After Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, I was heartened to see him issue an Open Government Initiative on his first full day in office. "I firmly believe what Justice Louis Brandeis once said, that sunlight is the best disinfectant," Obama said, "and I know that restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results, but also to earn back the trust in government without which we cannot deliver changes the American people sent us here to make." After eight years of Bush and Cheney's secretive and deceitful ways, that sounded like a welcome relief. Obama ordered all federal agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor" of FOIA requests and so laid the groundwork to eventually release reams of previously-withheld government information on the Internet.
Well, so far it hasn't turned out the way Obama sketched it out. An audit released in March 2010 by the non-profit National Security Archive found that less than one-third of 90 federal agencies that process FOIA requests had changed their practices in any significant way. A few departments – Agriculture, Justice, Office of Management and Budget, and the Small Business Administration – got high marks for progress. But the State Department, Treasury, Transportation, and NASA had fulfilled fewer requests and denied more in the same time period. "Most agencies had yet to walk the walk," said the Archive's director Tom Blanton.
Things went downhill from there. In June 2010, the New York Times carried a Page One story detailing how Obama's administration was even more aggressive than Bush's in looking to punish people who leaked information to the media. In the course of his first 17 months as president, Obama had already surpassed every previous president in going after prosecutions of leakers. Thomas A. Drake, a National Security Agency employee who'd gone to the Baltimore Sun as a last resort because he knew that government eavesdroppers were squandering hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on failed programs, is today facing years in prison on ten felony charges including mishandling of classified information. An FBI translator received a 20-month sentence for turning over some classified documents to a blogger. And the Pentagon arrested Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, who for openers had passed along to WikiLeaks the shocking video footage of a U.S. military chopper gunning down Baghdad civilians.
Then, in September 2010, the Obama Justice Department cited the so-called "state secrets doctrine" in successfully getting a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit on "extraordinary rendition" (a phrase that really means we send suspected terrorists to other countries to get held and tortured). In fact, Attorney General Eric Holder was hell-bent on upholding the Bush administration's claims in two major cases involving illegal detention and torture. Also in September, the Pentagon spent $47,300 of taxpayer dollars to buy up and destroy all 10,000 copies of the first printing of Operation Dark Heart, a memoir about Afghanistan by ex-Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer Anthony A. Shaffer. We first interviewed Lt. Colonel Shaffer for American Conspiracies, because his outfit (Able Danger) had identified Mohammed Atta as a terrorist threat long before he became the supposed lead hijacker on 9/11.