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Obama's Not-So-Open Government

By Dan Froomkin
1:51 PM ET, 05/28/2009

The Obama administration has taken three significant steps toward greater openness in government in the past week.

Last Thursday, the White House launched a major new initiative -- one that, appropriately enough, starts off with a request for public input -- to increase transparency, participation, and collaboration throughout the federal government. It also launched Data.gov, a new Web site intended to be a vast public repository of federal data, presented in a format that will allow it to be easily used by the public.

And just yesterday afternoon, President Obama sent a memo to agency heads, giving them 90 days to suggest ways to reduce over-classification of documents, ease declassification and prohibit reclassification.

That's all well and good. But it's not remotely enough. And Obama's efforts thus far don't even come close to fulfilling the promises he made on his memorable second day in the White House, when he vowed that transparency would be a touchstone of his presidency.

"The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable," Obama said at the time. "And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served."

But when it comes to transparency, the White House should be leading by example. Or, more accurately, the White House does lead by example -- and the example it's setting is way short of what Obama led us to expect. With some notable exceptions, Obama's White House hasn't been dramatically more transparent than the notoriously secretive one before it.

There is still a tremendous predisposition against disclosure there. Internal records stay internal, while the distribution of key public documents is actually less reliable than it was in the Bush years -- especially on the White House Web site.

Administration officials routinely hold briefings where they demand anonymity for spin sessions that aren't remotely controversial or sensitive. (See, for instance, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post writing about Tuesday's example.)

One of the most important litmus tests, in my mind, is the number of White House aides who are authorized to speak to reporters on the record. That currently amounts to only a handful of people, pretty much all of whom see their primary goal as sticking to talking points, spinning and delivering pithy sound bites. There should be dozens of people willing and able to actually explain to reporters what's going on inside the White House.

The White House Web site's much-vaunted blog is mostly window dressing, rather than window. (With some notable exceptions, including the participation of Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and Jared Bernstein, the vice president's chief economic adviser, and the live streaming of a few select White House meetings.)

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apparently considers his role as primarily defensive and treats questions like things that need to be fended off, rather than engaged. The result has been a race to the bottom in the briefing room, where substantive queries are often a waste of time, and Gibbs instead yuks it up with the (mostly) boys in the front row. (Politico's Patrick Gavin documents the press room hilarity, as reflected by the 600 instances of laughter reflected in the transcripts of Gibbs's briefings so far -- or more than 10 per day.)

As Rainey writes in his LA Times story: "It's nothing new for an incoming administration, particularly a popular one, to be aggressive about presenting information the way it wants. But the media has an obligation not to play along."

Indeed, the media should aggressively push back. We should be demanding better answers, refusing to enable the anonymice, and constantly asking why the White House isn't living up to Obama's promise.

I realize that despite Obama's lofty words, transparency presents some powerful downsides for the White House press operation. In our modern political media culture, "controlling the message" has become the ultimate Washington goal. Indeed, the media actually reward politicians who "control the message" way more than those who are frank and forthcoming and potentially "off message."

All this said, there are still glimpses of hope in what Obama's team is doing.

As Carrie Johnson writes in today's Washington Post, Obama's memo "directed his national security adviser and senior Cabinet officials yesterday to examine whether the government keeps too much information secret.....

"Obama asked for recommendations on 'the possible restoration of the presumption against classification' that would preclude making something secret where there was 'significant doubt' about the need to do so. It also raised the possibility of a 'prohibition of reclassification of material that has been declassified and released to the public under proper authority.'

"Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, praised the move as a way to 'set the wheels in motion.'

"'This is music to the ears of many of us,' Aftergood said, 'but the hard work remains to be done -- how to translate these goals into policies.'"

Data.gov is very promising. As Kim Hart wrote in The Washington Post, "agencies will post data that can be culled by Web developers to make new Web and cellphone applications...

"Beth Noveck, deputy CTO in the Office of Science and Technology, and Vivek Kundra, chief federal information officer... have used the past four months to develop new online tools designed to allow citizens to participate in crafting new policies and have access to traditionally hard-to-find government data.

"'This whole process is premised on the notion that people are smart and they have things to share,' said Noveck, a law professor who was a technology advisor to Obama's transition team before joining the White House staff. 'It's an important step in creating opportunities for citizens to engage with the government and co-create policy.'"

