In separate but equally misguided ways, Congress and the Obama administration are vying to determine which one can do the most to hinder the right to know what the government is up to. No matter who wins this dubious contest, the American public is bound to be the big loser.
The government has an obligation to protect genuine security secrets and prevent reckless disclosures. But the culture of secrecy, often based on phony claims of “national security,” is a dangerous obstacle to democracy. It severely restricts a fundamental public right. The record is replete with claims of secrecy used to conceal incompetence, embarrassing information, even unlawful behavior. (President Nixon set up the infamous “plumbers” unit after newspapers revealed the unauthorized bombing of Cambodia.)
President Obama came to office vowing to improve transparency and advocate openness. He hasn’t. As the Washington Post reported last week, by some measures there is more, not less, secrecy in Washington since he took over.
Media organizations requesting data under the Freedom of Information Act were less likely to receive material last year than in 2010 at 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level departments. The government was more likely last year than in 2010 to claim exemptions to reject disclosures.
What’s worse is the Obama administration’s war against whistle-blowers. The president’s team has set a record for prosecuting leaks to the news media, with six cases to date, more than under all previous presidents combined.
Mr. Obama’s Justice Department tried and failed to prosecute a former National Security Agency employee for the alleged leak of information about electronic eavesdropping and “data mining” that appeared to bypass Constitutional safeguards. The most recent example is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou, accused of disclosing “classified” information to journalists about the widely known practice of water boarding.
In the latest twist, Congress is getting into the act by pushing a bill that limits intelligence officials’ exchanges with reporters. In a highly charged political season, lawmakers are upset over the leaking of details of the successful raid to kill Osama bin Laden and, later, the use of a cyberspace “worm” to damage Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
The proposal, approved by a bipartisan majority of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is transparently political, and probably ineffective. First, the rules would be highly selective, applying only to intelligence agencies and not the White House. Knowing full well that Capitol Hill is a gusher of leaks, Congress also exempted itself.
Plus, it would be counterproductive: By eliminating official background briefings on sensitive topics, it would prompt reporters to seek out unofficial sources, resulting in potentially dangerous disclosures.
So far, neither the House Intelligence Committee nor the White House has expressed support for the bill, which has drawn acute criticism from advocates of government transparency. Intelligence officials have been mum, too.
Plainly, this proposal deserves to meet an early legislative death. Congress should stop trying to one-up the administration in its zeal to promote secrecy. Surely it has better things to do.
Mr. Obama, for his part, should vow to veto the bill should it ever reach his desk. Instead, he should renew his commitment to openness and transparency. His inability to live up to his promises on this front is one failure he can’t blame on Congress. He owns it, and that’s nothing to be proud of.