Obtuse, Not Transparent

“I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way,” Obama stated in his State of the Union address a couple weeks ago.
And then he promised us, for like the millionth time, that his administration would be “even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

I’m not sure if the president knows what transparency is, but it certainly hasn’t been a dominating characteristic of his administration over the past four years, as he alleges. For the most transparent guy in the world, Obama has classified quite a few government files — over 92 million — which is six times that of even his predecessor Bush.

And though, as he said, we the people do have the right to demand answers from our government, the Obama administration has graciously remembered to add hindrances to this process as well. “Exemptions up 33 percent under Obama,” read a recent Federal Times headline, referring to the unprecedented use of statutory exemptions (aka excuses) to deny citizens’ requests for federal government files.

On one hand, Obama acknowledges America’s right to point out the failings in his political conduct, but on the other hand, he suppresses our access to intelligence regarding his reckless endeavors, like killing American citizens in Yemen without due process of law and refusing to release the federal interpretation of the Patriot Act, a law that legalizes the government’s intrusion of our privacy. Stealthy move, Mr. President; how could we possibly criticize undertakings that we are not informed about?

The answer: national security leaks. Under a presidency so keen to conceal everything, they are inevitable. And when the controversial drone memos were recently leaked to the press, the people reacted. We hurled questions at the White House and demanded answers. Support for a drone court to regulate the executive branch’s hitherto uncontrolled operations of U.S. drones has finally gained momentum — a year and a half after Anwar al-Aulaqi and his son’s death.

In retrospect, it should have been opened up for national discussion long ago, right after the death of the first U.S. citizen by drone strike became known. The matter of oversight of drone use should have met a resolution by now.

However, when Obama denied the existence of a drone program at that time, public outrage subsided. The reason that it increased tenfold this time and shocked the country into action is probably because it exposed the president so explicitly: all the pretense of governmental transparency and lack of targeted killings was suddenly refuted by a few flimsy documents.

The difference between then and now is the fact that the president overstepped boundaries and covered his tracks in a matter that is so unambiguous, so glaring, so akin to a slap in the face.

I think the lesson to be learned here is that keeping very big secrets from the public, while trying to maintain an image that there are no secrets, drives divisions between the government and its people. The key to not embarrassing yourself as president is to maintain a degree of openness about your foreign and domestic policies, and be engaged with the other branches of government and the citizens that elected you to office in the first place. If he can avoid security leaks, he might just re-instill our faith in him.

I hope that in the coming months, President Obama makes it his priority to lift the blockades in the Freedom of Information Act and immerse himself in the system of checks and balances, especially with regards to his drone program. Because as of right now, he is facing definitive mistrust from Republicans and Democrats alike, both in government and the public domain, as well as lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union and the family of al-Aulaqi.

Trying to be stealthy does unfortunately have serious repercussions, if you’re not successful. Somewhere, even the spirit of Richard Nixon is smiling.

Seema Wadhwani is a third–year biological sciences major. She can be reached at wadhwans@uci.edu.