30 November 2015

Obama's opaque administration makes it harder to cover climate change

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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Visiting Malaysia in November, Obama said he would raise concerns about government transparency and press freedom in his meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in a financial scandal. At a town hall meeting, Obama spoke up for the press being “able to report on what is happening in current affairs,” and for “transparency and accountability.” Back home, though, Obama isn’t practicing what he preaches.

Instead, the White House has spent seven years creating what one government public information officer recently described as “a highly message-controlled environment,” one in which there is actually less transparency than under previous administrations. Within many federal agencies, it’s harder than ever for journalists to get documents, interviews with government experts, and answers to questions about controversial topics. Restraints on the press include“minders” who sit in on interviews with officials and scientists (if they allow them at all); requirements to submit questions in writing; responses that too often take the form of talking points or general information rather than relevant answers; and delays that prevent reporters from getting information or interviews in time to meet deadlines.

These restraints make it especially difficult for journalists to cover complex issues such as climate change, which Obama has described as the greatest threat to national security, and nuclear weapons, which he pledged early in his term to work to reduce. This difficulty, in turn, makes it hard for citizens to stay informed about these issues. With only one year to go, the Obama administration seems to be running out the clock, not just on thousands of individual requests for information, but also on the opportunity to reform and codify media policies across federal agencies.

Lip service.Obama has repeatedly declared that he is committed to transparency and open government. On his first full day in office, he revoked an order that would have tightened access to presidential records, and issued two presidential memoranda to the heads of all executive departments and federal agencies: One memo pledged “an unprecedented level of openness” and called for an action plan to make the federal government more transparent. The second instructed all agency heads to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Unfortunately, as with so many aspects of the Obama presidency, powerful rhetoric has not led to corresponding policy changes.

Here’s a recent example of how the Obama administration implements “transparency,” from a November 6 press teleconference held just after the announcement that the State Department was rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which would have allowed a Canadian company to pump tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico: The moderator (who is not identified in the transcript of the briefing) begins by announcing that the call is “on background,” which signals to reporters that they can use the information but cannot identify any speakers. The moderator then introduces the speakers, but they are never referred to by name again, and their names are scrubbed from the transcript:

[Moderator]: The purpose of this call is just to give you a bit more background on the determination itself but also the process behind it. So just to go through the ground rules very quickly, this is a call on background, but I will, for your information, give you the names of our participants today, our speakers.The first speaker is [Senior State Department Official One]. The second is [Senior State Department Official Two] and finally, [Senior State Department Official Three]. So, again, the call is on background. And with that, I will hand it over to Senior State Department Official Number One to say a few words.

Background briefings have become a routine way for federal officials, even agency “spokespersons,” to impart information without being held accountable for it. Meanwhile, the five reporters who were permitted to ask questions during the Keystone briefing were identified by name and media outlet in the transcript.

Some of the articles published after the Keystone briefing dutifully quoted a “senior State Department official.” Perhaps a more accurate description would have been “Senior State Department Official Number One, who spoke at a press conference but declined to be identified by name or to give a reason for requesting anonymity.” While a background briefing might make sense for a matter of national security, there’s really nothing about the sensitivity of the Keystone subject matter (once the decision had been made), or the frankness of the remarks, that justifies anonymity.

Another Orwellian strategy is to equate transparency with posting information online. In the Keystone briefing, Senior State Department Official One opens by saying that “for continued transparency, we’re putting this document as well as interagency comments about it on the state.gov website this afternoon.” Posting information online is all well and good, but transparency is not served by sharing (anonymously) only what the government wants the press and public to see; it’s also about responding to requests for information. Disseminating information via websites and social media—for example, Obama blogging about his trip to Alaska, or launching a Facebook page with a video on climate change—is interesting and at times informative, but it is not a substitute for two-way communication.

The government’s front door. The White House’s most recent attempt to keep the press at arm’s length is evident in its third Open Government National Action Plan, issued on October 27, which offers no remedies for journalists’ complaints. In the category of Open Government to Improve Public Services, the plan’s number one initiative is to “reconstitute USA.gov as the front door to the US government.” I paid a visit to USA.gov (formerly known as FirstGov.gov) to learn more about its approach to working with journalists. Here’s what I found: “Anyone, including the media and community-based organizations, may reproduce our content.” Apparently the managers of the website have confused media outlets with government printing offices.

USA.gov is a useful portal for people seeking basic information on topics such as global warming—where it points visitors to data and feature articles posted by NASA and NOAA. The problem is that USA.gov views the role of the press and public as a relatively passive one. Government officials create the programming, and the rest of us are free to watch it on our “channel of choice,” as the mission statement puts it. The White House then brags about proactively releasing data that nobody has requested, such as agricultural fertilizer consumption statistics.

