Transparency in the age of Obama

Barack Obama largely ran on the platform of transparency, but such views have been left behind on the campaign trail.

Signing the healthcare reform bill clearly was reason to smile for Democrats, as it will most likely prove to be a significant boon for some of their campaign donors [Getty]

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.

 Taken from the White House Website – A message from President Obama to his staff.

From the outset of Barack Obama’s political career, up until his presidential election victory, a large part of his political platform was the concept of transparency in government. As a legal scholar of Constitutional Law, having taught the subject at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School, his promotion of political decision making transparency, at the time, seemed to be more substance than rhetoric.

The political chattering classes were championing his credentials; many talking heads on the ‘liberal left’ were predicting the closure of Guantanamo, amendments to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 removing the suspension of habeas corpus, thorough Congressional investigations into warrantless wiretapping etc etc. The ‘wish list’ was endless, the previous president had spent the majority of his time in office eroding our Constitutional rights and civil liberties at home and tarnishing our image abroad – all sandwiched between his primary pursuit in office: family holidays at Kennebunkport.

Obama was going to be different, he planned to send Mr Lobbyist out of Washington, government was going to be clean, efficient and focused on the public good. He knew exactly the dirty secrets of government, an Obama ’08 document entitled Restoring Trust and improving Transparency states “Oil and gas executives met with Vice President Cheney to write our energy laws, with the goal of increasing their profits and saddling the public with their environmental and public health costs; Cheney went to the Supreme Court to keep the names of these lobbyists secret.” The gig was up for backdoor deals and the time of what Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig calls ‘institutionalised corruption’, was over. A new sheriff was coming to town.

Healthcare: A New Hope

So in January 2009, the nation turned to ‘the great hope’, Barack Obama, a man so familiar with the US Constitution one could imagine him being able to recite it backwards. As it turns out, it seems he interprets it backwards as well.

The first major event on the political calendar was healthcare reform, Democrats (and the tens of millions without healthcare insurance) were hoping to succeed where the Clintons had previously failed. Progressives were optimistically exuding large swathes of hope, dreaming of a public option. The Beltway political landscape was about to undergo a facelift, with the healthcare insurance lobby – one of the biggest ‘cartels’ in town – about to receive a swift boot to the unmentionables, better yet we were all going to see it live on national TV – Obama promised at least eight times that a debate on the healthcare issue would be televised.

We got screwed. We did get a televised debate, several Democrats went up against several Republicans spewing their respective talking points – no doubt written by political consultants and not by people in medical/public health field – an event watched by the 8 or 9 people constantly tuned into C-Span and the three others streaming it from the White House website. Don’t worry if you missed the healthcare discussion, your in the company of the elected officials who allegedly took part in it.

The real debate took place behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, with a strict guest list including insurance executives and none other than the lobbyists who were supposedly being ushered out of town and back to Dodge.

Worst still, healthcare reform had miraculously overnight transformed into healthcare insurance reform, somehow the healthcare insurance industry had snagged the deal of the century, Obama had agreed to a policy that included a provision that every American had to buy healthcare insurance!

Talk of a public option, had been locked in a box, left in Dennis Kucinich’s office on Capitol Hill – with the keys somewhere at the bottom of the Potomac – placed there to taunt him for the rest of his political life. I don’t remember having the opportunity to tune into my local affiliate of the “I’m liberal, really I am” channel to watch that discussion, were those meetings available for view in your market?

Shining a light on the dark side

Okay, so Obama dropped the ball on healthcare, lobbyists are extremely well entrenched in Washington DC, maybe he was softening them up for the knockout punch some time down the line… or not. So turning once again to Obama’s transparency platform, from the aforementioned campaign document – a rich source of political perfidy: “It is no coincidence that the disastrous policies of the Bush-Cheney years have been accompanied by unprecedented secrecy…

In ‘his’ literary masterpiece Decision Points, George Bush, no doubt through the auspices of a ghostwriter, transparently admits, (enthusiastically to the point of being overzealous) that he ordered the use of waterboarding, an act that clearly falls under the traditional definition of torture. We, the US, openly admits to torturing individuals, what little moral capital the US once held, has disintegrated faster than that of Tiger Woods.

Many of us knew years ago that waterboarding (along with other inhumane practises) was being used on (mostly) illegally detained individuals in prisons that remain open and active under the Obama regime. Is the Obama regime prosecuting or even investigating these crimes that have been openly admitted to by the instigators like Berkeley Law professor John Yoo and the torturers? Heck no! Obama has famously said that we need to “look forward, not backward.”

