act requests it received, according to the report.

That counters suggestions from a White House review panel convened to suggest reforms to the National Security Agency after several of its programs were revealed to the public. The primary suggestion in that report was to increase transparency, yet the NSA denied some 98 percent of the FOIA requests it received in 2013, citing national security concerns. The call for transparency, which rang hollow from the beginning, was flanked by unprecedented secrecy.

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The Associated Press points out the effect this censorship has on journalism:

Journalists and others who need information quickly to report breaking news fared worse than ever last year. Blocking news organizations from urgently obtaining records about a government scandal or crisis – such as the NSA’s phone-records collection, Boston bombings, trouble with its health care website, the deadly shootings at the Washington Navy Yard or the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi – can delay uncovering significant developments until after decisions are made and the public’s interest has waned.

The Center for Effective Government grades the government’s disclosure practices:

The results are sobering. None of the 15 agencies earned exemplary scores (an overall A grade), and only eight earned “passing grades” (60 or more out of a possible 100 points). The low scores are not due to impossibly high expectations. In each of three performance areas, at least one agency earned an A, showing that excellence is possible. But the fact that no agency was able to demonstrate excellence across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies seem to be having in consistently combining all the elements of an effective disclosure policy.

The National Security Archive notes that many agencies fail to comply with amendments made to the Freedom of Information Act in 2007:

Nearly half (50 out of 101) of all federal agencies have still not updated their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply with Congress’s 2007 FOIA amendments, and even more agencies (55 of 101) have FOIA regulations that predate and ignore President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s 2009 guidance for a ‘presumption of disclosure,’ according to the new National Security Archive FOIA Audit released today to mark Sunshine Week.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation publishes a letter calling for a second Church Committee, which reads in part:

As former members and staff of the Church Committee we can authoritatively say: the erosion of public trust currently facing our intelligence community is not novel, nor is its solution. A Church Committee for the 21st Century—a special congressional investigatory committee that undertakes a significant and public reexamination of intelligence community practices that affect the rights of Americans and the laws governing those actions—is urgently needed. Nothing less than the confidence of the American public in our intelligence agencies and, indeed, the federal government, is at stake.

Reason jokes about the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency:

Yesterday marked the launch of “Sunshine Week,” an annual push by journalists and activists for more transparency from the government. At this point in President Barack Obama’s administration, it’s likely to be celebrated the same way as St. Patrick’s Day: through heavy drinking.

The ‘most transparent administration ever’ is still a big, shining lie.

Pando weighs in

I wrote about the White House review panel’s call for “transparency” in December:

The government can release as many “transparent” press releases as it wants. It can allow technology companies — many of which spy on Internet users for profit — to disclose information they were previously forced to keep secret. And it can release reports like this one, which detail the many problems with the government’s activities while simultaneously justifying them with the familiar anti-terrorism rhetoric. But unless those press releases, those “transparency” reports, and those review panels are as revealing as leaked government documents vetted by seasoned reporters and their sources, this will simply become the latest example of the government’s lip service to transparency and secret devotion to silencing whistleblowers.

To paraphrase the famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to George Orwell: transparency is publishing something you would prefer the world didn’t know, everything else is public relations.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for PandoDaily]