Obama’s Secrecy Obsession

Exclusive: Though President Obama likes to present himself as a regular guy, he acts like an elitist when he unnecessarily withholds information from the American people. At this critical juncture of his presidency, he might finally take a chance on trusting the public with facts, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

If President Barack Obama is ever to take control of his foreign policy and move the United States into a more peaceful and pragmatic direction he will need to shake his obsession with secrecy and bring the American people into his confidence by sharing with them information about key events that have shaped recent crises.

Right now, the American people are deeply confused about what is transpiring in the Middle East and eastern Europe — and Obama appears satisfied that they stay that way. He doesn’t seem to understand that one of the president’s greatest advantages is his power to release information to the public, thus changing the narrative as written by rival political forces and forcing those forces to adjust to a more complete storyline.

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Instead, Obama has behaved as if he’s still trying to prove to the national security establishment that he can hoard secrets as compulsively as anyone, that he’s not the wild-eyed radical outsider that the Right has made him out to be. At a news conference on March 24, Obama even made a joke about his record of keeping the American people in the dark about information developed by the U.S. intelligence community.

“As a general rule, I don’t comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters,” Obama said with a smirk on his face. “And I think I’ll continue that tradition.”

But Obama’s lack of transparency after promising in 2008 to run a transparent administration has left him at the mercy of Washington’s closed club of insiders, while alienating him from the broad American public. With neoconservatives and other opinion leaders dictating the dominant narrative on topic after topic, Obama has ended up reacting to events, not controlling them.

Thus, even if a framework agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program is reached, it is likely to get battered in Congress, where Israeli clout is overwhelming. The President will have to fend off repeated attempts to sabotage the deal.

A more effective strategy might be for Obama to build public support by surrounding any agreement with the release of U.S. intelligence information on a range of related topics and with a blunt speech to the people explaining the need to work with major countries even when there are differences and disagreements.

For one, Obama could provide an historical accounting of U.S. relations with Iran, including the CIA’s role in ousting the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossaddegh in 1953, the U.S. support for the autocratic Shah over the ensuing quarter century (including helping to start Iran’s nuclear program), American dealings with the regime of hard-line Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s (including secret contacts between Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and Iranian emissaries, and the evolution of the Iran-Contra scandal), and whatever evidence exists of Iran’s support for terrorism.

The President also could give the American people a deeper look into the complexities of Middle East politics by exposing the role of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab states in support of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Obama has long reneged on his promise to release the 28 redacted pages of the congressional 9/11 report dealing with alleged Saudi financing of Al-Qaeda.

And, if Obama really believed in the value of an informed electorate, he might toss into the pile of declassified material the U.S. intelligence data on the Syrian-Sarin incident of Aug. 21, 2013, which brought the United States to the brink of going to war against the Syrian government after a rush to judgment blaming Bashar al-Assad’s regime for use of the poison gas (although later information pointed more toward a likely rebel provocation). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]

Rallying the People

Nothing would rally the American people to the President more than a display of candor by him and a show of faith in them. A democratic Republic cannot survive when leaders routinely hide key facts and keep the people in the dark, all the better to manipulate them with exaggerations, lies and propaganda. Obama could show that he understands that core democratic principle by making as much information available as possible.

He may have forgotten but he opened his presidency with a memorandum instructing Executive Branch department heads on the importance of transparency. He wrote: “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.”

While some sensitive data is appropriately protected for national security reasons, excessive secrecy is a form of elitism showing disdain for the many millions of us who aren’t special enough to be inside the club. Secrecy also empowers an unscrupulous leader to mislead and to scare the people with selective leaks and half-truths as we saw during George W. Bush’s presidency, a pattern that Obama vowed to break.

But like much else Obama mostly chose continuity, not change. After a few promising document releases in the first days of his presidency, including President Bush’s “torture memo” arguing the tortured legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Obama reversed course and turned his administration into one of the most opaque and secretive of modern times, pursuing leakers more aggressively than any previous U.S. president.

In his second term, Obama has further slid into a pattern of deception embracing the Orwellian concept of “information warfare” in which propaganda themes are created and maintained even when the evidence goes in a different direction. The Syrian-Sarin gas incident is one such case when the early Assad-did-it claims were left in place despite the U.S. intelligence community’s shifting analysis.

Similarly, key incidents in the Ukraine crisis such as responsibility for the lethal sniper fire on Feb. 20, 2014, and for the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014 were pinned on U.S. propaganda targets (Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin, respectively) and U.S. officialdom made no effort to clarify the record even as evidence emerged that suggested a contrary conclusion. [A worthwhile documentary on the sniper mystery is “Maidan Massacre.”]

Instead of refining or correcting the record, President Obama has let the hasty early judgments stand all the better to smear the adversaries and manipulate the public.

For instance, regarding the MH-17 crash, the office of the Director of National Intelligence told me recently that the U.S. intelligence assessment of that shoot-down, killing 298 people, had not been refined since July 22, 2014, five days after the incident. The statement was not credible. Indeed, I have been told that U.S. analysts have vastly expanded their knowledge of the case and at least some analysts have broken with the initial conclusions.