But, as Hart writes: "Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, has expressed frustration with the sluggish process. She said emphasis should also be placed on making available internal records, such as policy papers and e-mails.

"'Data is important for accountability, but so is how policy was formed,' with other types of records, she said. 'But no agency has a system for managing electronic records.'"

And let's hope data.gov takes off faster than Recovery.gov, the Web site Obama promised would allow taxpayers to track stimulus money, which as Alec MacGillis wrote in The Washington Post, thus far "offers little beyond news releases, general breakdowns of spending, and acronym-laden spreadsheets and timelines."

The White House's experiments in public input have been impressive and historic -- although ghettoized and somewhat irrelevant. Obama's online town hall in March was a huge success, even though Obama's answers didn't break any new ground.

And now the online brainstorming session the White House announced last week to generate ideas for openness in government is actually pretty exciting.

The White House announced: "In a sea change from conventional practice, we are not asking for comments on an already-finished set of draft recommendations, but are seeking fresh ideas from you early in the process of creating recommendations. We will carefully consider your comments, suggestions, and proposals."

There will be three phases. In the first one -- that actually ends today, so act now -- members of the public can submit their own ideas, and vote thumbs up or thumbs down on those submitted by others. "Then on June 3rd, the most compelling ideas from the brainstorming will be fleshed out on a weblog in a discussion phase," the White House said. "On June 15th, we will invite you to use a wiki to draft recommendations in collaborative fashion."

Here are the top ideas as of now.

The top vote-getter at this hour was suggested by House Republican leader John Boehner's office, and calls for a 72-hour mandatory minimum public review period on all major spending bills brought before Congress. One problem with that, as Nancy Scola writes for the TechPresident blog, is that "Boehner's call has to do with the operation of Congress -- not something that the President, however powerful, has much control over."

But I quite like the proposal from Steven Aftergood, the anti-secrecy advocate quoted by Johnson above. "Start with the Decision to Disclose," he writes. "Openness means disclosure, followed by dissemination, which enables further interactions. But too often government agencies never make it past the first step – the decision to disclose. And so this is where reform efforts should start."

For instance, Aftergood writes: "Despite the President’s declared commitment to disclosure, not even the White House meets the standard that he has set. For example, the public cannot access Obama Administration Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs) or Policy Study Directives (PSDs) through the White House web site, even when such directives are unclassified. The problem is not that the directives are in the wrong digital format, but that they have not been officially released in any format."

A few other sample ideas: Require all Federal Government meetings that are subject to the Open Meetings Laws to be Webcast online and Make Immigration process transparent.

Me, I'd like to see every federal agency's Web site -- starting with the White House's -- run by an Internet/disclosure team, distinct from the press office and staffed primarily by people with journalism backgrounds, rather than PR. Right now, I find most government web sites being used for one-sided propaganda -- and boring propaganda at that.

As I wrote back in a November essay, It's time for a Wiki White House, the Web site should be a window into the intellectual foment of the West Wing, full of interoffice e-mails and Webcam interviews with staffers that allow the public to get a sense of what people are actually thinking and talking about over there. Public input should be solicited not about general topics, but in response to the specific questions White House aides are considering in real time. White House bloggers should be constantly answering questions from other bloggers and other members of the public.

Yes, this would involve ceding some control of the message, but it would ultimately gain the White House greater legitimacy, trust and participation. It would hugely accelerate the very kind of public engagement and collaboration -- and accountability -- that Obama ostensibly desires.

Supreme Court Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 05/28/2009

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "Republicans see little chance of blocking Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, a key GOP senator conceded Wednesday. But senators and advocacy groups are still girding for this summer's battle — partly with an eye toward raising money and perhaps preparing for Barack Obama's next nominee."

Robert Barnes writes in The Washington Post: "The White House enlisted lawyers and constitutional experts to say that in Sotomayor's 17 years on the federal bench, she has been a cautious jurist who respects precedent. But conservative legal groups countered that her remarks in speeches and symposiums bolster their claims that she is a liberal activist waiting to flower on the high court."

The New York Daily News reports: "Never ones to shy away from a fight -- even a losing one -- the Holy Trinity of the GOP -- Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh -- have taken to calling the Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor a 'racist,' with Gingrich even going so far as to ask her to withdraw."

