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Obama White House keeping more secrets than any before

Despite a pledge to deliver the most open and transparent administration in U.S. history, some say that the Obama White House has fallen short on that promise, with harsh punishments for high-profile whistleblowers and a record number of Freedom of Information Act request denials. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Even before he was elected, President Obama promised his would be the most open and transparent administration ever. He can claim credit for some progress on that front, including opening up presidential records, declassifying some data, and pushing federal agencies to reveal more information to the public.

    But, by other measures, many experts and journalists say the administration falls far short, including in its treatment of high-profile whistleblowers.

    And a new Associated Press analysis says the administration has set a record for denying access to files or censoring them under the Freedom of Information Act.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The analysis looked at requests for information made to 100 federal agencies last year by citizens, journalists and businesses. More than 700,000 requests were made. The Associated Press said the administration either denied access to information or censored in 39 percent of those requests. That's more than 250,000 cases overall.

    Sometimes, the denial was small, such as a phone number. Sometimes, it was the majority of a document.

    On Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was pressed on the administration's transparency. His analysis was quite different.

  • JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:

    Across the administration, we actually do have a lot to brag about when it comes to responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests.

    And just today, the Justice Department did release records or metrics to fiscal year 2014. The administration in fiscal year 2014 alone processed 647,142 FOIA requests, and over 91 percent of those requests resulted in the release of either some or all of the requested records.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We look at these concerns around access and transparency.

    Stephen Engelberg is the editor in chief of ProPublica, a news organization known for its investigations and journalism on these topics.

    We did ask the administration for an interview, but it declined our request.

    So, how much of this is us looking at it as half-empty vs. them looking at it as half-full? They want to come and say, look at all these Freedom of — requests that we did answer, and, obviously, journalists are unhappy with that.

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG, Editor-in-Chief, ProPublica:

    Well, let's be clear.

    The Freedom of Information law has never been fully sort of functional, right? The administration is supposed to answer in a certain number of days. They never do. All the administrations have blacked out huge swathes of sensitive documents, so there's nothing new here in one sense.

    But, anecdotally, we have had the sense, doing our work, that it's gotten worse. And the AP report I think confirms that, in fact, it is worse, and it's never has been great.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And so how is it worse on a day-to-day level for a journalist to try to access information from the administration now?

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    Well, this administration campaigned, as many do, on wanting to be sort of epically transparent. And that's clearly not what's happened.

    They have pursued an aggressive campaign against leakers and whistleblowers. They have tried to jail people. They have, I think within the administration and kind of level of federal agencies, you know, very basic interviews that my reporters say used to be able to be straightforward, you could go to the EPA and talk to a scientist about a complicated issue, today, not only will they not allow that interview with a spokesman sitting present to keep an eye on; they don't allow the interview at all.

    So, I think this crowd was very good during its campaigns about staying on message and being disciplined and controlling information, and they have brought into government.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. So, you mentioned something interesting about whistleblowers. In fact, the administration even put out a notice today saying they have extended and strengthened whistleblower protections.

    But there have been a couple of high-profile exceptions to that rule.

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    Well, also let's be clear. You can have all the rules you want. The reality is, we talk to a lot of whistleblowers and certainly there have been some pretty prominent ones. They don't believe a word of it.

    They believe they will be retaliated against. Edward Snowden looked at what happened to some other people in the intelligence community who tried to come forward quietly and had their careers quashed and decided, no, I'm not going to do that, I'm going to contact a journalist.

    And he has said — and I believe him — that he didn't believe the protections would extend to him, that it wasn't — it would either get buried or he was going to be punished.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What's the ripple effect when you have those very public profiles of whistleblowers and what happens to them?

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    Well, paradoxically, I think two things happen.

    On the one hand, the immediate effect — and we have felt it — is a chilling effect. People don't want to talk to you. They feel they could be arrested, they could be prosecuted. And so you have sort of less ease of doing journalism.

    But I think then, as I said, paradoxically, you encourage that relatively small number of people who are very zealous about getting information out to be emboldened and to say, well, if people aren't going to come forward and no is going to say anything and there's an atmosphere of fear, what I need to do is pick up the phone and call, I hope, by the way, ProPublica.

    ProPublica.org, for anyone listening who is a whistleblower, feel free to send us an email.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    But that is in fact, I think, why we have seen more tightness on information, but also more kind of massive leaks.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is this part of the strategy inside the administration?

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    Well, I believe it is.

    I believe that they look back at some of their predecessors in the Bush administration, first years of the Clinton administration, and said, we are not going to live in an atmosphere where everything is constantly being brooded about in the press. And they have been very successful.

    Look what they just did. They did the Cuba policy reversal, one of the most political things you can imagine. I have to say, when I was in Washington, that kind of thing would have got out. And they, you know, managed to completely turn upside down a 50-year embargo, and the first time anybody knew about it was when it was announced.

    That's an amazing piece of discipline that speaks to their success in controlling information. So I see why they do it. The problem is, I think there is something to having some of these policy debates in a more public way and they're missing out on that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is the government afforded any credit in their contention that they have increased transparency of government spending data, of modernizing government records, trying to put hundreds of thousands of data sets and make them available? I mean, those are steps that they say no administration before them has ever been able to do and that helps your reporting.

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    Yes. And I think that's fair. I think that's absolutely fair.

    We have at ProPublica benefited from a significant openness on medical data. We have been able to say things about the way spending is done in Medicare programs and their Medicare Part D drug program that has never been done. And I think they deserve credit for that.

    But let's be clear, that is the easy stuff. And when you get to the question of what's the president going to do about Syria or how are we going to handle these difficult questions surrounding, let's say, immigration, to have no debate and then have programs just suddenly dropped on everybody's head, it may work in the short-term politically. I'm not sure it works in the long term for any of us.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, thanks so much for joining us.

  • STEPHEN ENGELBERG:

    My pleasure.

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