In his first several months in office, Obama has embraced Bush administration justifications to keep secret key government information. Most recently, the Secret Service rejected requests from two organizations for public access to White House visitors logs. The logs document the West Wing meetings that have helped shape Obama’s policies on banking regulation, environmental policy, economic recovery and foreign affairs. The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Obama administration, seeking the release of the visits by coal company executives to the White House. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: As a candidate, Barack Obama had promised to run a more open and transparent government than his predecessor. And since becoming president, he has repeated those promises in executive orders and declarations, saying the secrecy of the Bush administration is over. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the President’s rhetoric is not being matched by policy.
In his first several months in office, Obama has embraced Bush administration justifications to keep secret key government information. Most recently, the Secret Service rejected requests from two organizations for public access to White House visitors logs. The logs document the West Wing meetings that have helped shape Obama’s policies on banking regulation, environmental policy, economic recovery and foreign affairs.
The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit yesterday against the administration, seeking the release of the visits by coal company executives to the White House. And MSNBC reported that their broader request for White House visitor logs since Obama took office has also been denied.
AMY GOODMAN: The move is part of a pattern of secrecy by the Obama administration over the past several months. President Obama initially decided to release photos of prisoner abuse but later reversed course.
Today, the Washington Post is reporting the CIA is now pushing for the Obama administration to maintain the secrecy of significant portions of an internal account of the agency’s interrogation program that describe in graphic detail how the CIA handled its prisoners.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is debating whether to ignore an earlier promise to make public an investigation into a US air strike last month in Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians.
For more, we’re joined by Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com. He joins us via Democracy Now! video stream from Brazil.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
, Glenn. Talk about President Obama and secrecy. Go through these issues one by one.
GLENN GREENWALD: I think the first thing to note is that the pledge to end the Bush-era secrecy fetish and to bring transparency was not an ancillary promise of the Obama campaign; it was really central to everything that he said he was going to do, because secrecy was really the linchpin of all of the abuses of the Bush administration.
And yet, beginning in, and almost immediately, which was in February, in early February, when the Obama administration went into a federal court in a case brought by five victims of the torture and rendition program against a subsidiary of Boeing, which shipped them around the world, the Obama administration went into court and said, in response to questions from the judge, that it was going to adopt exactly the same Bush administration position on the state secrets privilege, which was really the primary tool the Bush administration used to shield its activities from any kind of disclosure or even judicial review for illegality. It shocked the judges on the appeals panel they didn’t even try to hide it, and civil libertarians, as well.
Beginning with that point, it became clear that with regard to virtually every single secrecy power that the Bush administration, to such great controversy, used, the Obama administration was going to replicate. It then asserted the same secrecy theories in cases challenging the legality of warrantless eavesdropping, of cases brought against Bush officials for illegal spying.
As you indicated, in the case of the torture photos, which two separate federal courts had said that FOIA, the forty-year-old transparency law, Freedom of Information Act, requires be disclosed, Obama first said that he would try to repeal that to the Supreme Court on the grounds that anything that looks — makes the United States look bad jeopardizes our national security. And then, once he realized he would probably lose in court, he actually got behind an amendment by Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman to exempt the President and the Pentagon from the requirements of FOIA when it comes to all photographs dealing with detainee abuse.
And as you indicated, even — in the introduction, even domestically, they’re now starting to assert these broad secrecy theories, as well, with regard to things like — there are numerous coal plants that are leaking hazardous waste, and the Obama administration refused to say where they’re located.
And they now even refuse to give access to visitor logs, when, of course, one of the main controversies of the Bush-Cheney administration early on, pre-9/11, was Dick Cheney’s refusal to disclose with whom he was meeting while formulating energy policy. And Obama, the candidate, vehemently criticized that secrecy policy, and yet now is replicating it, as well. So it’s really transformed from isolated disturbing incidents into a clear pattern of obsessive secrecy.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Glenn, specifically on those visits, in 2006 Obama, while on the campaign trail, criticized Dick Cheney’s secret energy meetings, and he said, quote, “When big oil companies are invited into the White House for secret energy meetings, it’s no wonder they end up with billions in tax breaks.” But on his first full day in office, the President issued these orders to agencies of the government that there had to be more transparency when it came to the Freedom of Information Act. And he said that all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in the Freedom of Information Act. So, is this turnabout, especially with White House visitors now, astonishing to you?