What happens when someone wants information about a topic that is more controversial than fertilizer—say, drone strikes? I emailed USA.gov to ask where I could find information about how many drone strikes the United States has conducted since the inception of its drone program. (A White House spokesperson recently told The Hill that Obama “wants to make available to the public as much information as possible about US counterterrorism operations and the use of force overseas.”) I got an almost immediate reply from the USA.gov Response Team: “Based on what you wrote, I have put together some resources that I hope can help you.” What followed was a list of links for contacting my elected officials, from Obama on down to the mayors’ association.

I clicked through to the White House contact form, where I read that “President Obama is committed to creating the most open and accessible administration in American history.” But for almost the entire time that Obama has been in office, the White House has waged a legal battle to avoid releasing information about the US drone program to news organizations.

This is the legacy of a presidential campaign organization so effective that it never stopped campaigning, even after its candidate was elected and re-elected. At agencies where career public information officers once helped journalists obtain information and interviews, former campaign workers now hold many of the gatekeeper jobs and control the message. This goes against all three of the key principles cited in Obama’s 2009 memorandum on open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Freedom of information denied. Obama’s second 2009 memo focused on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law approaching its 50th anniversary. FOIA is an essential tool for journalists and other citizens, because it allows people to request access to government documents. The new Open Government National Action Plan promises that the administration “will continue to build on its commitment to improve the implementation of FOIA to increase efficiency and effectiveness.”

Unfortunately, the foundation on which the administration intends to build is a crumbling one. According to an analysis published by the Associated Press in March 2015, the Obama administration set a new record for failure to fulfill FOIA requests last year: In 39 percent of cases, the government censored the materials released or denied the request outright—an increase of 3 percent over the previous year. The backlog of unanswered requests grew, even as the government made cuts to the staff needed to answer them. The government also denied 87 percent of the “expedited processing” requests made under FOIA last year, many of them by journalists arguing for an urgent need to inform the public. By comparison, the rejection rate for expedited processing requests was only 53 percent in 2008, before Obama took office.

Beyond FOIA requests, journalists have found it particularly difficult to get timely answers directly from government officials and scientists. For the past eight years, for example, the EPA has not sent its top administrator to the largest annual gathering of environmental journalists—held by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), of which I am a charter member. Obama is the only president in the SEJ’s 25-year history to have turned down all requests for the EPA administrator to attend—and this at a time when Obama has pointed to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as a key step in addressing climate change.

A little bird won’t tell you. Social media is no substitute for direct access to government experts and documents. A federal agency’s Twitter stream, for example, could provide useful information in the wake of a major event. But what did @EPA (“News, links, tips, and conversation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency”) have to say during the month after a January 9, 2014, chemical spill contaminated West Virginia’s Elk River—a time when residents were seeking information about their health risks? The EPA tweeted about contest and award announcements, energy conservation tips, noncontroversial issues such as secondhand smoke, and the agency’s work “with your favorite companies.” There was nothing about the toxic spill, or anything else that would qualify as breaking news.

What did the Energy Department (@Energy) tweet about in the month after the underground fire and radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico in February 2014? The agency offered tips about home insulation, frequent plugs for solar power (“Loving all this talk about solar!”), and a discussion of Daylight Saving Time. But nothing about the accidents at WIPP, despite a Twitter tagline that includes “Reducing nuclear dangers & environmental risks” as part of its purview.

The government says it wants “engagement” with the public, but too often it uses social media as a mouthpiece rather than an earpiece. And it’s all happy talk.

A sincere action plan. In August 2014, more than 40 journalism and open-government groups wrote to Obama expressing concerns about the administration’s lack of transparency. After failing to engage the White House in a “meaningful conversation,” the groups (now numbering 53) again wrote to Obama in August 2015, citing surveys showing that press restraints “have become pervasive across the country.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has finally agreed to meet with a small group of journalists from the SEJ and the Society of Professional Journalists, on December 15, to discuss press access. I hope that the journalists attending that meeting will remind Senior Press Official Number One that transparency comes from the top—and from actions, not just words.

Obama has only one year left to deliver on his 2009 promise to make his administration “the most transparent” ever. The president cannot singlehandedly reform media policies and practices that are obstructing transparency, but the recent turnaround in Canada suggests that he can make a big difference. Until recently, Canada appeared to be taking its cues about press restrictions from the United States. But in the few weeks since new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was sworn in on November 4, journalists seeking information about the federal government have already seen significant improvements. For example,scientists who previously weren’t allowed to talk about even such seemingly non-controversial topics as “rock snot” (a slimy, invasive algae) are able to speak freely with the press for the first time in years.

It’s too early to tell whether Trudeau’s promises of transparency, and his principle of making access to information “open by default,” will hold up any better than Obama’s. The two men have spoken by telephone, an “Obama administration official” told the New York Times. He insisted on anonymity “because of the delicacy of communications between the leaders.”