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the presidency

Under Obama, the Most Secretive Government Yet

Except when it gets in the way of re-election

The uproar over the leaks confirming the Stuxnet worm, computer malware called “Flame” and the President’s “kill list” (preceded by the WikiLeaks outpouring of State Department traffic in 2010) has given us the metaphor of the Obama government as a giant sieve. But the opposite is true. It is the most secret government in American history.

That characterization has now intensified. Out to get those who brought these reports to the American public, the Obama administration has turned loose the FBI, which The New York Times reports, is combing through the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, the CIA and the White House itself in what it calls "the most sweeping inquiries into intelligence disclosures in years". The result has chilled the willingness of people at various agencies to meet with the press, blocking still further the public's knowledge of what our government is up to.

Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency denouncing the secret prisons and torture policies of his predecessor, and immediately upon taking office issued a memorandum to all departments and agencies stressing that “a democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency”. Instead, he quickly continued the covert practices of the Bush years. He may have banned torture and ordered the CIA to shut down its black sites, but he shied from his promise to close Guantanamo and left in place the CIA’s practice of secret rendition — the transfer without trial of abducted persons to other countries (viz. Leon Panetta saying, “If we render someone, it will be to a country with jurisdiction over that individual”).

Rendition begets the question of whether torture may simply have been transferred elsewhere for deniability’s sake, else why render? The administration asks for assurances from the destination country promising that a detainee will not be tortured, but the practice is entirely secret. It is significant that, according to ProPublica, “the Obama White House has invoked the states secrets privilege to block evidence that could reveal details about past renditions under Bush”. If it is hiding the malefactions of the Bush years, why should we assume the Obama administration is being truthful about its own?

Generally, under Obama, the lid of secrecy is clamped down ever more tightly. Despite the President in 2009 promoting declassification across the executive branch, some 77 million documents were stamped classified in 2010, a staggering 40% increase over the previous year. That count was hard for us to come by, as is the count of all government classified documents, because that number is — well, of course — classified.

That is the inevitable result of approximately 4.2 million Americans holding security clearances, each with some degree of authority to decide what should be made secret, and all of them, probably fearful of getting it wrong, operating under the caveat of when in doubt, classify. In 2005, the 9/11 Commission had access to thousands of classified documents. Co-chair Thomas Kean came away saying three quarters of the information they had seen should not have been classified in the first place.

Of the 4.2 million — a tally as of October 2010 compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to a Congressional request — some 1 million have top secret clearance. Belief that this many people can be relied on to keep secrets makes obvious the absurdity of the classification system as well as any outrage over leaks. Leaks are guaranteed by such a bloated system.

But the result of everything being secret is filled with contradictions. We are not supposed to know about drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, would you believe. That CIA program is one of the government’s most protected “secrets”, although we hear of it constantly, even to the degree of a national debate about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen in Yemen who advocated jihad. In an eerie echo of the memo in which John Yoo contrived justifications for torture when he was in the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, that same office produced a legal opinion that sanitized the al-Awlaki assassination. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Obama Justice Department for a copy, so far without success.

In court, the administration will not confirm or deny the existence of the program of “targeted killing” by drones. At least there is some comedy in secrecy. Is the administration worried that al Qaeda might find out that they are in the crosshairs?

So it is somewhat comic that Congress was in an uproar over leaks when New York Times correspondent David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal”, revealed the “kill list”. It wasn’t so much a leak as the vault door left wide open. If you think of a leak as the lone figure of “Deep Throat” meeting in a parking garage to spill secrets about Nixon’s Watergate, how do you square categorizing Sanger's reporting as “leaks” when he tells us he had interviewed “three dozen of [Obama’s] current and former advisers” over a period — as he separately said in a radio interview — of 18 months. Three dozen people who thought nothing of leaking to a reporter?

Democrats have to overcome a dovish reputation, which is why Obama is suspected of selective leaking to burnish his portrait on campaign posters as decisive and ruthless when it comes to combating terrorists. Thus we are inclined to assume that Sanger had license to tell all, and we are given the ghoulish picture of no less than the President of the United States acting as judge, jury and chief executioner, sitting in the Oval Office thumbing through baseball cards to decide whom to assassinate next.

This is of a piece with Maureen Dowd reporting in her column last August that moviemakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had been given high-level access to the most top-secret mission in history for a film about the killing of bin Laden, to be released — my, what coincidental timing — on October 12th of this year. This will no doubt still further reveal the methodology of the SEALs commando tactics for the benefit of our enemies worldwide (more here), but in this case, secrecy be damned: the President’s priorities are to be re-elected. As Dowd wrote, this “from an administration that has tried to throw more people in jail for leaking classified information than the Bush administration”. Actually, to correct Ms Dowd, trying to throw in jail twice the number than by all prior presidents in history combined as we’ve already documented.

So while the suspicion is rampant that the President served up classified material that stood to benefit him politically, there in prison sits the example of what happens to the rest of us: Pfc. Bradley Manning. Most of the material Manning was accused of releasing to WikiLeaks was an enormous stash of military and diplomatic traffic (the latter having the ironic and salutary effect of revealing that our diplomats are impressively savvy and of putting other countries on notice that we've got their number). But what probably “embarrassed” the government most was exposure of the suppressed cockpit film of a strike by helicopter “Crazyhorse 1/8” over Baghdad in 2007 that killed eight men on the ground thought to be militants, except two were reporters from Reuters. That and another film of what is referred to as the "Granai massacre" — a 2009 airstrike that killed variously 86 to 145 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children. A Reuters Freedom of Information request in 2007 for footage of the killing of their own people was denied. This is just what a secret government never wants us to know.

And this accountability and transparency is what a disaffected Bradley Manning apparently sought to correct. Whatever your view of him — traitor or hero — note that, even though not proven guilty, he was placed in solitary confinement for almost a year, a form of detention that can result in insanity, and which caused 295 academics — among them prominent American legal scholars — to sign a letter arguing that the detention conditions violated the United States Constitution. He was transferred to a medium-security jail at Fort Leavenworth.

And as this is being written comes notice that he has been barred from citing evidence at his trial intended to make his case that no serious harm was done to the United States by the release of the government documents.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com asked why the government would subject Manning to such barbaric and punishing treatment before the young private was even tried. His belief is that this is the method of the secret state. Like throwing people into Guantanamo, stripping them of habeas corpus rights and access to trial, it tells the rest of us, we should think twice before challenging what the government does, or this is what will happen to us.

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