President Obama claims to be running “the most transparent administration in history.” Even those who knew he was exaggerating, though, must have been surprised when dozens of his own inspectors general revealed what a laughably hollow claim this is.
Earlier this month, 47 of the federal government’s 73 watchdogs filed a formal complaint about the “serious limitations” the Obama administration places on their ability to uncover waste, fraud and abuse.
It’s an unprecedented charge. “I’ve never seen a letter like this,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said. “And my folks have checked. There has never been a letter even with a dozen IGs complaining.”
IGs from the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice — among many others — say the administration is imposing such “serious limitations on access to records” that it’s creating “potentially serious challenges to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.
Time after time, the IGs request information necessary for them to do their jobs. Time after time, they’re told the information is “privileged” and, therefore, can be legally shielded, even though prior administrations haven’t made such dubious claims.
Yes, this can be a legitimate claim in certain, very limited instances. Information that could jeopardize certain matters of national security, for example, is naturally very sensitive and must be handled carefully.
However, when you’re concealing more information than you’re revealing, and doing so almost routinely, something is seriously wrong.
Take how the Peace Corps refused to provide records of reported sexual assaults to assist an investigation into how the agency handled such cases. Or the difficulty the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general had obtaining documents from the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Or many other cases that haven’t become public yet.
The IGs aren’t the only ones disturbed by the stonewalling attitude of “the most transparent administration in history.” In July, representatives of 38 journalism organizations sent a letter to President Obama, complaining about a lack of government openness.
The lead signer was David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. The letter accused the administration of “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”
The administration is always quick to dismiss any focus on the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservatives, the Benghazi attack or the Justice Department investigating reporters, as “phony scandals.” They want us to believe they’re baseless distractions.
We’re supposed to take this on faith. Why not provide the information necessary to prove their point? Why not open the files so we can see for ourselves?
“All of these stories linger because of unanswered questions and lack of meaningful information,” USA Today recently editorialized. “The administration could bring all of these matters to closure by simply releasing all available records.”
If they refuse to do so, how can they blame anyone for assuming that the information they’re hiding must be damaging and that the evidence of wrongdoing is so strong that it’s better to weather charges of hypocrisy?
Even Ralph Nader isn’t happy with the White House. “Despite lofty initial campaign promises by the Obama administration, widespread government secrecy has only worsened in recent years,” he wrote earlier this year.
Ironically, the inspectors general wouldn’t even exist if not for a 1978 law that came in the wake of the Watergate scandal — a law designed to prevent future cover-ups. As the IGs note in their letter, this law stipulates that they are entitled to “complete, unfiltered and timely access to all information and materials … without unreasonable administrative burdens.”
This isn’t a matter of politics. Government secrecy strikes at the very heart of how our system of government is designed. Transparency is essential to a free society.
Mr. Issa is planning to hold hearings about this in September. Surely, an administration victimized by nothing more than “phony scandals” has nothing to fear.
- Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation.