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February 15, 2013 10:00 AM Obama’s Unconvincing Bromides on Transparency

By Rhiannon M. Kirkland

The last week or so has been quite revealing about Obama’s drone policy. First, there was the leak of a white paper obtained by NBC. Then Obama agreed to release Department of Justice memos to Congressional committees. The secrecy of these legal documents has resulted in strong criticism and calls for transparency. At the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, who was nominated to run the CIA, several questions were asked about the drone policy—as Brennan has played a central role is shaping the drone policy in his first-term role as Deputy National Security Advisor.

One of the most contentious parts of Obama’s drone policy is the secrecy that surrounds it. During the 2008 election campaign Obama made big promises about transparency and ethics in government. A post on the White House website reads:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.

The Obama administration saw fit to release documents related to CIA torture during the Bush administration. On February 6, 2013 Jon Stewart pointed out the contradiction in this policy:


The drone policy is one of Obama’s most controversial , in part because of what it entails but also because of the way it has been approached. If he is prepared to kill American citizens abroad he should be prepared to defend that decision, and to hear what lawmakers and citizens think of that decision. It should happen now not in four or ten years once Obama is comfortably out of office.

Obama has apparently forgotten these promises. The administration’s drone policy is the opposite of transparent government. The white paper is only available because it was leaked and the memos are only now being released to lawmakers , something that should have happened at the outset if the Obama administration was to attempt to live up to its commitment to participation and transparency.

Obama seems to have realized that this policy is not terribly popular and runs contrary to his previous positions. In Monday’s State of the Union address he said:

Where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.
As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

This is all good in theory, however, Obama’s claim that Congress has been kept appraised of all efforts is clearly untrue given that they were only just given the memos. He also didn’t use the word drone at any point in the speech instead he went with “through a range of capabilities.” It is one thing for Obama to say that greater transparency is needed and another for him to actually carry it out.

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Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.