Cumberland Times-News

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June 16, 2013

U.S. government both open and closed at same time

Former Vice President Cheney predicted Obama’s criticism wouldn’t mean much

WASHINGTON — It’s as if the United States has two governments, one open and one very much not. President Barack Obama leads both, trying not to butt heads with himself.

Since becoming president, Obama has churned out a stream of directives flowing from his promise to deliver “the most transparent administration in history.”

He established a center devoted to declassifying records and making them public. He announced an open government initiative. Large quantities of information poured into public databases. New ways were devised to show taxpayers how their money is spent. Allegiance was pledged to the rule of law.

Then there’s the other government.

It prosecutes leakers like no administration before it. It exercises state-secrets privileges to quash court cases against it. It hides a vast array of directives and legal opinions underpinning government actions — not just intelligence and not all of it about national security.

Now it’s known to conduct sweeping phone-records and Internet surveillance of ordinary people in programs kept on the lowdown until an employee of a National Security Agency contractor revealed them.

Dick Cheney said this would happen.

As George W. Bush’s vice president, Cheney predicted at the dawn of Obama’s presidency that the relentless campaign criticism of shadowed government would not come to much.

“My guess is, once they get here and they’re faced with the same problems we deal with every day, that they will appreciate some of the things we’ve put in place,” he said. “They’ll need all the authority they can muster.”

The empire of secrets lives on. Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says the U.S. has both the most open government in the world and arguably the most closed. Daily it publishes an unmatched avalanche of information. But daily its national security secrets also grow by staggering amounts.

Early on, there were signs Obama would not upend the fundamental balance of this parallel universe despite his pledges to take the government in a new, open direction.

Glasnost on the Potomac would have to wait.

One sign: Obama’s 2009 marching orders for classifying documents closely resembled those of his predecessors at least back to Ronald Reagan.

Also, a 2011 review of the Obama administration’s handling of public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act noted the many positive words from the president and his people about striving for a culture of disclosure. This included an executive order on his first day in office. But the review came to this jarring conclusion when actions were measured against words: “Most indicators of openness have not even returned to the average for the Bush years, a period known for secrecy.” The report was by OMB Watch, now called the Center for Effective Government.

On the bright side, Aftergood says, the government puts more and better information online than ever before. But at the core, “Classification activity is very high. Secrecy has become an obstacle in many areas of public policy. And we still are living with a classification system that is a legacy of the Cold War era.”

If President Dwight Eisenhower were around today, he says, “he would have no trouble understanding how the classification system works. He would feel quite at home. The rest of us feel like we’re living in a ‘Flintstones’ episode.”

The secret side of government has many pillars, some fashioned with a compliant Congress, others raised from within.

In the suddenly unfolding debate over secrecy in government, it takes a spreadsheet to know who stands where. The normal partisan divide that cleaves almost everything else in Washington is no guide. Obama at times seems to be on both sides at once.

In one corner, there’s Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, tag-teaming with Republican John Boehner of Ohio, the House speaker. Both are steaming over the actions of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked the surveillance programs. “Treason,” said Feinstein. “Traitor,” said Boehner. National security hawks in both parties agree.

In the other corner, an unusual collection of liberals, civil libertarians and conservatives suspicious of government’s reach is aligned against Big Brother. The American Civil Liberties Union, tea party favorites and dyed-in-the-wool progressives are these odd bedfellows.

“It’s my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state,” said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Some other Democrats, too, are proving hostile to the administration on this. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado have dogged the administration to back off what they see as an assault on civil liberties and challenged its claims that the telephone and email monitoring programs helped stop specific acts of terrorism.

The debate places them and some other congressional critics in an awkward spot.

Intelligence committee members are briefed on certain national security secrets but not allowed to talk about them. That has left Udall, for one, champing at the bit. He told The Denver Post he was well aware of the monitoring programs that shocked lawmakers who hadn’t been clued in and did “everything short of leaking classified information” to bring it to light.

As a candidate, Obama criticized Bush for putting forward a ‘false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” Now he says, “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” and, “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

The government is awash in “sensitive but unclassified” material, information that doesn’t meet the standard for national security classification but is touchy enough to warrant some level of protection. Each agency has had its own system and the result, of course, has been a mess: several hundred unique classifications or labels that sound official, mean little and confuse everything.

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