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The Five Commandments of Barack Obama

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Posted on Feb 28, 2014

@jbtaylor (CC BY 2.0)

By Karen J. Greenberg, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Transparency, he emphasized, “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.” Towards that end, the president made a first gesture to seal his good intentions: he released a number of previously classified documents from the Bush years on torture policy.

And there, as it happened, the sunshine ended and the shadows crept in again.  In the five years that followed, little of note occurred in the name of transparency and much, including a war against whistleblowers of every sort, was pursued in the name of secrecy. In those years, in fact, the Obama administration offered secrecy (and its spread) a remarkable embrace. The president also sent a chill through the government itself by prosecuting seven individuals who saw themselves as whistleblowers, far more than all other presidents combined. And it launched an international manhunt to capture Edward Snowden, after he turned over to various journalists secret National Security Agency files documenting its global surveillance methods. At one point, the administration even arranged to have the Bolivian president’s plane forced down over Europe on the (mistaken) assumption that Snowden was aboard.

After the drumbeat of Snowden’s revelations had been going on for months, government officials, including the president, continued to insist that the NSA’s massive, secret, warrantless surveillance techniques were crucial to American safety. (This was denied in no uncertain terms by a panel of five prominent national security experts Obama appointed to examine the secret documents and propose reforms for the NSA surveillance programs.) Spokespeople for the administration continued to insist as well that the exposure of these secret NSA policies represented harm to the nation’s security of the most primal sort. (For this claim, too, there has still been no proof.)

Before Snowden’s revelations about the gathering of the phone metadata of American citizens, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper evidently had no hesitation in lying to a congressional committee on the subject.  In their wake, he claimed that they were the “most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history.”  Certainly, they were the most embarrassing for officials like Clapper.

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By 2014, it couldn’t have been clearer that secrecy, not transparency, had become this government’s mantra (accompanied by vague claims of national security), just as in the Bush years. One clear example of this unabashed embrace of secrecy came to light last month when that presidentially appointed panel weighed in on reforming the NSA.  While constructive reforms were indeed suggested, the idea that a secret court—the FISA court—could be the final arbiter of who can legally be surveilled was not challenged. Instead, the reforms suggested and accepted by Obama were clearly aimed at strengthening the court. No one seemed to raise the question: Isn’t a secret court anathema to democracy?

Nor, of course, has secrecy been limited to the NSA.  It’s been a hallmark of the Obama years and, for instance, continues to hamper the military commissions at Guantanamo. Their hands are tied (so to speak) by the CIA’s obsessive anxieties that still-classified material might come out in court—either the outdated information al-Qaeda figures detained for more than a decade once knew or evidence of how brutally they were tortured. Perhaps the most striking example of government secrecy today, however, is the drone program.  There, the president continues to insist that the Justice Department documents offering “legal” authorization and justification for White House-ordered drone assassinations of suspects, including American citizens, remain classified, even as administration officials leak information on the program that they think will make them look justified.

On the commandment against secrecy, then, the president has decidedly and defiantly moved from a shall-not to a shall.

4. Thou Shalt Not Wage War Without Limits.

At the outset of Obama’s presidency, the administration called into question the notion of a borderless battlefield, aka the globe. He also threw into the trash heap of history the Bush administration’s term “Global War on Terror,” or GWOT as it came to be known acronymically.


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