Frank Newport writes for Gallup: "Americans' first reactions to the news of President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court are decidedly more positive than negative, with 47% rating the nomination as 'excellent' or 'good,' 20% rating it 'only fair,' and 13% rating it 'poor.'...

"Gallup conducted similar reaction polls immediately after former President George W. Bush's nominations of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court in 2005. Although in all instances, the reactions were more positive than negative, the net positive rating (the percentage excellent or good minus the percentage only fair or poor) was highest for Roberts and Sotomayor, and lowest for Alito and Miers."

Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney write in the New York Times: "In the months leading up to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s selection this week, the White House methodically labored to apply lessons from years of nomination battles to control the process and avoid the pitfalls of the past, like appearing to respond to pressure from the party’s base or allowing candidates to be chewed up by friendly fire....

"From the beginning, Mr. Obama had been focused on Judge Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge from New York, officials said Wednesday. She had a compelling life story, Ivy League credentials and a track record on the bench. She was a Latina. She was a woman. She checked 'each of the grids,' as Mr. Obama’s team later put it. And by the time the opportunity arrived, it became her nomination to lose....

"Recalling nominations that had foundered on poor research, the White House team assigned two inside lawyers to vet each candidate’s public speeches and rulings and recruited outside law firms to examine each candidate’s personal finances, taxes, medical history and ethics."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Obama seems to have made an inspired choice in picking Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. She has an impressive judicial record, a stellar academic background and a compelling life story. Judge Sotomayor would also be a trailblazing figure in the mold of Thurgood Marshall, becoming the first member of the nation’s large and growing but still under-represented Hispanic population to serve on the court."

E.J. Dionne Jr. write in his Washington Post opinion column: "In his September 2005 speech explaining his vote against [now Chief Justice John] Roberts, Obama...insisted that Roberts 'far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak' and 'seemed to have consistently sided with those who were dismissive of efforts to eradicate the remnants of racial discrimination in our political process.'

"Obama believes Roberts's subsequent behavior on the court has justified his initial suspicions. He hopes that Sotomayor will be the anti-Roberts, a person whose experience growing up in the projects of the South Bronx will allow her to see life and the quest for justice in a way Roberts never will."

Karl Rove, in his Wall Street Journal opinion column, jumps into the Empathy War with both feet: "'Empathy' is the latest code word for liberal activism, for treating the Constitution as malleable clay to be kneaded and molded in whatever form justices want. It represents an expansive view of the judiciary in which courts create policy that couldn't pass the legislative branch or, if it did, would generate voter backlash."

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 05/28/2009

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The FBI and Justice Department plan to significantly expand their role in global counter-terrorism operations, part of a U.S. policy shift that will replace a CIA-dominated system of clandestine detentions and interrogations with one built around transparent investigations and prosecutions.

"Under the 'global justice' initiative, which has been in the works for several months, FBI agents will have a central role in overseas counter-terrorism cases. They will expand their questioning of suspects and evidence-gathering to try to ensure that criminal prosecutions are an option, officials familiar with the effort said....

"The approach effectively reverses a mainstay of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, in which global counter-terrorism was treated primarily as an intelligence and military problem, not a law enforcement one. That policy led to the establishment of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; harsh interrogations; and detentions without trials....

"FBI agents for years had used non-coercive interrogations to thwart attacks, win convictions of Al Qaeda operatives and gain an encyclopedic knowledge of how the terrorist network operates. But they withdrew from questioning important suspects after the bureau opposed the tactics being used by the CIA and military -- often by inexperienced civilian contractors.

"The harsh interrogations provided such bad information that U.S. agents spent years chasing false leads around the world, former FBI agent Ali Soufan testified before Congress two weeks ago. 'It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against Al Qaeda.'"

Duncan Gardham and Paul Cruickshank write in the Telegraph: "Photographs of alleged prisoner abuse which Barack Obama is attempting to censor include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse, it has emerged....

"Detail of the content emerged from Major General Antonio Taguba, the former army officer who conducted an inquiry into the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq.

"Allegations of rape and abuse were included in his 2004 report but the fact there were photographs was never revealed. He has now confirmed their existence in an interview with the Daily Telegraph."

Taguba last year accused senior Bush administration officials of war crimes in its treatment of detainees and called for accountability.

