With one term down and one more to go, we take a look at how well the first Obama administration did on some of the issues OTM cares about most: surveillance, transparency, whistleblowers, and press access. Brooke and Bob speak with The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, the Sunlight Foundation's Lisa Rosenberg, and ABC's White House correspondent Jake Tapper about Obama's first four years, and what they expect in the next four.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
OBAMA SUPPORTERS CHEERING: Four more years, four more years…
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Four more years. As the cheers and jeers fade, we are left with issues, issues barely mentioned in the campaign but fundamental to our democracy: freedom of information, government accountability, personal privacy. All these took a big hit during the post-9/11 Bush administration, and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald says they never recovered. He begins our review of President Obama’s record on these issues.
GLENN GREENWALD: He promised to usher in what he called the most transparent administration ever. He said that he particularly would act to protect whistleblowers. He called the act of whistleblowing a noble and courageous act. He railed against the invocation of the state secrets privilege by the Bush administration as a means of shielding their conduct from judicial review and, in general, he talked about the urgency of avoiding making critical decisions behind a wall of secrecy and, therefore, behind the realm of democratic accountability.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s go through some of these vows one by one. The state secrets privilege, this essentially enables a White House to close down a trial on the grounds that it could jeopardize national security. It’s rarely invoked.
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it was rarely invoked before the Bush administration, and the Bush administration began using it far more aggressively than any president prior to it, by far. And the Obama administration has gone even further than that. It essentially tells the court that even if we, the government, have violated someone’s constitutional rights or even acted criminally, you should refrain from examining what it is that we did.
You could imagine cases where secrecy is valid. I don’t think anyone disputes that. The classic case is when a president is planning a troop movement; it would be irresponsible to disclose it. But in general, the core principle of our democratic system is that all people are accountable to the rule of law and that transparency is necessary to assess what others are doing in our name. And so, when secrecy becomes excessive, when it moves beyond that narrow class of information, it really does start to endanger those principles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about issues of surveillance? Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was criticized for violating privacy in the name of national security. How did the Obama White House stack up in that area?
GLENN GREENWALD: You recall that when running for president in the fall of 2008, he voted in favor of a bill that essentially legalized the vast bulk of what had been the illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, eavesdropping on the telephone and the e-mail communications of American citizens on US soil who were communicating with people outside the United States. That bill that President Obama voted for legalized the vast bulk of that activity, and under that law over the last three years the amount of warrantless surveillance that the United States government does is dramatically higher than it was under the Bush era.
And this is another example: The ACLU is currently suing to have that law declared unconstitutional, and the Obama administration is invoking secrecy to tell federal courts because no one person can prove they were subjected to this policy. Because we keep the list of the people we’re eavesdropping on a secret, nobody has standing to sue and to obtain a ruling about whether it’s constitutional.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, let’s talk about the Patriot Act. What were Obama, the candidate's views on that four years ago?
GLENN GREENWALD: He wasn’t opposed to the Patriot Act but he was definitely concerned, he said, about the level of abuse that was permitted and advocated a variety of reforms. Since he’s been in office the administration has demanded renewal of the Patriot Act, with no reforms of any kind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there were certain parts of the Act that did expire.
GLENN GREENWALD: There was one part of the Act that expired that related to roving wiretaps for cell phones, and the like. The FBI has other ways of obtaining general warrants now to listen in on telephone calls, but everything else about the Patriot Act, going all the way back to 2001, when it was such a controversial policy, is still in full force.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So on the issues that we’ve discussed, I’m gonna take a wild guess here and say you’re not very happy with the performance of the Obama administration.
GLENN GREENWALD: Absolutely not, and, and we didn’t even talk about one of the worst ones, which is the incredible and unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers, prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917, more than double the number of all prior administrations combined. If you look at what was done to WikiLeaks, the way they’re trying to prosecute them, and Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower there, I think you find the Obama administration not only has failed to fulfill the promises Candidate Obama had made but in many cases in this area has gone beyond the abuses of George Bush and Dick Cheney in ways that are really quite damaging, because it’s converted them from what they were three years ago, which were highly controversial, radical right wing policies into bipartisan consensus, and that makes it much more difficult to fight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Glenn, thank you very much.
GLENN GREENWALD: My pleasure, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Glenn Greenwald is a columnist for the Guardian.
BOB GARFIELD: Lisa Rosenberg is a government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, which seeks to increase government transparency. She assesses Obama’s transparency record differently. After all, he did reset the government's priorities on freedom of information requests to favor openness. He did, after some stalling, open up the White House guest logs and he did issue the Open Government Directive.
