President Barack Obama's assault on open government

The Obama administration is obsessed with secrecy — it is arguably the most secretive presidency since Richard Nixon scowled through the halls of power. The latest example: a furious crackdown on government watchdogs, the inspectors general at agencies whose job it is to keep the government honest.

It has been a stunning turnabout for Barack Obama who promised during his first inaugural address that “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

It has been anything but.

As The New York Times reported Friday, at least 20 investigations across the government have been “slowed, stymied or sometimes closed” because of disputes between the administration and its own watchdogs over how much access to give inspectors.

The signature example among many cited: an investigation last year by Justice Department inspectors into the role of federal drug agents in the killings of unarmed civilians during raids in Honduras.

The Honduran government cleared the U.S. agents of any wrongdoing, but an American inspector investigating the case was denied emails on the attacks. It took 11 months to get the records.

In another case cited by the Times, investigators tried to look into allegations of sexual assault on Peace Corps volunteers overseas. A volunteer was murdered in Benin in 2009 and dozens of volunteers have reported that the Peace Corps handled their cases poorly. The inspector general for the agency reported that lawyers for the Peace Corps refused to turn over documents or only offered heavily censored documents — a common tactic by government agencies that may have something to hide.

At the Commerce Department, the inspector general closed an internal audit of how trade agreements are enforced after department lawyers refused to turn over records they claimed were proprietary.

Republicans and Democrats alike have complained about the administration’s record, and so has the press. Journalism organizations including the Society of Professional Journalists for months pushed for greater openness on behalf of the public. In a letter sent to Obama in August, the groups wrote: “The public has a right to be alarmed by these constraints — essentially forms of censorship — that have surged at all levels of government in the past few decades.” Those groups will meet with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Dec. 15.

When such constraints are imposed, government operates in the dark with little accountability. Whatever you think of the way Obama has handled his job as president, this is unacceptable and dangerous. The administration’s actions have created, as Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, put it, “a culture of contempt for the public’s right to know.”

Just as we called on our readers to raise their voices against the pernicious assault on open government by the Wisconsin Legislature in July, all citizens should demand that Obama’s administration live up to its leader’s pledge made on that cold day in Jan. 2009.

Reprinted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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