AFP reports: "Obama's record on changing the counter-terror policies of his predecessor has been 'mixed,' said a report by international human rights watchdog Amnesty International....

"Highlighting the 'widespread expectation of change' brought by Obama's swearing-in in January following eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, Amnesty said 'early promise and initial important steps to redress violations have been followed by limited action.'"

Middle East Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:05 PM ET, 05/28/2009

Mark Landler and Isabel Kershner write in the New York Times: "The Obama administration reiterated emphatically on Wednesday that it viewed a complete freeze of construction in settlements on the West Bank as a critical step toward a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Speaking of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, 'He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.'"

Matti Friedman writes for the Associated Press: "Israel said Thursday it will press ahead with housing construction in West Bank settlements despite a surprisingly blunt U.S. demand that it stop all the building....

"The new conflict with Washington comes on the day President Barack Obama is meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. Abbas has said the Palestinian demand for freezing settlements will be at the top of his agenda in the talks."

Tony Karon reports for Time: "Abbas may be committed to the two-state solution, but his political authority over his own people is so limited that he is unable to effectively negotiate on their behalf."

Steven R. Hurst writes for the Associated Press: "The Palestinian president will be pushing President Barack Obama on Thursday to facilitate peace with Israel through a larger solution to the Middle East conflict....

"Top Palestinian officials traveling with President Mahmoud Abbas said he was working to repackage a 2002 Saudi Arabian plan that called for exchange of Arab land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war for normalized relations with Arab countries....

"Obama has appeared open to that approach, one that experts believe can be expanded and built upon given the growing fear of Iran that is shared by Israel and the Arabs.

"Arab diplomats said earlier this month that the U.S. had asked the 22-member Arab League to amend the 2002 Saudi initiative so that it would be more palatable to Israel."

Roger Cohen writes in his New York Times opinion column that in the first meeting between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, earlier this month,
Obama got played.

See my May 19 post about Obama's Stealth Middle East Peace Plan, which I'm pretty sure Obama will finally unveil at Cairo University next week.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:00 PM ET, 05/28/2009

Mark Z. Barabak and Carla Rivera write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama offered a laudatory assessment Wednesday night of his early days in office, suggesting the worst of the economic crisis has passed and Americans have regained some of their old confidence...'It's safe to say we have stepped back from the brink, that there is some calm that didn't exist before,' he told a crowd sprinkled with celebrities, including actors Jamie Foxx, Marisa Tomei and Kiefer Sutherland....The president qualified his remarks, however, so as not to seem unduly optimistic or indifferent toward the millions of Americans still struggling to get by -- many of whom lost their jobs after the economic bill passed. 'This is just the beginning,' Obama said."

Jeff Zeleny writes for the New York Times: "President Obama arrived at a back-to-back fundraising dinner and concert on Wednesday night and raised $4 million for the Democratic National Committee. He basked in the glow of his Hollywood supporters and thanked them for making his candidacy possible. 'If it weren’t for you,' Mr. Obama told a celebrity-filled crowd gathered at The Beverly Hilton, 'we would not be in the White House.'"

William Branigin writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama touted his clean energy and economic stimulus plans yesterday at an Air Force base near Las Vegas, pointing to the base's vast array of solar panels as a model for the nation as it seeks to reduce its dependence on foreign oil."

Binyamin Appelbaum and Zachary A. Goldfarb write in The Washington Post: "Senior administration officials are considering the creation of a single agency to regulate the banking industry, replacing a patchwork of agencies that failed to prevent banks from falling into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, sources said. The agency would be a key element in the administration's sweeping overhaul of financial regulation, which officials hope to unveil in coming weeks, including the creation of a new authority to police risks to the financial system as well as a new agency to protect consumers, according to three people familiar with the matter."

Philip Elliott writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama has picked a major Democratic fundraiser as ambassador to Britain, a theology professor to represent the United States at the Vatican and a former member of the 9/11 Commission to be the top U.S. diplomat in India."

Rachel L. Swarns writes in the New York Times about a "frank and down to earth" Michelle Obama: "For generations, first ladies have doled out details of their personal and family lives to humanize themselves and their husbands. But historians and political analysts say Mrs. Obama is offering a new twist by discussing the everyday realities she faces as a professional woman who is raising young children and nurturing a marriage while juggling an active schedule. In doing so, they say, she is fashioning a more intimate rapport with the public, particularly with a modern generation of working mothers, who often recognize themselves in her reflections about the struggle to balance work and family life."