LISA ROSENBERG: The Open Government Directive was a very important step toward greater transparency. It does require basically all agencies to put online ultimately all of their data sets, you know, as long as they don't implicate national security. It could be transportation issues, it could be health safety type issues, any kind of government statistic.
The problem, I suppose, is that the agencies were left to figure out what would go online and in what format. So, although we’ve gotten a lot of good information out of it, it's not necessarily in a form that we would like to have the information, it’s not as complete as we would like it to be.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about FOIA requests, the Freedom of Information Act requests that gives the public access to a lot of the inner workings of government. It had been made quite difficult under the Bush administration and the President, practically before the cartons were unpacked in the White House, issued a directive saying the agencies will cooperate much more. Did they?
LISA ROSENBERG: It just varies from agency to agency. For example, the EPA has an online FOIA request process. You know, the agencies have a lot of discretion. Maybe they need a little more push, a little more direction from the administration to ensure that the presumption should be for transparency, not for secrecy.
BOB GARFIELD: There was one thing that the administration did that gave us a little more insight into the lobbying process and that was the release of visitor logs at the White House.
LISA ROSENBERG: We applauded the White House for taking that step, and I think it provided us, certainly, with some interesting anecdotal evidence. The problem with the visitors’ logs is that there’s a lot of loopholes, a lot of ways to avoid transparency. The easiest is just to hold your meeting at the coffee shop across the street or hold your meeting with a lobbyist over the phone. We really would like to see the White House institute a much more comprehensive lobbyist disclosure regime to disclose who they are, who they’re lobbying on behalf of and what issues they've come to talk about.
BOB GARFIELD: Four years ago, candidate Obama made us think we were all going to need to have sunglasses, you know, for all of the sunshine that was going to illuminate his administration.
LISA ROSENBERG: You know, I don't think we really need sunglasses, maybe a visor. He certainly took steps in the right direction, especially at the beginning. Transparency is becoming a norm. Voters are demanding to know what really is going on with their government. We’ve seen a few steps in the right direction, both in Congress and in the White House, but we certainly would like to see the next four years amplify the progress that's been made so far.
BOB GARFIELD: Lisa, thank you very much.
LISA ROSENBERG: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Lisa Rosenberg is a government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation and, as a matter of full disclosure government affairs consultant means – lobbyist.
[BOTH AT ONCE]
LISA ROSENBERG: Lobbyist.
BOB GARFIELD: Jake Tapper is senior White House correspondent for ABC News. From his perspective, the President needs to press the reset button on his relations with the media, and he’s not even counting the months leading into the election.
JAKE TAPPER: You kind of have to judge his summer through Election Day press unto his own. One that I recall most is his interview conducted by a local Miami radio host by the name “the pimp with the limp.”
It was aimed at getting out the vote and getting out young people, so he talked to Sway of MTV, getting out women, so he went on The View. And so, when I complained to the White House, which I do frequently about his inaccessibility, how I can’t ask him my questions, they say 'he’s taking questions all the time.' And I say, 'yes but he’s taking questions from the pimp with the limp!' And they say 'we don’t view other media as less valid than the White House Press Corps.'
BOB GARFIELD: What’s the report card for him up until the Democratic Convention?
JAKE TAPPER: He’s the student that starts off really strong and then really starts slacking. He was somebody who gave press conferences and sat for individual interviews with White House reporters on foreign trips, and then things got worse and worse and worse. The White House, when I complain about the lack of access to the President, says, well, we just don't know that this is the best way to get out our message.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm.
JAKE TAPPER: My response is it's not only about getting out your message. If you just want to get out your message, you can give an interview to the pimp with the limp. But if you want to be held accountable by the American people, you want to show respect for the public by saying, this is me, I work for you, here I am, what are your concerns? Then you subject yourself to more press conferences. By the way, I think the fact that he had not been challenged showed up a lot in that first debate.
BOB GARFIELD: The George W. Bush administration boasted about bypassing the media filter and infamously manipulated the press on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. So, everything being relative, Obama was almost destined to be a breath of fresh air. But how, how fresh was the air?
JAKE TAPPER: When it comes to press conferences, the President was less accessible than George W. Bush. When it comes to interviews, he was more accessible than George W. Bush. And the White House is at a crossroads right now. He can now become the president he promised he would be when he ran in 2008 and open up the government and not be as aggressive prosecuting whistleblowers who leak information to the press that is not a national security threat. Or he can continue on the path he’s on, which is the traditional path of presidents who end up hating the press and sealing themselves off in the Oval Office and using every method of government at, at his disposal to manipulate and, and hide.
BOB GARFIELD: Jake Tapper is ABC News’s senior White House correspondent. His new book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” comes out Tuesday.