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Was Obama Administration the Most Transparent or the Least?
“After early promises to be the most transparent administration in history, the Obama administration turned out to be one of the most secretive,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan last year.
Speaking at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center last month, former ACLU litigator Jameel Jaffer didn’t go quite that far. He acknowledged that Obama had taken some small steps towards greater transparency, such as making White House visitor logs available and declassifying the Office of Legal Counsel memos on intelligence interrogation (the “torture memos”).
But overall, Obama was a disappointment, said Jaffer, a respected figure who now directs the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“Few people today–and certainly very few transparency advocates–believe that President Obama kept his promise,” he said. See Government Secrecy in the Age of Information Overload, October 17, 2017.
That seems wrong.
A fair reading of the record shows that in dozens of areas of national security secrecy, the Obama Administration broke down longstanding barriers to public access and opened up previously inaccessible records of enormous importance and value. Some examples:
* In 2010, the Obama Administration declassified the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time ever. Even during the heyday of the Energy Department Openness Initiative of the 1990s, only historical stockpile data from 30 years earlier was released.
* The Obama Administration was also the first ever to publish the amount of the intelligence budget request for the following year. This information had been the subject of FOIA litigation in the Clinton Administration but without success. Remarkably, there is no statutory requirement to publish the budget request for the Military Intelligence Program. But the Obama Administration did so anyway.
* A decade ago, the CIA had claimed in court that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) was itself an “intelligence method” and therefore categorically exempt from disclosure. Obama rejected that view and ordered that no information be exempt from declassification “based solely on the type of document or record in which it is found.” Thousands of historical PDBs were declassified as a result.
* Prior to the Obama Administration, one had to have “sources” simply to find out the names of the judges who sat on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Now the Court has its own website and it has never been more open to third-party oversight or participation.
* The Obama Administration established a National Declassification Center to facilitate and streamline declassification. Amazingly, the Center undertook the successful declassification of a large collection of records from the US Embassy in Indonesia in the 1960s last year in response to a request from an individual member of the public.
These are all discrete policy actions that may be of interest to some people and not to others. Not everyone cares about nuclear weapons or intelligence or Indonesia or other such topics. But under Obama there was also a systemic contraction in the whole apparatus of government secrecy. Thus:
* In 2014, the Obama Administration achieved the lowest number of “original classification decisions” (or newly-generated secrets) that had ever been reported by the Information Security Oversight Office. In 2016, the reported number of new secrets dropped lower still.
* Not coincidentally, in 2015, the Obama Administration reduced the number of “original classification authorities” — i.e. officials who are authorized to create new secrets — to the lowest number ever reported.
* The Obama Administration made a policy decision to shrink the size of the security-cleared population, both to reduce vulnerabilities and to conserve resources. The number of persons holding security clearances for access to classified information dropped accordingly from around 5.1 million in 2013 to 4.2 million in 2015.
Is all of that sufficient to justify a claim that the Obama Administration was “the most transparent in history”? Not necessarily. (And not only because “transparency” means different things to different people.)
One would also have to weigh the Administration’s failings, such as its (mis)handling of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on enhanced interrogation practices, among other unhappy episodes. And then one would then have to compare the composite record to that of other Administrations. But it is far from obvious that any other Administration has a stronger claim than Obama’s to being named “most transparent,” and neither Jaffer nor Sullivan has proposed one.
It is beyond argument that Obama established new benchmarks for disclosure of many types of national security information that had previously been withheld, and that his Administration imposed new constraints on the creation of classified information.
Ignoring or dismissing the Obama record of disclosure makes it impossible to inquire how such disclosures happened, and how they could be replicated and extended. Cynicism is a poor foundation for strategy.