White House practices secrecy, not transparency

In at least one area of political life the spirit of bipartisanship is strong, and the Obama administration has picked up pretty much where the Bush team left off.

That's in the realm of information control: treating the news media like a pestilence, using secrecy rules to stem inconvenient disclosures, ducking informed scrutiny in favor of staged encounters, punishing unauthorized leaks vigorously and generally regarding publicly significant information as something officials are entitled to handle as a political resource of their very own.

The media have been slow to face up to this side of the administration. That's partly, I think, because Obama himself is such a lucid and engaging voice and partly because his campaign was so thoroughly media-enabled that it seemed saturated with the religion of accessibility and transparency.

But? The Obama record is unsettling on a number of counts.

First, high-level press relations. "Is Obama's White House tighter than Bush's?" So asks the current Columbia Journalism Review, which catalogues the vanishing press conferences -- none between July 2009 and May 2010 -- stricter rules on background briefings, reliance on new media where officials fully control their message, even elbowing press photographers aside so that the media must run handouts.

Then there's official secrecy. The Associated Press reported recently that for the year that ended in October 2009, the government responded to Freedom of Information Act requests by invoking exemptions to the law 49 percent more often than in the year before

Plainly, this administration likes its ship tight and its lips zipped. After the embarrassment over Gen. Stanley McChrystal's grousing in Rolling Stone magazine about his bosses and the Afghan war he was heading, the Pentagon ordered its top commanders worldwide to get advance approval for all interviews "or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications" -- or, as a blogger in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, put it, "damn near everything."

Is that a good idea? Is the public really ill-served when senior commanders let it be known that they have misgivings?

For that matter, is national security really at stake in the prosecution of a former senior National Security Agency official named Thomas Drake? He was indicted in April for leaking classified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter about several big NSA programs that, as The New York Times reported, "were plagued with technical flaws and cost overruns."

Surely secrecy laws aren't being applied to save face, are they?

A similar question could be asked about Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old Army specialist who gave Wikileaks, the whistleblower website, harrowing video taken from a helicopter gunship during a 2007 attack on a group of men on a Baghdad street in which at least a dozen people died, including two employees of Reuters, the international news service. Manning is in detention in Kuwait and, to be fair, he allegedly boasted of offering the website far more extensive information, some of which may be justly classified.

But this footage wasn't. The ferocity of the attack, and the impossibility of telling from the air just how serious a threat the Iraqis actually posed before they were shot to pieces, testify to the nature of the war our country brought to theirs. No less than the torture pictures from Abu Ghraib, or in its time, than the photos from the 1968 My Lai massacre, these are images that no state has a right to keep from its people.

So the governmental overreaching continues. The temptation among those in power is to view themselves as the owners of public information when they are, in fact, only its custodians, and their job is to ensure its free flow. Obama pledged to roll back some of the harsher strictures of the Bush years, and it's a promise he has yet to deliver on.

Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.