But the early rush to judgment had proved useful in demonizing Putin so any contradictions of the storyline were seen as negating a potent propaganda weapon and also would be embarrassing to Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior officials who went off half-cocked. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down.”]

Yet, in a healthy democracy, leaders would immediately update the public with relevant information and dispel any misunderstandings in recognition and respect for the people’s fundamental right to know, especially on issues of war or peace.

Instead, Obama has joined in keeping the new assessments of all these key moments hidden from the American people. That secrecy suggests that Obama holds the public in contempt and thus he shouldn’t be surprised when that contempt is returned to him.

What America needs now more than ever is an old-fashioned presidential speech from the Oval Office with Obama looking directly into the camera and leveling with the nation, much like President Dwight Eisenhower did in his farewell address in 1961 with his famous warning about the influence of the Military-Industrial Complex.

If Obama were to explain the opportunities and the challenges facing the country in stark and truthful terms there might still be a chance to avert the looming catastrophes ahead.

[For more on the topic of propaganda and manipulation, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Victory of ‘Perception Management.’”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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19 comments for “Obama’s Secrecy Obsession

  1. D505
    April 2, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    ” . . . in a healthy democracy leaders would immediately update the public . . .” seems to be the emphasis here, as Robert surely knows full well all the objections in the comments following so far. It is pathetic that the sly emphasis in this essay is “way it ought to be” as though there were any feasibility of this president behaving in this way after six years of spinning on his heel from one position to another and his continuing duplicity. The System is broke, as we all well know it, and now apparently are standing by like passengers on the Titanic. Gin tonic anybody?

  2. Minnesota Mary
    April 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    If Obama were to come before the American people to tell them the facts, he would be assassinated before he ever got to the microphone. Obama knows who is masters are, and he dares not to expose them.

    • mithreal
      April 1, 2015 at 6:06 pm

      We, the ruled, apparently believe that President cannot respect the Constitution and be loyal to the American people for fear of death.

      The American people are check mating themselves with constantly devolving expectations and I see no end to how far we will lower ourselves.

      How would it even occur to him to expose “them.” Presidents are products of multinational corporations now and likely for the remainder of the United States.

  3. Bruce
    April 1, 2015 at 11:19 am

    But rather than continuing his CIA cant, Barry-0’s “candor” would commit his Bush COMPANY’S twin Cardinal sins of admitting their error and expressing a modicum Of CONTRITION!

  4. Tom Welsh
    April 1, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Soon Obama will be a glorious, wealthy, revered ex-president. Why would he care about an informed electorate? Verbiage to the contrary notwithstanding, an informed electorate is something that all tyrants have always striven to prevent. Obama is no different.

  5. jer
    April 1, 2015 at 3:49 am

    The BIG problem is that Barack H. Obama is no paramount leader of the Great and Grand United States and therefore he can NEVER be regarded as a trustworthy leader or one who possesses real clout. As such, he merely operates through an ultra big charade or big lie as he is constantly restricted by a super powerful and evil coterie of minders and handlers who are closely allied with all the unprincipled shakers and movers in Washington including the so many warmongering gnomes holding sway in the U.S. military command structure and the U.S. intelligence hub. Thus Obama can be fully expected to continue with his big or huge charade until the end of his current term !

  6. F. G. Sanford
    March 31, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    Theres a blurb out from ‘Salon’ on Barney Frank’s new book. He talks about the failure of the incoming President’s transition team to have Treasury demand that, as the TARP legislation specified, banks would concede mortgage relief as a condition of the $700 Billion taxpayer funded bailout. The response Frank got was, “There can only be one President on duty at a time”. Frank’s frustrated response was, “I think you’re overestimating the number of Presidents currently on duty”. Recent apologists who fail to recognize the windfall gifted to bankers by this administration may have succumbed to memory loss. Worse still, they apparently suffer from the same tendency to overestimate.

    • Bruce
      April 1, 2015 at 11:24 am

      $imply one of his perpetual $erial RENEGES!

  7. Johnny
    March 31, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    The last American president that was honest with the American people, John F Kennedy, was assassinated in broad daylight, and the American people did well, nothing, to get at the root of the matter (Jack Rubenstein). What’s going to motivate any president to be honest with people who are not going to have his/her back when push comes to shove?

    • Jay
      March 31, 2015 at 11:28 pm

      Johnny,

      At least a day before Ruby was allowed to kill him, Oswald had a press conference while in police custody, where he made very clear he had nothing to do with shooting the president. And that he’d be set up.

      Jack Ruby’s action made it look like the root of the matter had be addressed was then shut up by Ruby.

      • Jay
        March 31, 2015 at 11:33 pm

        Would be nice if there were a correct/edit option open for a few minutes.

  8. Dave Johnson
    March 31, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    In 2012 the CIA set up an station in Benghazi, Libya with help from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to ship weapons from Quadaffi’s old arsenal to Islamic terrorists in Syria– these terrorists included Al Qaeda and the precursors to ISIS. This weapons smuggling to Islamic terrorists was done with the approval of the highest levels of the White House and the State Department. In the course of this operation Ambassador Stevens and 3 other Americans died. This tragedy is why Obama will never be transparent and why Hillary wiped her email server. If the truth were known the American people would realize that the whole War on Terror is a fraud and their country is run by war criminals.

