Debate Forum: 01/06

Forum Center: Next time, please RSVP

By Sarah Sidlow

The following letter from U.S. Congressman Michael R. Turner’s office was received by Dayton City Paper reader Mark Smith in September. It outlines the decision of the House of Representatives to pass a resolution condemning President Obama for failing to comply with the National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the president to provide advance notice before allowing the transfer or release of any person detained at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In this instance, the condemnation is in response to the president releasing five Taliban terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, without giving Congress the required 30 days notice.

The conflict between Obama and Congress highlighted in this letter raises an important question about the Obama Administration: the inaugural promise of a political office that operates under the assumption of transparency and accountability.

Debate_Center_Mike Turner letter to Mark Smith of 9-10-14 submitted via fax 9-19-14

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Has President Obama upheld his promise to lead “The most open, transparent and accountable government in history”?

Debate Left: Invisible man

By Ben Tomkins

I don’t think it’s possible to answer whether or not the Obama administration is the most transparent government in history. Furthermore, the issue of failing to notify Congress no fewer than 30 days before releasing prisoners from Gitmo is one of oversight, not transparency. Those are two totally separate things, and I don’t think there’s anything non-transparent about his actions. Finally, I’m assuming that Rep. Turner meant the Secretary of Defense must notify Congress no “fewer” than 30 days, rather than no “more” than 30 days, because the Obama administration certainly notified Congress “no more than 30 days before” the prisoner swap.

Given the fact that he screwed up the most important sentence in the entire letter, I would seriously question the wisdom of seeking his opinion about this, because it would appear that, A) He can’t read, and we probably shouldn’t be looking to him for thoughts on the matter; B) He can’t write, and we probably shouldn’t be looking to him for thoughts on the matter, and/or C) His secretary wrote this … so we probably shouldn’t be looking to him for thoughts on the matter.

That was fun.

Transparency in government means as much information as possible is made available to the public for review. The issue raised by the letter from Rep. Turner is one of oversight, not one of transparency. 

Sec. 1035 of FY 2014 NDAA requires the Obama administration to inform Congress 30 days before enacting prisoner transfers of this kind. Congress can’t actually do anything about it if they disapprove, so it’s basically a heads-up, rather than asking for permission. 

If the Obama administration were indeed lacking transparency regarding the transfer, they wouldn’t have mentioned it at all. Paperwork would have been buried, filed in an obfuscated manner, or not filed at all. Government officials would have stumbled upon it at some point down the road, and all hell would have broken loose. 

In contrast, Bush Jr.’s administration acted without transparency when it authorized the use of waterboarding. He admitted he authorized its use when asked, but never mentioned it until he was forced to because information was leaking out all over the place. In contrast, nobody in Congress caught the Obama administration doing something it should or possibly shouldn’t have before he told them. Yes, it was past the deadline. He acted without oversight, but not without transparency.

Of course, that’s just a semantics discussion and doesn’t address the larger issue of historical transparency. By definition, it is impossible to compare the relative transparencies of different administrations because transparency is only measurable by instances that have been discovered. In that light, there’s no way to tell the difference between an administration that is transparent and one that is incredibly savvy at covering their tracks.

For me, I find the question of the citizenry’s relationship to government secrecy far more interesting than an administration-specific comparison of sloppy bootprints leading down a dark hallway. 

The birth of the conspiracy theory is rooted in the paradoxical relationship between the need of a democratic society to be as informed as possible about government activities so as to make the best decision in the voting booth, and the practical reality that the best and most effective government will necessarily have to keep some information secret.

Yes. Admit it. We willfully and knowingly elect members of Congress like Rep. Michael R. Turner to judge what information is safe for us to know and what is not. If deemed necessary, Rep. Turner will lie, hide and I’m sure if necessary, cover up and destroy information that is vital to our national security, and bless him for doing so. If I found out one day he did all of those things in order to stop nuclear secrets from getting into the hands of the average citizen – citizens like Ted Nugent – I would be high-fiving him while running down the hallway of the capital building. That is a good thing, and he would be doing it because he cares about all of us and the larger good, rather than appeasing some dreadlocked douchebag Truther’s belief that he somehow has a right to be informed the second an airstrike is approved so he can smear himself with patchouli oil and splatter the Internet with opinions none of us could possibly care less about.

The downside, which I’m sure is incredibly obvious, is that we are also placing a huge amount of trust in Rep. Turner that he isn’t using that luxury to hide spending our tax dollars on lap dances and pitchers of Moscow Mules. 

