The Transparent Obama Administration?

Published date01 January 2014
Date01 January 2014
Danielle Brian is executive director of
the Project On Government Oversight, a
nonpartisan, nonprof‌i t organization based
in Washington, D.C., that investigates
government corruption and advocates for
reforms that call for a more open, ethical,
and accountable federal government.
8 Public Administration Review • January | February 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 1, pp. 8–9. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12171.
Danielle Brian
Project On Government Oversight
Count me as one of the optimists who looked
forward to the Barack Obama presidency for
greater transparency in government. Could
you blame us when, on day one of his presidency, his
memorandum advised agencies to err on the presump-
tion of openness in releasing records?1
Good government advocates felt as if they could
f‌i nally take a deep breath after eight years of the
Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft assault on the Freedom of
Information Act and that administration’s quest to
create an all-powerful “unitary executive.
Two years into the Obama administration, some
of the glitter had already rubbed of‌f , but I held
enough hope that I joined a group of open govern-
ment advocates in the Oval Of‌f‌i ce in March 2011 to
present President Obama with what now seems like a
misguided “transparency award” (Brian 2011).
For every step the president has taken toward accom-
plishing real hope and change, he has had almost as
many epic failures.
His missteps have been doozies—the kind of Jerry
Lewis bumbling that can make you forget his accom-
plishments. Will we remember his gigantic strides in
making government data available online? (White
House 2013b). Or will we remember the massive
domestic surveillance?
For better or worse, the Senator Barack Obama who
railed against the USA PATRIOT Act transformed
into a President Obama who has an obsessive preoc-
cupation with secrecy.
President Obama’s heavy-handed prosecution of
whistleblowers through Attorney General Eric
Holder’s Department of Justice (DOJ) leaves an
indelible stain on his legacy.  e DOJ has used the
Espionage Act seven times to go after whistleblowers
who talked to the media—more than every previous
administration combined (Currier 2013)—such as the
DOJ criminal complaint against Edward Snowden,
the National Security Agency contractor who exposed
details of the massive PRISM domestic surveillance
operation. And let us not forget the administration’s
secret seizure of Associated Press phone records, typi-
fying the administration’s no-holds-barred approach
to squashing leaks (Somaiya 2013).
Its Jekyll-and-Hyde handling of whistleblowers may
be the most confounding aspect of this presidency.
On the one hand, the Obama administration signif‌i -
cantly enhanced whistleblower protections. It was
the f‌i rst administration to back the Whistleblower
Protection and Enhancement Act, which took a dec-
ade to get through Congress (U.S. Senate 2012).
President Obama’s unprecedented directive in the fall
of 2012 extended whistleblower protections to federal
workers in the intelligence and national security sec-
tors, exempting only intelligence contractors, such as
Snowden (Davidson 2013).
Yet, only months after we applauded that direc-
tive, his signing statement for the National Defense
Authorization Act objected to whistleblowers making
unclassif‌i ed disclosures to Congress, outrageously
claiming that whistleblower disclosures to Congress
“threaten to interfere with my constitutional duty to
supervise the executive branch” (White House 2013c).
Ironically, it is the Constitution that gives Congress the
mandate to provide oversight of the executive branch,
which includes Congress’s right to communicate
directly with whistleblowers (Rosenberg 2009, 55–56).
Perhaps the president’s views on congressional over-
sight and whistleblowers explain why he has left so
many agencies without permanent inspectors general.
It took him more than f‌i ve years to nominate someone
to f‌i ll the vacant State Department inspector general
position.  e same position at the Department of
Interior has been vacant for four and a half years.2
e Transparent Obama Administration?

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