'My administration," President Obama wrote on his first day in office, "is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government." Those were strong, hopeful words. Four years later, it is becoming clear that they were just words.
This week, open-government advocates assembled in a congressional hearing room to ponder what became of the administration's lofty vows of transparency.
"It's been a really tough slog," said Anne Weismann of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "The lack of effective leadership in the White House, in the executive branch, has really made it difficult."
"In the beginning of 2010, [Obama] said he made a significant mistake by abandoning some of his pledges related to transparency," said Josh Gerstein of Politico, "and that going forward they would do things differently. Seems to me we are forward, and it seems to me we're not doing things any differently."
It was a more-in-sadness-than-in-anger critique of Obama often heard from the political left, and the Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman was apologetic. "We're placing a lot of blame at the administration," he observed. "Or blame isn't the right word - maybe responsibility."
No, blame is just fine. The administration's opacity, though typical of modern presidencies, is troubling precisely because Obama was so clear about his determination to do things differently. As recently as last year, some advocates were still hopeful, presenting Obama with an antisecrecy award. But even then, there were signs of trouble: The award presentation wasn't on his schedule, and it was closed to reporters.
By certain measures, "secrecy has actually increased," said Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "Criminalization of unauthorized disclosures of information to the press has risen sharply." A Washington Post report last summer concluded that "by some measures the government is keeping more secrets than before." Those making Freedom of Information Act requests in 2011 were less likely than in 2010 to get material from 10 of 15 Cabinet agencies. And the National Declassification Center, which Obama established in 2009, had reviewed only 14 percent of the pages it was assigned to declassify by the end of 2013.
Now the administration is maintaining silence on one of the gravest threats to transparency in years. A bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee would ban anybody but top public-relations staff at intelligence agencies from speaking to the media. Intended to crack down on leaks, it would significantly set back press freedom, thwart whistle-blowers, and squelch dissent. It's part of an effort to make it a crime for national security officials to talk to reporters.
The administration has made progress in a few areas, but they don't amount to the "unprecedented level of openness" Obama promised. And they are mostly administrative. "We haven't seen that many, if any, legislative initiatives from the White House," Weismann lamented.
Consider the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which would make it easier to track government spending by requiring agencies to report it in a uniform way online. The bill is so uncontroversial that it passed the House on a voice vote. But the Obama administration raised objections, and the law has yet to see the light of day.