In light of a year's worth of historic revelations about government subterfuge and mass surveillance, President Barack Obama's early promise to oversee the most transparent administration ever now seems spectacularly ill-fated.
This has been the administration of secret drone memos, covert dragnet spy programs, and fierce whistleblower persecution. Eight individuals have faced Espionage Act charges under Obama — more than under all other US presidents in history combined.
But the White House is still clinging to the "most transparent" title. On Sunday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told CNN that Obama was "absolutely" the most transparent president in history. The comment came in response to a letter sent by organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the Poynter Institute complaining of government secrecy surrounding the inner workings of federal agencies. The letter decried this "suppression of information" as "politically driven."
Earnest's insistence to the contrary at first glance seems as convincing as a snake-oil sales pitch. Given the matter at hand, even the spokesman's name seems pulled from the pages of Dickens. But Earnest was not technically lying. Nor was he being honest. Such is the game with government transparency today — there's nothing very clear about it.
As Earnest pointed out in the CNN interview, reporters now have more access to the president's schedule and details of his whereabouts than ever before. It is in these sorts of (true) statements that the administration grounds its claims to transparency. There is an entire government initiative, the Open Government plan launched in 2009, dedicated to making large data sets about government activity available to the public. Agencies including the CIA have a transparency page on their websites.
If transparency is determined by the provision of information, then indeed this administration wins the transparency stakes. But to define transparency in this way would be to assume data, government data specifically, as neutral. As Sarah Leonard so correctly noted for The New Inquiry: "The omnipresent ideal of transparency in government rests heavily on the virtuous data dump; the display of lots of information online has itself come to symbolize transparent, healthy democracy."
The government's approach here relies on an ideological fealty to the inherent value of more data. The question of which information the government hides and makes public is ironically (and troublingly) obfuscated by its transparency efforts. Like a classic smoke and daggers trick, this administration offers up a dizzying swarm of information to the public; behind the smoke screen, significant government activity remains hidden.
'The fact that under this president there have been more disclosures, more access, is a banal truth to which government mouthpieces can cling.'
The difference between disclosure and transparency is significant. The Obama administration discloses a lot — every federal agency must maintain an Open Government webpage and provide data about its internal workings. But as Edward Snowden's leaks amply prove, as does the resistance to release Justice Department memos on the legal reasoning for drone strikes, we are a far cry from useful transparency (that is, transparency understood as a clear picture of government operations).
As Leonard well put it, this government's claim to transparency is grounded in "the fog of more." More statistics, more reports, more data, all of which clouds the fact that some of the most sought after information about our government is ferociously protected. Chelsea Manning learned this the hard way.
Whether the Obama administration can make a claim to the most transparency is one thing. The fact that under this president there have been more disclosures, more access, is a banal truth to which government mouthpieces can cling. But it's a truth that must sit alongside other realities of political now.
What virtue is more access to the president's social calendar when we now know for a fact that top officials have lied to Congress about the broad reach of the surveillance state? The performative transparency of Obama's Open Government plan pales in significance to government attempts to covertly embark on a whole new terrain of warfare using drone technology. Being "absolutely" the most transparent administration in history is of very little use when transparency has little to do with honesty.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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