    • Jay
      March 31, 2015 at 11:12 pm

      Dave,

      But this is well known, and it’s very unlikely that Ms Clinton or Obama were directly involved in the day to day arms transfers out of Benghazi. (Yes, of course both likely knew.)

      Mr Stevens, and others, were killed because they were part of a civil war the US had a lot to do with starting in Libya.

    • incontinent reader
      April 3, 2015 at 1:22 pm

      Amen.

      • incontinent reader
        April 9, 2015 at 11:07 am

        The Amen was meant for Dave. I think it is naive to think that Obama and Clinton only knew from a distance. If one studies the history of the Al Qaeda movement, it began to be seeded through CIA sponsored training center ‘madrassas’ set up during the Clinton Adminstration in the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia, and it expanded from there. So, if we are to believe that when we elected her husband we got her for the same price, her knowledge and understanding of these operations (and possibly more) would hark back two decades. Certainly, she didn’t miss a step or showed any reluctance to deal with Al Qaeda after she became Secretary of State.

        Indeed, Ambassador Chris Stevens was deeply involved in the program to transfer arms to Syrian mercenaries, and with Hillary’s policy agenda (and her public statements about Qadaafi and Assad), it would be more unlikely to assume that she knew but was NOT part of it from the start.

        Sorry, but there is too much blood on her hands in the Middle East to give her a pass on this one

  9. Erik
    March 31, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    The approach of “Patience, he may yet redeem himself in the view of history” has commendable potential to influence, but of course faces many contradictory indications. At last the young wife often convinces the misguided overgrown teenager to mend his ways. But she knows his thinking and has his attention and sympathy. Do we influence with sympathy and offers of redemption, or merely show weakness?

    I would like to hear from Obama every detail of how he came around to giving the MIC and dark agencies and financiers everything they wanted. If it was sheer coercion or blackmail any courageous leader would blow the whistle any time. Woodward’s The War Within suggests that they simply gamed him and controlled all his inputs and gave him no options, just as the mass media control the people by economic tyranny.

    Usually the target is captured by gaining a social commitment from which it is embarrassing to back down. He said too much about so-and-so, let someone be killed secretly, was blamed credibly for a bungle costing US lives. Then the controller moves him away from opposing influences, shows him how advantageous its own advisers and systems and estimates are, how much more smoothly its own rationalizations work. Soon the target is surrounded with social commitments and does not have the courage to dump the groupthinkers. He does not have the courage to admit that he was grievously snookered and that many died as a result. He has been rejected by his constituents and cannot sweep them into offices he would have to vacate. So he tags along in the groupthink, desperately looking for evidence even as the policies fall into discredit, contradiction, and ruin.

    How long can failures persist before he begins looking for a way out? If he has courage, he slowly dissociates himself from bad influences and cultivates better ones. The gentle voice of moral and ethical principle may become audible.

  10. Anonymous
    March 31, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Sadly, Obama has been thoroughly compromise by special interests. He’s empowered the neocons to start another cold war and is a corporate puppet.

    Robert Kagan, the uber neocon, wrote an article not long ago that was critical of Obama, which deserved to be ignored. Instead, Obama invited him to lunch. I’m surprised that the warmonger Bolton, who wants the U.S. to go to war with Iran, wasn’t also invited.

    Also, look at Obama’s position on TPP. In the past drafts of trade agreements were placed online for the public to see. The only people to view the contents of the TPP are the corporations that drafted the content of the agreement. And Obama wants the TPP to be Fast Tracked, not allowing Congress any actual input. On this issue, I’m sure Obama is quite happy that both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans who are a subsidiary of corporate America.

    I appreciate Parry’s articles and the information he provides, however, he gives Obama too much credit. Obama is a marketing campaign not an independent politician/president and the authors of the campaign are in charge.

  11. March 31, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    It’s one thing for the Democratic Party faithful to dream about Obama being the good guy they hoped he would be, but when people who know the score start doing it, it becomes unseemly. Obama has demonstrated through his actions who he is, by appointing neocons and corporate hacks to lead his administration, by militarizing the police, consolidating surveillance of the American people, continuing black sites around the world, using drone terror warfare, consulting with corporate interests at the outset of his domestic proposals while not giving progressives a seat at the table, by rattling sabers at every opportunity, by demonizing Putin and Russia, by going along with the Congress in grand bargains, . . . I could go on forever. The devil didn’t make him do these things. Whether he did them for political reasons, or as a conscious expression of his governing philosophy is immaterial. He did them. It’s part of his character and he deserve criticism for doing them. He’s not going to change. That’s who he is. Get over it, and stop the wishful thinking. We get enough of that from the people who are still drinking the Democratic Party kool-aid.

  12. Jay
    March 31, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Eisenhower farewell, and “farewell” is a significant difference.

    Also helps that Eisenhower was a former general.

    (And while he was president there were all sorts of shenanigans by the military industrial complex. The US was supposed to leave Vietnam after the French lost the war in 1954.)

    And Eisenhower helped inflict Nixon on the world.

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