GLENN GREENWALD: I think the reason why it’s sort of surprising is because, as I said, it was really — everybody remembers the controversy over what Dick Cheney did, in terms of asserting that nobody — it was nobody’s business with whom he met in the White House. And, in fact, that was litigated by transparency and open government groups all the way to the Supreme Court. It was probably the first really intense controversy prior to 9/11 that signaled what the Bush administration really was going to be about.
And you can look at some of the other examples that I just alluded to, where there’s clear tension between what Obama said he was going to do as a candidate and what he ultimately is ending up doing as president, but in the case of the visitor logs, you can go back and look at statements — and you just identified one of them; there are several — where he very directly criticized the Bush administration position that these visitor logs are presidential records and therefore not subject to disclosure and transparency laws. Two courts have already rejected that theory. And so, he’s not only in tension with the principles that he enunciated as a candidate, he’s betraying a very specific position that he took while as a candidate, and I think that’s the reason why it’s so surprising.
And on top of that, most of these other issues at least involve a pretense about national security. This is purely about protecting the White House and its officials politically by preventing the public from knowing with whom they’re meeting when formulating domestic policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, today’s Washington Post report that the CIA is now pushing the Obama administration to maintain secrecy, and significant portions of an internal account on the agency’s interrogation program that describe in graphic detail how the CIA dealt with prisoners, and also the Pentagon debating whether to release this public — this investigation it did into the US air strike in Afghanistan.
GLENN GREENWALD: This is, I think, one of the most overlooked points with regard to the controversy that erupted over Obama’s reversal on his own position about whether to release the torture photos. A lot of the debate focused on whether the photos themselves would really bring about much value, whether they would be excessively inflammatory.
But the point a lot of us were attempting to make was that the rationale that was being invoked was so dangerous, because it was certain to spread, by necessity, by logical necessity, to so many other areas. And Obama’s argument was, we can’t release these photos, because the photos will make the United States government look so bad that it will inflame anti-American passions around the world and risk an increase of attacks on our cities by terrorism, and on our troops, especially, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, if you take that principle to its logical conclusion, what it means is that any time the United States government does something bad or wrong, this theory would justify suppressing any information that would shed light on what the government did, out of fear that if it’s disclosed, it would increase anti-American sentiment.
And I, in fact, wrote several posts, not really suggesting it seriously, but really just trying to highlight the danger of this mentality, in which I wrote, "Doesn’t this mean that if the United States does a bombing campaign in Afghanistan and slaughters civilians, as has happened many times in the past, that we ought to — anyone who’s justifying suppression of the photo should also argue that we should suppress evidence of what it is we did in Afghanistan in killing civilians and even lie about it, as we’ve done many times before?"
And amazingly enough, you know, this week the Obama administration took exactly that position. It said that it is now — it obviously leaked to McClatchy that a report over one of these disputed bombing raids that clearly killed civilians, a report they had previously promised to release, along with video showing that we didn’t check to see if there were civilians inside buildings before blowing it up, that it’s almost entirely likely that it will now be suppressed based upon the same reasoning, that if it’s released, it will inflame tensions.
And then there’s this CIA inspector general’s report that clearly outlines the fact that the torture we were using was devastating the psychological and even physical state of these detainees and not producing much useful information at all, producing much false information. And based on the same line of thinking, that these things are too secret to release because this involves the dirty work that we did as a country and as a government, that this, too, ought to be suppressed.
And so, you see the creep of this very disturbing rationale used to justify the photo suppression now seeping into all sorts of other areas. And the only outcome possible is that the Obama administration will take the view, as the Bush administration did, that whatever it does in a classified environment, no matter how wrong or corrupt or illegal, ought to be suppressed and simply exploit claims of national security in order to justify it.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for being with us, a political blogger at Salon.com, constitutional lawyer, author of three books, his latest, Great America Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.