Next time I get pulled over for speeding, I hope the police officer has the moral vision of our president and accepts my pleas of ‘I won’t do that again, I promise’. I mean if it works for mass torture, surely… humour aside, the entire corruption of the interpretation of Constitutional Law in regards to Gitmo/’terror’ detainees has not only led to a substantial reduction in the civil rights of most Americans; but also made it legally impossible to lawfully prosecute those who were genuinely out to cause harm. The case is building against teachers of Constitutional Law, it seems such a career is the best preparation for a life of subverting the Constitution.

Robot Santa

Not only is Obama against rescinding the scope of presidential executive orders – extended via the various post 9/11 security Act amendments collectively referred to as the Patriot Act – he has added a few extras, one being what I like to refer to as his “Presidential Execution Program” (PEP), PEP talks in the Oval Office have a distinctly different outcome, to pep talks in the locker room.

Obama has bestowed upon himself, the decision of which ‘suspected’ “evil doer” (we might as well use Bush rhetoric, since we are still very much beholden to his policies) gets to live or die. Very much reminiscent of the demented Robot Santa from Futurama, Obama maintains a list of ‘naughty’ individuals whose fate will undoubtedly involve a drone, some hellfires and ironically, little hope…

According to attorney, Maria LaHood, of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who represents the father of the only person we know for sure that is on the list, Anwar al Awlaki, the list is not only secretive, but a Federal Court recently barred any discussion of releasing even the standards for what puts one on Obama’s hit list. Who knows, Anwar al Awlaki may be guilty of some treasonable offense, but where in the name of our legal system does a mere president of the USA get to decide without due process in a court of law who must die?

I can’t even begin to fathom the lack of moral outrage in this country against the PEP – no matter where any of us are on the political spectrum, such an affront to morality and legal procedure should be met with the most extreme rejection and hostility. Yet, I doubt if a majority of Americans even know that such a program exists.

Corporate welfare, public despair

Another flagrant violation of transparency began last April when the biggest environmental disaster in US history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico after an oil rig leased by BP blew up due to lax maintenance and weak governmental regulations favouring oil companies. A recent report from a study done on this catastrophe boldly states that the Obama administration engaged in a concerted cover up to underestimate the amount of oil released and the impact it had on the environment, humans and animal life.

The lingering affects of the oil mixed in with the dispersant, Corexit, are combining to give the residents of that region horrible health complications. Also, according to the above-mentioned report, the oil was only dispersed, not disappeared, and could be in the fragile ecosystem for decades before it fully goes away! The cover up of a disaster of this magnitude should be fodder for prosecution and removal from office of everyone involved – but while Ken Feinberg’s Law firm pockets $850,000 per MONTH to administer the $20 bn BP victims’ fund, the people suffer economically and physically with very limited accountability, if any.

On his first day in office, Obama did restore the Freedom of Information Act, but, according to the Los Angeles Times, 14 months after the beginning of this era of “transparency,” the Obama regime had denied more FOIA requests than that of Bush! Of course, the recent War on Transparency waged by the Obama administration has to be the current persecution of the WikiLeaks organization and one of its founders, Julian Assange. Even vice president of the USA, Joe Biden recently said that the disclosures provided no “substantive damage,” even though there was some embarrassment to the ‘Empire’.

If, as Biden says, the WikiLeaks disclosures don’t do substantive damage to the Empire (if they did, there’s always the thousands of nukes we have to back us up), then why the persecution of Assange and the threat of severely limiting everyone’s free and unfettered access to the internet? In the same week the latest document dump happened, the US government closed down 70 websites, just to show us that it could, and now the United Nations is discussing a global governmental committee to regulate the world-wide-web!

The hidden truth

Transparency should, but doesn’t begin at the top of the power pyramid. The increasing surveillance and persecution of peace and social justice activists coupled with the escalating use of full body scanners in US airports tells me that the only ‘transparency’ Obama wanted was for our clothes and our lives, not his administration.

What is the moral of the series of articles on Barack Obama? Do I believe that Obama is “evil incarnate?” No, but I believe the system that he is at the same time an advocate for, and tool of, is becoming increasingly evil, misguided and out of control with its wars abroad and oppressions at home.

Whether Obama came into Office with a naive agenda of liberating the US Public from the hold of the Lobbying Industry, or if he played the Left like Yo-Yo Ma plays the Cello, doesn’t really matter. What matters is we are essentially experiencing the third term of G W Bush minus a few wins on the domestic front for the centre left – albeit wins by the two branches of Government Obama doesn’t reside in. The status quo has had us gripped for over a decade now, it’s time for a change.

Cindy Sheehan is the mother of Specialist Casey A. Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004. Since then, she has been an activist for peace and human rights. She has published five books, has her own Internet radio show, Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox. Cindy lives in Oakland, CA, and loves to spend time with her three grand-babies. You can learn more about Cindy at Peace of the Action.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.