That is the price we pay for a society where everyone in the country doesn’t gather near the Parthenon with stylized pebbles and toss them into a basket after a long discussion. Both possibilities have to exist, and peer oversight and a multiple-party system are the only checks and balances we have. Oversight is what leads to transparency, not the other way around. Ironically, it is the insidious and conniving nature of politics that best protects us from abuse of the secrecy we begrudgingly but willingly concede with the acknowledgement that, in the end, it’s in our own best interest not to know some things.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at
BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Debate Right: Hope and Change ends up not being so clear

By Rob Scott

Hope and Change. Hope and Change. That was all we heard and seen starting in the presidential cycle of 2008. Then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama promised a new era of government reform that was truly transparent and open for public scrutiny. The 2008 Barack Obama criticized then-President George W. Bush’s administration for the Patriot Act, White House secrets and executive orders, and lack of openness regarding interrogation tactics and other programs for the War on Terror, and generally criticized President Bush for just about everything.

Of course, it was a presidential election year and many things are said. However, Senator Obama promised more – and many of those who voted for him felt he truly was going to offer more. Even from an objective view, which many would say I cannot have regarding President Obama’s performance, I most likely would not give the president a passing grade for his open and transparent White House.

Soon after he was sworn into office, President Obama appointed an “ethics czar” named Norm Eisen, a successful attorney, who had been one of the president’s classmates at Harvard Law School and a major fundraiser to Obama’s campaign. According to the politicos in Washington D.C., Eisen was handed the White House ethics portfolio for a specific reason: He was deep in the world of Washington watchdogs and open government proponents. Also, Eisen is one of the co-founders of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Strategically, with Eisen in the Obama Administration, the administration was able to make cosmetic changes and neutralize harsh disapproval with a classic Washington maneuver – inviting potential critics to the White House for meetings. The administration understood many of these groups would be satisfied by getting meetings with the ethics czar, and would calculate that if they became too critical of the president, their newfound “access” would be in peril.

Probably the most absurd example came a couple of years ago when a group of Washington watchdogs went to the White House to give the president a “transparency” award, and President Obama refused to actually accept the award in public. Ironically, the meeting was not even listed on the President Obama’s public schedule.

The evidence points to the Obama Administration being closed off as well. In March 2010, the Associated Press found, under President Obama, 17 major agencies were 50 percent more likely to deny FOIA requests than under President George W. Bush. The following year, the presidents of two journalism societies, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists, chastised President Obama for a lack of transparency. Last September, Bloomberg News attempted to test President Obama’s open government pledge by filing FOIA requests for the 2011 travel records of top officials at 57 agencies. Only about half responded. In fact, President Obama has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Federal Espionage Act than all prior administrations combined.

The Associated Press also found the administration censored more FOIA requests on national security grounds last year than in any other year since President Obama took office.

One of the most glaring examples of Obama’s failure on transparency is his response to the Fast and Furious fiasco, the botched attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to find Mexican drug lords by tracking guns smuggled from the United States into Mexico. The debacle came to light when ATF whistleblowers met with investigators working for Sen. Chuck Grassley. Grassley sent a letter to the Department of Justice demanding answers; not realizing Grassley already had documents that laid out the operation, officials at the Justice Department responded with false and misleading information that violated federal law. When Grassley pressed the issue, the Justice Department retracted its initial response but refused to say anything more, which has resulted in multiple hearings and subpoenas. This issue is believed to be one major reason U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to step down.

Ultimately, I believe President Obama’s lack of transparency and openness is for a mixture of reasons. First, politicians say a lot of things to get elected and President Obama is definitely no different. Open government polls very well with any demographic and political persuasion. Senator Obama and President Obama knew this.

Second, the reality of the office set in. President Obama, not presidential-candidate Obama, is provided intelligence briefings and is given the awesome weight of the presidency. In other words, President Obama became president and had to walk the walk. He learned the reasons why maybe not all things can be open for the protection of the U.S.

Finally, President Obama has the ultimate obligation to keep America safe. Learning the threats and terror the U.S. faces daily, his priorities had to change into those similar to the Bush Administration.

Obviously, the Kool-Aid drinkers certainly would say he has been the most open and transparent of any president in U.S. history. Also, President Obama’s tenure has yet to end in the White House. So, maybe his track record on a sunny and open government will get better – or worse.

Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is a Kettering City Councilman, founder of the Dayton Tea Party, member of the Dayton Masonic Lodge and Kettering Rotary. He can be contacted at rob@oldhamdeitering.com or gemcitylaw.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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