An “era” used to last, but not so much anymore. We’ve already heard GOP Chairman Michael Steele proclaim that “the era of apologizing for Republican mistakes” was over (when many of us didn’t know it had begun), and now it appears that Barack Obama’s era of openness has closed, too.
That era began on the new President’s first working day in office when he rescinded some of George W. Bush’s imperial edicts granting himself and his family – along with other former presidents and vice presidents – broad control over historical records.
On Jan. 21, President Obama spoke eloquently about “a new era of open government,” declaring that “a democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”
Regarding whether to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act, he added, “In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”
However, the Obama administration is now moving aggressively to prevent federal courts from ordering the release of photographic and other evidence of crimes and misconduct committed by the CIA and U.S. military forces during George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”
On Monday, Obama’s lawyers submitted an affidavit signed by CIA Director Leon Panetta claiming that a federal judge must not release documents relating to the destruction of 92 CIA videotapes regarding interrogations of terrorism suspects.
To do so, Panetta said, could “result in exceptionally grave danger to the national security by informing our enemies of what we know about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed.”
Panetta insisted that the continued secrecy regarding the documents about the destroyed videotapes was “in no way driven by a desire to prevent embarrassment for the U.S. government or the CIA, or to suppress evidence of any unlawful conduct.” Rather, he cited concerns about revealing “sources and methods” and other potential harm to U.S. national security.
The ACLU has sought the documents in an attempt to ascertain who in the Bush administration was responsible for torturing detainees and for destroying the videotapes, which detailed the treatment of two terrorism suspects.
The Obama administration’s objection to the document release follows Obama’s personal decision in May to withhold photographs showing abuse of detainees at U.S. military prisons. Obama said releasing the photos could enflame tensions in the Middle East and endanger American soldiers. He also has reaffirmed the government’s right to kill court cases by asserting a “state secrets privilege.”
What Obama apparently has realized is that a commitment to openness requires courage and a readiness to take some political hits. Republicans – and parts of the U.S. news media – attacked Obama in April for releasing the Bush administration’s four legal memos justifying torture of detainees.
Stung by that criticism – and accusations from former Vice President Dick Cheney that the disclosures had endangered national security – Obama began his retreat on openness.
Yet, virtually every major disclosure of serious U.S. government wrongdoing has entailed some risk of damaging the national image or increasing risks faced by U.S. soldiers deployed around the globe.
For instance, the disclosure of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War – including photos of women and children slaughtered in a drainage ditch – surely reflected negatively on the U.S. military. So, too, did the leaking of photos showing abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.
Indeed, in scandals as diverse as Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair, the government’s reflex has been to insist that any aggressive effort to get at the truth would harm national security.
In both Watergate and Iran-Contra, a refrain heard from Republicans and even some Democrats was that full accountability for the abuses would “not be good for the country.” On a superficial level at least, it always seems easier to sweep the scandals under the rug and move on.
But cover-ups carry risks as well – not only to the health of a democracy but to the emotional issue of troop safety.
If the My Lai massacre had been successfully concealed from the public, the Vietnam War might have dragged on longer causing more American and Vietnamese casualties. If the Abu Ghraib abuses had been hidden, the U.S. electorate – blissfully unaware of why the ungrateful Iraqis were rebelling against American beneficence – might have elected a new President like John McCain who was eager to extend Bush’s war. Thus, more U.S. soldiers might get killed.
Arguably, one of the reasons that Bush’s desire to invade Iraq drew initial American support was the decision of major U.S. news organizations in 1991 to shield the American people from the worst carnage of the first Persian Gulf War. News outlets spiked photos of smoldering corpses and downplayed the civilian deaths from heavy U.S. bombing raids in and around Baghdad.
The thinking of many U.S. editors was that such grisly photos and unpleasant stories would dampen the national joy over a successful military campaign – and might lead to complaints that the news outlets were not behaving in a sufficiently patriotic manner.
Even then, President George H.W. Bush saw the feel-good triumph over Iraq as an important palliative for the lingering downer of Vietnam. As the 100-hour U.S. ground offensive ended, he exulted: “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
With war made fun again – and with most of the complaints coming from neoconservatives who wanted U.S. forces to march on to Baghdad – the American people were primed for another adventure 12 years later when President George W. Bush decided to finish the job that his dad hadn't. The expectation was for another fun-filled “shock and awe” romp.
As for Official Washington’s unwillingness in the late 1980s to get to the bottom of the Iran-Contra scandal, the consequences included leaving the reputations of prominent icons, like Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell, in place and thus a threat to the health of the American Republic.
In the Iran-Contra Affair, the idolized President Reagan essentially got away with restoring the imperial presidency and its concept that the nation’s chief executive could ignore the law, setting the stage for George W. Bush’s abuse of those same theories.
Powell’s important behind-the-scenes role in Iran-Contra escaped any sustained scrutiny, protecting his status as a trusted national figure who could be believed when he made the case for invading Iraq in February 2003. [For details on Powell, see Neck Deep.]
In these cases and many more, the challenge to get at and to tell the truth was daunting. It was always easier and far more comfortable to acquiesce to the lies and the myths.
After all, Americans don’t want to think about U.S. troops murdering children and other civilians in My Lai or sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. It’s so much nicer to see the Vietnam War as a noble undertaking or to feel good about the United States bringing "democracy" to Iraq -- or to slide into the bathos that surrounds Ronald Reagan’s legacy or to admire Colin Powell as an exceptional role model.
Like many Democrats who preceded him, President Obama is finding it’s politically more popular to adopt a “patriotic” posture, keeping unpleasant photographs secret to safeguard “the troops” and hiding documents about torture to “protect sources and methods.”
By doing so, however, Obama is keeping from the American people a full understanding of the depravity that George W. Bush unleashed in their name. That might make them feel better; some might even thank Obama for sparing the United States more humiliation.
But Obama’s cover-up of the Bush administration’s crimes also enables the Republicans to gloss over the abuses of the past eight years and makes a GOP comeback more likely in the not-too-distant future. It’s also a sure bet that the Republicans will do Obama no reciprocal favors, anymore than they did for Bill Clinton, who similarly concealed Reagan-Bush-I abuses. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]
Obama also risks offending many of his supporters and other Americans who simply want to know the truth. They will view him as just another politician who talked big but then took a dive on the difficult work of accountability, a guy who ended his promised “era of open government” barely before it began.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on June 10, 2009.