Sunshine Week 2015 has come and gone, but it is important to remember that openness and accountability should be in the forefront of national discussion for more than just one week out of the year. Transparent lawmaking and governance is often spoken of in a reactionary way, mostly in response to a scandal or information leak – when it should be the story itself.
Sunshine Week is primarily a celebration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and for good reason; it is one of the best tools for getting information from the government to the public. This year, records management also received significant attention in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s “emailgate.” However, open government is about more than access to information. Open government is about building an environment where openness is the norm, which is why we are so troubled by the Obama Administration’s push to expand the “National Insider Threat Task Force.”
Six years ago the Obama Administration promised to be the most transparent in history, a line many now refer back to when taking a dig at just how opaque the reality has been. This task force doesn’t help. In fact, it shows that the Administration’s priorities are firmly rooted in keeping information from the public. The task force was created seemingly to weed out potential whistleblowers after Chelsea Manning disclosed information to Wikileaks, and “picked up the pace” after Edward Snowden’s media disclosures in 2013. Instead of targeting whistleblowers, the Administration should be focusing more on fixing the egregious problems within the system that push these whistleblowers to release information.
Considering some of the “worst of the worst” FOIA stories we heard about in the last few weeks, it is not hard to imagine that such a task force would err on the side of hiding information - even in the absence of a legitimate national security concern. To clarify, when national security is at risk, it is important to make sure that information is secure. However, considering how this Administration has cracked down on legitimate whistleblowers using the Espionage Act and sat by while agencies abused critical FOIA exemptions, this task force just looks more like another secrecy maneuver. We need to take a hard look at what is the driving factor behind increased measures against leaks; if it is fear of embarrassment or repercussions, then that secrecy has the potential to hurt national security, not help it.
Another aspect of open government that is often overlooked is open lawmaking. In fact, there has been an alarming rise in political commentators who put the blame on transparency for Congress’s gridlock over its last few sessions. Even though good government advocates address these arguments and point out the benefits of transparent lawmaking, the fight in favor of it is far from over. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) still passes its yearly military appropriations budget, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), in near complete secrecy. Although the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has found a way to accommodate the classified nature of some of the topics they discuss while holding most committee and subcommittee markups in open session, some members of SASC maintain that it is too cumbersome and not important enough to try to do the same. Hopefully under the leadership of John McCain (R-AZ) we will see increased sunshine on the NDAA.
Until there are more substantial changes in the way our government operates, we shouldn’t wait for one week out of the year to congratulate the government on a few good moves and highlight a few limited issues that need work. Our government is becoming more and more secret, which does little good to the democracy. In that light, we should demand more transparency across the board.