Johanna Neuman reports for the Los Angeles Times on a vice presidential ad lib at the Air Force Academy commencement ceremonies yesterday: "Biden noted that heavy winds were gusting through the ceremonies. One of his two teleprompters had toppled over. Alluding to the jokes of Obama's reliance on the speech-facilitators, Biden added, 'What I am going to tell the president when I tell him his teleprompter is broken. What will he do then.'"

Cheney Warns of Obama Dangers -- Again

By Dan Froomkin
11:40 AM ET, 05/28/2009

Newly loquacious former vice president Dick Cheney was on TV again yesterday, warning grimly of the enormous dangers the country faces from President Obama's plans. The new twist: He was talking about the economy, instead of national security.

Chatting with CNBC's Larry Kudlow, (here's the transcript), Cheney echoed Kudlow's concern that Obama's budget deficits will cost the country its credit rating, and he came this close to calling the president a socialist.

Kudlow: "[S]ome conservatives say Mr. Obama is a socialist or a socialist-light, and he's running socialist type policies. Do you agree with that criticism?"

Cheney (smiling): "Well, I agree with the criticism without using the labels.....

"[W]hat we've been seeing, though, and what's been advocated by the president and what looks to be in store if he's successful is that we're seeing a vast expansion, not only the power of the federal government over the private sector, but also in terms of spending. Massive, massive amounts of new spending and presumably new taxes to pay for it that I think will do fundamental, long-term damage to the country. And I do think it's a more liberal agenda, if you will, than any in recent memory."

But Kudlow, normally a pushover interview for Cheney, actually tried to make the former vice president take some of the blame for Obama's unprecedented interference in private enterprise.

Kudlow: "But, in truth, isn't it fair to say that many of these policies, central planning policies, command and control interference policies, whether it's socialism-light or European market social kinds of policies, they really began under the Bush-Cheney administration, did they not? I mean, after all, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are under government ownership 80 percent. That began under your administration. The first General Motors loan began under your administration. And, of course, the great TARP program to allegedly prop up the banking system, which has turned out to be partly bank ownership, we don't know the last story on that.... All these things really began under your administration. At what point President Bush, I believe, said we have to--we have to stop--we have to suspend free market capitalism in order to save free market capitalism. What's your take on that? How much blame of this shift to the left do you think the Bush-Cheney administration bears?....Did you anticipate how Congress would move in to take control of the banks when you made these initial loans?

Cheney: "No, I don't believe we did. I don't recall any debate within the administration. There may have been some over at Treasury or someplace that focused on the extent of which government would try to control these institutions once they provided financing for them."

After the interview, Kudlow crowed that he had gotten Cheney to admit that he and Bush hadn't fully thought things through.

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus writes that "Cheney's speech at the American Enterprise Institute [last week] was so chockfull of faulty arguments and rank misrepresentations that it's worth taking the time to review them, in their multiple incarnations."

And Salon's Gary Kamiya is upset that Obama didn't sufficiently distance himself from Cheney in his speech that same day: "By tacitly accepting Cheney's terms -- by shamefully proposing that we detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without real trials, or by refusing to release photographs of Americans torturing people in their control -- Obama has enabled and encouraged our diffuse national cowardice....

"Obama has tried to lead America out of the shadows of the Bush years. He has projected a calm optimism, a reasoned determination, that is a breath of fresh air after the puerile, bullying bravado of George W. Bush and the dark, croaking counsel of his evil courtier Cheney. And he has said inspiring things about the importance of defending our laws, rights and traditions, even in the face of terrorist threats. But because Obama has failed to directly reject the irrational boogeymen his predecessors whipped up, and because he has continued many of their policies, he has not been able to spring us from their dank culture of fear."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:30 AM ET, 05/28/2009

Obama's Supreme Court nomination -- and the flailing Republican response -- continues to inspire the cartoonists. Here's Tom Toles on the culture war, Ann Telnaes on Karl Rove's critique, Steve Sack on the Hispanic vote, Dan Wasserman on bigotry, and Nick Anderson and Rob Rogers on empathy.

Also: Walt Handelsman on the latest addition to the Obama agenda, and Matt Wuerker on Cheneytown.

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