Published July 18, 2012
The Obama campaign has relentlessly questioned Mitt Romney's openness on most everything from his tenure at Bain Capital to tax records to offshore accounts -- but when it comes to transparency, the president hasn't exactly been an open book, critics say.
Though presidents must run the country beyond the public eye in some respects, several watchdog groups complain President Obama has not lived up to the open-government promises he made when he took office. Republican leaders in Congress have bellowed in recent months about the administration's secrecy. While the president's campaign is making hay out of his GOP opponent's supposedly shrouded financial records, the tack has already opened up the president to similar criticism.
On Tuesday, the Romney campaign posted a list on its website citing nearly two dozen reports that call into question the administration's transparency.
"President Obama has run one of the least transparent administrations in American history," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "Whether hiding lobbyists in coffee shops, cutting back-room deals on ObamaCare, or concealing the records of Fast and Furious, President Obama's pledge to be transparent has turned out to be just another broken promise."
Those keeping scoring of the administration's transparency shortcomings point to its alleged reluctance in responding to document requests; its pursuit of whistle-blowers and leakers; the decision to invoke executive privilege to deny congressional investigators access to documents pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious; and the failure to televise health care debate meetings per the president's campaign promise.
The complaints against Obama, unlike those against Romney, have little to do with his financial records. But watchdogs say his record could stand a closer look.
"I don't know if it's apple to apples when you line up the candidates, but Obama does have to take account of himself," said Joe Newman, of the nonpartisan Project of Government Oversight. "When it comes to transparency, he has a mixed record."
Newman said the Washington, D.C.-based group is particularly concerned about the whistle-blower issue, including cases in which people have been charged under the Espionage Act in connection with leaks to the media -- which follow the administration's early promises to bolster whistle-blower laws.
In two of the most high-profile cases, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was charged in January in connection with information leaked to reporters about other agents and procedures, including the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding. And former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake was charged in 2010 under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking classified information, which could have resulted in 35 years in prison. However, federal prosecutors last year dropped the original charges as part of a deal in which Drake accepted a separate, misdemeanor charge.
"We're obviously concerned with the actions taken against whistle-blowers," Newman said. "It's very intimidating to know that if you speak up and do the right thing you're going to get slapped with some serious charges."
The Obama administration has defended the cases, disputing the notion that they are prosecuting whistle-blowers. The Justice Department describes them simply as a crackdown on classified information leaks. Ironically, the administration also has come under criticism for not cracking down hard enough on recent security leaks that supposedly led to news reports on an Al Qaeda affiliate's bomb plot and efforts to counter Iran's nuclear program.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has over the past several months launched a multi-pronged attack on Romney with the intent of portraying him as somebody perhaps concealing information about his personal finances and private-sector history.
Beyond calls for Romney to provide more information about overseas holdings and tax returns, the Obama campaign has most recently questioned when the GOP presidential candidate officially left the Bain Capital private equity firm.
The most severe attack came last week when Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter suggested Romney could have committed a felony by misrepresenting when he left Bain in his Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Romney's call for an apology has gone unanswered, though Cutter later said she was not suggesting Romney committed a crime.
The president continues to press the transparency issue, saying, "I think that the issue here is simply for Mr. Romney to talk about his business background in a way that jibes with the facts and is clear."
Defending the line of attack, campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that Obama has set a bar for transparency that "Romney has not met, cannot possibly meet, even on his tippy toes."
Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt earlier told Fox News that Romney is "the most secretive candidate we've seen since Richard Nixon."
Romney hasn't been helped by the fact that several prominent conservatives, most recently his former GOP primary opponent Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have called on him to release his tax returns.
But as the Romney campaign holds its ground -- with the former Massachusetts governor deflecting calls to release any more than two years' worth of returns -- it's gotten some measure of support from fellow Republicans. Donald Trump, who toyed with and then abandoned the idea of running for president himself, has said Romney shouldn't release his returns unless and until Obama releases his college transcripts.
White House spokesman Jay Carney recently responded to a question about the subject by saying in part the president has displayed "unprecedented transparency" but did not discuss the documents.
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group for open government, told FoxNews.com the back-and-forth over transparency "is a good thing because it keeps the issue alive."
"The Obama administration's record is mixed, but it is difficult to boil it down to a single grade," he said.
Though a recent published analysis on FIOA.com suggests the Drug Enforcement Agency is finding more ways to deny requests under the Freedom of Information Act, Wonderlich said the administration has done good things with providing information on such sites about lobbying related to federal stimulus money and the Dodd-Frank financial industry overhaul.
Newman also said Obama has gone "well beyond" the Bush administration on other transparency issues, including greater public access through such websites as FIOA.gov and USAspending.gov.
Wonderlich said the administration opening the White House guest list, though, is a wash considering officials were facing several lawsuits.
Then there's the treatment of the media. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who with the help of an ATF whistle-blower and others in Congress exposed problems with Operation Fast and Furious, on Tuesday asked Attorney General Eric Holder for an accounting of a recent incident in which a federal lawyer allegedly threatened a journalist about getting "on the Department of Justice's bad side" if the reporter quoted the lawyer. The alleged incident occurred at a meeting advertised as a public event.
Grassley said such reports, if accurate, confirm "a complete disconnect between the president's words about transparency and the actual conduct of his administration."